Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The One That Didn't Get Away at the Talbot County Free Library
Of the truly great books, there are two kinds that drive me mad: those I have no hope of ever reading because they will be written after I'm gone, and those I have little hope of reading because they languish undiscovered somewhere on the library's shelves. These last are the ones that really get to me. I know they're out there, in untold numbers, but there is no way of knowing what they look like, where they hide, or if I shall ever find them. And so, ever hopeful and slightly desperate, I haunt our library's stacks and, from time to time, even after all these years, come across a jewel everyone else has passed over.
But the stacks aren't the only place one can find treasure at the library. Day in and day out the generous people of Talbot County donate books, CDs, and DVDs to the library's ongoing book sale. And what they donate ... well, trust me, “There's gold in them thar hills!” Recently available in our Easton sale: a hardcover copy of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat (list price $30), the 1913 edition of the encyclopedic Birds of America (Carolina Parakeets have yet to go extinct), and a gorgeously-illustrated coffee table book on John Singer Sargent (list price $85)--all of them in excellent condition and priced, as all our books are, at only $2 or less. A few years back, a birding friend of mine, visiting our St. Michaels branch sale, paid 50¢ for a copy of Peterson's 1934 Field Guide to the Birds. When he got home, he discovered it was a first edition, and it was signed by the author. The next day, he sold it on eBay for $350. So, needless to say, whenever I get a chance, I comb through the donations, hoping against hope to find something truly remarkable.
Not too long ago, I hit pay dirt: an 1893 translation of The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot. Yes, I know, I'd never heard of him either. But the book's clear antiquity (stippled red leather binding, frontispiece lithograph of the baron protected by a page of frail, slightly foxed tissue) caught my eye.
Turns out the good baron, before he was a baron, served as aide de camp during the Napoleonic Wars to several of France's most illustrious marshals. Turns out aides de camp, at a time before radio and effective semaphore, were used by marshals as runners, sent into the thick of things to relay orders to those already engaged. Needless to say, these men tended to die young. Marbot didn't (though he did, over the course of a remarkable career, sustain a number of savage wounds). Which means that, almost inevitably, the man was present at many of the crucial turning points in the great battles of the early nineteenth century—Austerlitz, Eylau, and Jena among others. And not only was he present, he was privy to the intentions of the general officers involved. What makes this all the better is that Marbot is a fine writer with an eye for the telling detail: the horse that liked to bite, the marshal who liked the ladies, the devastation wreaked upon prosperous towns by passing armies, the new and terrible effects of massed artillery.
And so it was that—for a couple of bucks—my mind was treated to a first-hand account of the Napoleonic wars. More than two centuries after the events themselves, cannons thundered, sabers clashed, imperial standards were borne aloft, and a battle-stained tricolore--relentless, apparently invincible--marched once more into the fray.
I love the serendipity of reading. Not long after I finished the baron's work, I came across three sentences in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa reflects, vaguely, on the passage of time, the way in which life seems to contract as one ages: “Narrower and narrower would her bed be. The candle was half burnt down and she had read deep in Baron Marbot's memoirs. She had read late at night of the retreat from Moscow.” I'm 67 now and my options have narrowed considerably, but as an old beer commercial once advised, “You have to reach for all the gusto you can!” I will never give up my search for the treasure I know—I absolutely know—lies hidden in plain sight on every shelf of the Talbot County Free Library. It keeps me happy. It keeps me alive. I thank the good Lord and the people of Talbot County for the existence of this wonderful, magical place.
Oh, and by the way, the Friends of the Library will hold their big annual book sale in support of the library beginning at 9 a.m. this Friday, October 12, in our Easton branch, and running through till 3 p.m. Saturday. Most of the books in their sale will sell for only $1, and paperbacks will be going for just 25¢. The Friends will be accepting donations for their sale Tuesday, October 9, through Wednesday, October 10, at the Easton library. Members of the Friends will get first dibs on their sale's goodies at a preview party Thursday, October 11, from 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. You can join the Friends at the door if you're not already a member. Member or not, I hope to see you at the sale (you know I wouldn't miss it for the world).
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