Missing Books of the Month: Papa, can you hear me?

This Month: Most of Ernest Hemingway’s fiction.

Recently, one of our two member interest book groups here at the Club decided to add Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, to their fall book selection. The Library does not run a book group, but we support the efforts of our existing book groups by purchasing the titles that they choose for each month.  Although most of the book group members choose to purchase their own copies of the titles, we like knowing that we can serve them if they wish. And, the few book group members who use are copies enjoy being able to get the books from the Club.  When I saw The Sun Also Rises on the fall list, I was pleased.   Ah, I thought, that’s one we certainly will not have to buy.  We must have it on the shelves, I thought.

I checked out catalog and found we had two copies of the book listed.  Wonderful news, I thought.  We can pull one for the book club readers and leave the other on the shelf for general readers.  I should have been wary, but I wasn’t.  I was still, somehow, surprised when I checked the shelved to find a sad and work copy of A Farewell to Arms, a newish (yet still dog-eared) copy of The Old Man and the Sea, and a copy of Islands in the Stream.  Where there should have been copies of The Sun Also Rises (2), True at First Light, The Complete Short Stories, another copy of The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Garden of Eden, there was nothing.  Other books, by Mark Helprin, for one, had crowded in to their space, as if most of Hemingway was never there at all.

It’s possible that some of the precise editions listed in our catalog never were there at all.  During the earliest days of this century, the long-time librarian of this club, Louise, managed to do something pretty impressive and get this private club library out of the card catalog and into an electronic catalog.  Such a conversion was not a given for a library of this size and operating budget.  Because we are an unusually large private library with a small staff, a company was brought in to restrospectively convert the collection. But, given some evidence that I’ve gathered piecemeal over the last year, I suspect that specific items were not always cataloged – especially books published before the mid-1960s when ISBNs came into use.  Sometimes, a version with an ISBN was entered into the electronic catalog rather than the earlier version that was actually on the shelf.  See, for instance, the first edition of WEB Du Bois’ The Negro that I discuss here. So, perhaps the copies now marked MISSING in the library catalog were never actually there either.

I also suspect, though this is mere speculation, that Ernest Hemingway titles often go missing from libraries.  These are books that often end up on reading lists, that people like to have on their shelves to show they “get” American fiction, or as fodder to talk about how exhausting Hemingway probably was in real life.

They are the kind of books people like to be seen to own, even if they don’t.  I suspect, in other words, that they just settle in to live in shelves, their thinness making it difficult to see the library markings on their spines, but leaving concise titles still readable. Perhaps that’s why we still have A Farewell to Arms.  It’s pretty darn long and from our copy it’s easy to tell that it’s from a library.  It’s a little bit showy.  There’s no quiet way to pretend you actually own that with a white spine label calling attention to itself.

So, if there is a slim little Hemingway  edition sitting on your shelf at home, Yale Club Members, and you take a closer look and realize it belongs to us, won’t you please bring it home?

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