The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl
For my children
Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
No, I suppose you never heard of such a creature.
E. C. FERGINS
Back in my salad days laboring for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, I would always keep an eye out to see if he would enter our car before the hour of departure.
“Expecting some pretty lass, are we?” the cook, grumbling with sarcasm, would ask me as I was scrubbing a table or polishing silverware to a blinding shine.
The man I would look for was given no more attention inside the cars than the bootblack or the traveling baker balancing his bread tray over his long arms. I suppose most people probably never looked at him long enough to take in his appearance. Middle-aged, middle-height, shaped like a plum, he had white metal-rim spectacles and a sharp nose and chin. His substantial and intelligent mouth was always busily readying itself for a smile, a song, or a whistle, or a shape of surprise. He would maneuver his bulky cart down the aisle of the train, a striped umbrella and his soft felt hat tucked above the top shelf of books. Reaching our dining car, he would push his bright green cart to me. Both of us had found the only man on the train who appreciated the other.
“My favorite customer,” he would cheer me on; then, leaning so far over his cart it might tip over: “What catches your fancy today, Mr. Clover?”
My fellow dining car waiters liked to read novels about poor boys who become rich, or rich men who were secretly criminals. They turned the pages so rapidly the words were scenery, like the fields and farms that passed our windows for long stretches at a time. I was looking for something else in books. I could not really say what, but I think I can say why: a notion started in my own brain was probably wrong, but an answer read in a work of literature would be right. That was my conviction at nineteen, and only in later years would I come to trust myself over a book.
Despite Mr. Fergins’s kind words, I did not really qualify as a customer. My pockets were so empty I was the only one living in New York City who did not fear thieves. But the generous old bookseller would leave me a book of my choice before continuing through the cars. If the tables were cleaned and set early, I could read until I felt the floorboards shake underfoot with the rumble of the engine. Then I’d hurry to return the borrowed volume while helping to carry his cart off the train. As he stood on the platform when the train began to run, Mr. Fergins waved his handkerchief as if he were seeing off his son.
In the village where I was born we did not have the variety of books that is only made possible by a bookstore or a circulating library. The local minister would give my mother books for me to read—black, thick, drab volumes meant to educate in menial or spiritual ways. Literature? I hardly even knew the word. My eyes were opened by an old, weathered copy of Milton I found when I was thirteen and the minister invited me to use his library. The poem was religious, but there was something new about it. The stories that I had heard so often in sermons were transformed by the poetry. They were made flesh and bone. It seemed I felt the tingling breath of Lucifer on the back of my neck, the light touch of Eve grazing against my arm, the expulsion not only of our first parents but of all the provincial boredom of my life. I cannot recall what questions I asked about Paradise Lost, but it must have been clear to him I was interested in the poetry over doctrine, because the book disappeared. Five years later, when I accepted the first job that brought me away from country life, I think I knew however much I tried I would never truly feel at home in mammoth, steam-filled Manhattan, with its incessant gallop, but the books consoled me. They were everywhere you looked, in the front of shop windows, displayed on tables along the sidewalks, in brand-new public libraries as big as castles. Even inside train cars.
Mr. Fergins may have been uninteresting to others. A relic of a time much slower than 1891; to them, he was as ordinary as his clothes. But they could not see the real man: amiable and unassuming, humble; there was a meaningful quality to his reticence, something unspoken. He endured the usual rudeness and impatience faced by salesmen. Perhaps this explained his patience toward me. Just as he would never dismiss the tastes of the waiters who wanted their fill of “sensation books,” he never questioned my worthiness for steeper paths. Books could function in two different ways, he told me one time. “They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating—both worthy.”
“I am just a railway waiter,” I said once while lifting his cart down from the train. “No book in the world will change that.”
He gave such a friendly, all-consuming laugh that I found myself laughing without wanting to, my heart sinking to the bottom of my chest as my eyes fell to the tulips painted on the cart. I suppose I’d hoped he’d argue.
“Forgive me, my young Mr. Clover. I laugh only at your formula. Literature will not change our profession or the quality of hats on our heads, heaven forbid—by change, I mean another thing entirely.” He fiddled with his white spectacles. “Another thing . . .”
? ? ?