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Andreas Vesalius’ beautiful Fabrica: a pioneering book of anatomy

In 1543, Belgian physician Andreas Vesalius published one of the most influential books in medical history. De humani corporis fabrica translates from Latin as On the Fabric of the Human Body and it has stood the test of time. Not bad considering Vesalius was just 28 at the time. Affectionately known as The Fabrica, the book is still referenced today in the medical world and by collectors of beautiful antiquarian editions.

When we heard that the University of Victoria possessed a copy from 1555, Beth Carswell and Christi Kay set off to investigate the details behind this legendary medical book. The story includes grave robbing, beautiful artwork and one man’s obsession. Read the article.

The Coolest Books I’ve Ever Seen – Jan and Jarmila Sobota

Here at AbeBooks we are no strangers to beautiful books, nor the notion of a book as art. For those as fond of beauty on the outside as the inside, we’ve created features about inlaid leather bindings, fore-edge paintings, gilt-decorated covers, master bookbinders, Cosway bindings and more.

The most unusual and striking so far, however, might be the work of Czech husband-and-wife team Jan and Jarmila Sobota. I’m completely in love. I find myself surprised and a bit ashamed that I had not been familiar with their creations before now. The Sobotas created countless unimaginably clever and gorgeous treatments for existing books, many in miniature, some one-of-a-kind. I’ve worked here a long time, and seen a lot of stunning books, but this got me very excited.



Jan Sobota’s journey into bookbinding dated back to the 1950s, when he studied at the School for Applied Arts in Prague. He moved up, learning and achieving more skill as he went, until he eventually founded his own bookbinding studio. Jarmila spent her earlier professional life as a professor of psychology, but after spending a decade assisting her husband Jan with bookbinding, as well as immersing herself in the study of art, she began her new career as an artistic bookbinder in 1986.

Both Czechoslovakian originally, Jan and Jarmila had moved to the United States two years earlier, in 1984, starting Saturday’s Book Arts Gallery in Euclid, Ohio (“Sobota” means Saturday in Czech) before re-emigrating to the Czech Republic in 1996, to the city of Loket. There they made their livings doing conservation and restoration work, as well as original bindings, book sculptures and miniatures. Many of the works created by the Sobotas go beyond bookbinding into the realm of book sculpture, with a creativity and attention to detail rarely surpassed. Their work garnered plenty of both solo and group exhibits across four continents over the years.

The ingenuity and adventurousness in the work not only applied to the design of their pieces, but also often the materials, such as the case of this piece by Jan, County Survey – # 30 in a series limited to just 38 numbered copies, the binding includes calfskin, catfish leather, eel skin, pigskin and linen.


The Sobotas enjoyed working in miniature, and many of their finest masterpieces could be hidden in the palm of one’s hand. This piece, for instance, titled Decalogous, features the 10 Commandments in Latin, Czech, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch and Slovak – but is only three inches by two inches tall. It was made in the shape of a cross, for a marvelously unusual work. This is just one of 100 copies created, and at just $225.00 is surprisingly affordable.



If one of 100 is still not rare enough for you, have a look at The Black Cat – this three-inch-square treasure is just one of 20 ever brought to life by the Sobotas. The text is The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, a torturous tale detailing the guilt-ridden descent into madness of a murderer. The sculpture consists of a tiny, intricate leather cat, nestled inside a hinged box, and ready to spring free when the box is opened.


And of course, if you feel the burning desire to own the only one of something, here is something unique and marvelous just for you, a work of art. This one-of-a-kind miniature book of H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine very nearly defies description – but I will let the details from the bookseller, and the accompanying photographs, attempt to do it justice. On offer from Bromer Books:

A one-of-a-kind miniature book produced by the innovative Czech artist Jarmila Sobota, signed by her to the colophon. H. G. Wells’s classic work of early science fiction is presented here in a sculptural binding. The book fits into one of two channels on a wheeled, metal time machine that was custom fabricated for Sobota. A clock mounts to the top of the second channel, and is affixed through the use of two rare-earth magnets. With the clock mounted thus, the clock stops, thereby providing a visual play on the idea of Wells’s titular invention. The text is printed on green paper, referencing the Palace of Green Porcelain that the Time traveler encounters in the future world of the Morlocks. Bound in grey calfskin with watch parts set into circular niches on both of the covers. Boxes were created for each part of the object, covered with calf skin, hand-decorated paper, metallic paper and silver snakeskin. The title is stamped in silver around the sides of the box for the “Metal Machine,” and to the spine of the clamshell box that houses the book.




“Edition of one Signed Copy”. You just don’t see that very often in this business. For any booklover fascinated by the possibilities of binding, or book art, or of course any fan of H.G. Wells or science fiction, this would make a completely unparalleled gift.

Be sure to explore all the Jan and Jarmila Sobota books for sale on AbeBooks. If you’re still thirsty for more, you can read more about Jan and Jarmila, as well as viewing more of their wonderful book sculpture creations, at the J.& J. Sobota Book Arts Studio website.

Sadly, Jan Sobota passed away in May of 2012, but Jarmila continues to teach the art of bookbinding, and to practice their art. And it is absolutely an art – craft does not begin to describe the level of beautiful genius found in the Sobotas work. What a legacy for Jan to have left behind, and for Jarmila to carry on. Their work will ring pleasure to people for generations.

The Beginning of the Affair: I Fell in Love with Books

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read, at least a little bit, every single day. Throughout my childhood, I always read long after I was supposed to have turned out the light at night. In fact I still do, mindful not to laugh at the funny bits and wake my husband, gently snoring away next to me. Story time, then Reading, then English, then Literature – anything to do with books was always my absolute favorite class from pre-school all the way through to university.

I’m so grateful for this part of my life. No matter how busy or how broke I have ever been in my life, I have always found enough time and enough money to explore new authors, new stories, new worlds. Where did it start, this pleasure, this lifelong passion? What makes such booklovers of some of us, and infuses us with a fevered fervor for the written word?

My first book-related memory is a fuzzy one. The daughter of my mother’s friend was babysitting me, and had read me a story about fairies. I don’t remember what book specifically, but I remember falling asleep afterward, with vivid, absolutely lifelike pictures in my head of fairies in beautiful dresses, wearing acorn caps as hats, drinking from rain-filled buttercups, sleeping curled under spotted toadstools. As I fell asleep, I remember feeling a sense of delight and wonder that black marks on a page, words, could have caused these pictures and adventures to come to life in my head.

The main driver of my love of reading was undoubtedly my mother. A lifelong reader and book nerd herself, she couldn’t stop herself from making up rhymes and silly songs, and telling me stories both real and imagined. Fortunately, I loved it, as had my older sister before me. If you ask me what makes an adult a good reader for children, I think an enormous part of it is one’s willingness to abandon all self-consciousness and make a total fool of oneself in the name of fun. My mum did so like a pro, stomping about the room, making silly faces and of course doing different voices for all the characters. Even if sometimes the goal of bedtime (to lull a child into a drowsy state, ready for sleep) was wildly postponed, she made bedtime fun, and memorable, and happy. Some of the books I remember her reading include Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, and Thump, Thump, Thump by Anne Rockwell. She was always happy to talk about books, or read the same story for the 10th night in a row, or make sure that the Christmas tree had several books among the brightly-colored packages under its branches. I look at my 14-month-old son now, and I read to him, and he laughs at the voices and smacks the pages, and I think – yes. Here we go.

One wonderful example of how the AbeBooks Wants System can work – one of the books my mother read to me most often when I was little was Am I a Bunny? by Ida DeLage. It was published two months after I was born. She and I both have very fond memories of our time with that book. So when I began my career with AbeBooks in 2000, I thought it would be a nice thing to get her a copy as a Mother’s Day present. Little did I know the book was long out-of-print and highly sought after. We had a copy on the site, sure, but it was $400! Far beyond too rich for my blood. So I created a “Want”, indicating that I would like to be notified if a copy came up for under $100.00. And in the 14 years since, that want has only been matched four times, including in 2004, when a copy for a very affordable price came available, and I had the quick thumbs and good fortune to secure the sale. My mum cried when she opened it on Mother’s Day. Worth every penny!


My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Hollick, very much furthered my love of reading. She was a gentle, kind woman, with a sense of humor and an obvious genuine love of children. And she was a born storyteller. She read us the Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, aka “Twas The Night Before Christmas” with such enthusiasm that we were all on the edge of our little seats. She delighted in teaching, and we all loved her so much we yearned to learn. In grade one we were mainly reading from those old-school reading primers, Dick and Jane style. I was ahead, having learned to read when I was three, so was allowed to do some reading on my own, quietly, during class as well.

One of my very favorite books from back then was The BFG by Roald Dahl. I absolutely loved it, and must have read it six times the month I got it. I couldn’t get enough. I believe it was the first I ever read of Roald Dahl’s books, and I quickly sought the others over the following years. The Witches was a favorite, as were Matilda and James and the Giant Peach . I liked The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine less, but still more than most other books. Roald Dahl became the first author whose works I consciously sought and collected, spending my allowance on any battered copy that might cross the shelves at the secondhand bookshop near our home.

I was a big fan of series, though – Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne books were Canadian classics I loved wholeheartedly (and could relate to, as a precocious ginger-headed child), and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were read so often that the first three were falling apart. Something about that totally foreign (to me) landscape of building houses from logs, slaughtering pigs and making maple sugar candy was endlessly appealing.


Even further removed from my reality was A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved the story of this book, but it was the characters who hooked me so completely – I absolutely had to read more about Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, and Calvin O’Keeffe, and all the rest. I read her following three books as well, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters, though I liked each a little bit less than the one that came before it, and my heart still lies with A Wrinkle in Time to this day.

There have been so many books since, and I’m simultaneously energized and comforted by the knowledge that there will be so many books yet to come. I wonder how many books I have read? I would estimate in the neighborhood of 2000. How high would they reach, stacked? How far, laid end to end? When I die, and there is no more reading left for me in this world, I hope that my heaven has two rooms dedicated to books – one with shelves filled with every book I ever read in life, and one, much larger one, filled with every book I could ever hope to read. Because in the afterlife, surely, there will be a very comfortable chair, excellent light to read by, no telemarketers to ring my phone, and plenty, plenty of time to read.

What about you? Leave me a comment and let me know what people, books and circumstances led you to be the lovesick book-worshiper you are.

The 12 Hottest New Books for Fall

Fall’s 12 Hottest New Books from AbeBooks

The weather has turned cooler and readers everywhere are secretly rejoicing. Fall is prime reading season – perfect for hiding away with a good book, or maybe 12. We’ve rounded up the season’s best new releases from today’s literary stars. From Ken Follett and Hilary Mantel to the queen of vampire lit, Anne Rice, there’s something for everyone.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear and awe. Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church for shelter from the rain and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
Cutting to the core of human experience, Mantel brutally and acutely writes about marriage, class, family, and sex in a collection of shocking contemporary stories.

Prince Lestat: The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
Prince Lestat is back. In this chillingly hypnotic mystery-thriller, Anne Rice Rice once again summons up the irresistible spirit world of the oldest and most powerful forces of the night in a long-awaited return to the extraordinary world of the Vampire Chronicles.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable Nora Webster. Widowed at 40, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again she finds solace in herself.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
A lyrical, masterfully written epic that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s. Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters – assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts – here is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the ’70s, to the crack wars in ’80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the ’90s.

Perfidia by James Ellroy
It is December 6, 1941. America stands at the brink of World War II. Last hopes for peace are shattered when Japanese squadrons bomb Pearl Harbor. Los Angeles has been a haven for loyal Japanese-Americans—but now, war fever and race hate grip the city and the Japanese internment begins.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley
The first book of an epic trilogy, Some Luck by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley follows the Langdon family from 1920 through World Wars and beyond. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a real tour de force.

Us by David Nicholls
Douglas Petersen may be mild-mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen year-old son. Then Connie tells him she thinks she wants a divorce. From the best selling author of One Day comes a deftly funny new novel about what holds families and marriages together.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah
Since the publication of her first novel in 1920, more than two billion copies of Agatha Christie’s books have been sold around the globe. Now, for the first time ever, the guardians of her legacy have approved a brand-new novel featuring Dame Agatha’s most beloved creation, Hercule Poirot.

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett
Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy follows the fortunes of five intertwined families – American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—as they make their way through the 20th century. This, the final book, covers one of the most tumultuous eras of all: the 1960s through the 1980s, encompassing civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, presidential impeachment, revolution—and rock and roll.

Gray Mountain by John Grisham
Gray Mountain covers the murky and dangerous world of coal mining, where laws are often broken, rules are ignored, regulations are flouted, communities are divided, and the land itself is under attack from Big Coal. Violence is always just around the corner, and within weeks a young lawyer finds herself engulfed in litigation that turns deadly.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Zone of Interest is a love story with a violently unromantic setting. Powered by both wit and compassion, and in characteristically vivid prose, Martin Amis’ unforgettable new novel excavates the depths and contradictions of the human soul.

The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould


Just in time for Halloween tomorrow, check out this marvelous, collectible book we recently sold. It’s an 1865 first edition of The Book of Were-Wolves, by Sabine Baring-Gould. Its full title is actually The Book of Were-Wolves: Being An Account of a Terrible Superstition. The copy we sold, which went for £750 (approx. $1200 USD) was a gorgeous first edition in red pictorial cloth, decorated with gilt.


Here is the description of the contents from the bookseller. It sounds like a howl of a read:

“This is a nice example of the First Edition of this classic book on The Werewolf and Were Wolves in History, with chapters covering Lycanthropy Among the Ancients, The Were-Wolf in the North, The Origin of the Scandinavian Were-Wolf, The Were-Wolf in the Middle Ages, A Chamber of Horrors, Jean Grenier, Folk-Lore Relating to Were-Wolves, Natural Causes of Lycanthropy, Mythological Origin of the Were-Wolf Myth, The Maréchal de Retz.-I. The Investigation of Charges., The Maréchal de Retz.–II. The Trial, Maréchal de Retz.–III. The Sentence and Execution. A Galician Were-Wolf, Anomalous Case.–The Human Hyæna. A Sermon on Were-Wolves etc.”

First editions of The Book of Werewolves appear to be quite rare; we only have three remaining copies on the site as of this writing, ranging in price from $450.00 all the way up to $10,000. That $10,000 copy, offered by First Place Books in Maryland, is special because in it you’ll find the book-plate of Baring-Gould’s wife, Grace.


Sabine Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also a hagiographer. Interestingly, in direct contrast (to my mind) with the book at hand, most of Baring-Gould’s impressively prolific bibliography was religion-based, including many original hymns (most famous among them being “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, whose accompanying music was penned by Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert & Sullivan). Baring-Gould and his wife Grace had 15 children, all but one of whom survived until adulthood.

Sabine Baring-Gould also published A Book of Ghosts, for anyone interested in a spooky-themed matched set. It is described by one of our booksellers as a “Collection of ghost stories, some dating back to the 1850s. Most are slight tales of apparitions; the most interesting are ‘Pomps and Vanities,’ a tale of possession; and ‘The Merewigs,’ a farce in which persons who made no spiritual progress in their last incarnation must now haunt the British Museum.” One thing’s for sure – I certainly do adore the lettering on that cover:


There is an image from within which depicts some poor, bedridden soul being visited by an apparition:


All told, Baring-Gould’s catalogue ended up boasting an impressive 1200 or so publications, with (obviously) a great variety of subject and genre.

This isn’t the first time we’ve sold a spooky, occult type rare book in the days leading up to Halloween. Last year we sold a rare grimoire which is definitely worth reading about.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Literary Starbucks – Your Favorite Author’s Coffee Order

Some clever duck has created a quite funny concept on Tumblr. Literary Starbucks posts witty snippets of what a Starbucks order might look like, if placed by our favorite authors, and some fictional characters as well. They are quick and dirty, and often spot on:

“George R.R. Martin goes up to the counter and orders a series of incredibly complicated drinks, each more detailed and layered than the last. The barista works for an hour and finally hands them across the counter to Martin, who promptly throws one of them away with little to no explanation. That coffee had been the barista’s favorite.”

“Sylvia Plath goes up to the counter, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing in Starbucks. She decides to order a strawberry frappuccino. On the other side of the window, fiery leaves have begun to fall. The leaves are too red; they remind her of beetles, of darkness, of the taut skin of the dead. The taste of strawberries turns thick and sour.”

“Hemingway goes up to the counter and orders one espresso. It’s hot. He drinks it in silence. It makes him remember his father’s cabin. He thinks about the woman he loved once. He does not smile. The coffee reminds him of war – short but painful, swallowed down quickly. One could order worse drinks. He leaves Starbucks and walks out into the rain.”

“Lady Macbeth goes up to the counter and sees three female baristas intently hovering over the espresso machine, chanting something unintelligible. She decides to order a Passion tea and proceeds to spill it all over her clothes and hands. She runs screaming to the bathroom. The three baristas cackle in uncanny unison.”

“Roald Dahl goes up to the counter and orders a grande hot chocolate and a tall peach green tea. He offers the foxy barista a piece of gum. She takes it and promptly turns into a blueberry. He leaves the shop and walks down the street with his extraordinarily tall companion.”

I hope they include a romance author. That would be a fun one to write. Enjoy (preferably, with your morning coffee). And well done, Literary Starbucks!

Video footage from the 2014 Seattle Book Fair

Our colleague Christi Kay recently took a floatplane from Victoria, British Columbia, over the Olympic Mountains to visit the 2014 Seattle Book Fair. She took her camera and this video is the result. Many thanks to all the booksellers who made her welcome. Christi also microblogs on our Tumblr, Bookorithms.

Le Crapouillot – France’s 80-Year Political Satire Magazine


While foraging about the internet’s forest floor to learn all I could about our latest Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Patrick Modiano, I discovered Le Crapouillot. The first discovery was that Modiano had contributed to an issue of a magazine about drugs. The actual title of the issue was: “LSD une bombe atomique dans la tête” (“LSD: An atomic bomb in the head”). The issue was Crapouillot #71, and came out in 1966, when Modiano was 21. The cover is really something to behold. The quote below the cover image translates roughly to: “[i]t hurts … I’m hot … flowers … oh, it’s beautiful …. I have to come back …. oh, no! it’s getting terrible…” – look at that poor woman’s face!:


Crapoillot no 7: LSD


Clearly, this was a magazine I needed to investigate further.

Le Crapouillot (the word is a variation on the French word “Crapaud” or “little toad”) was a French political magazine which ran for more than 80 years, from 1915 until its final issue in 1996. The magazine was begun by French soldier and controversial journalist Jean Galtier-Boissiere, who originally intended it as a trench paper, just for his peers in the military. He created it, in part, out of his belief in a need for a balanced view of French soldiers, after being offended and taken aback by the depictions and caricatures he saw in the media. Le Crapouillot promised early on to address the authentic, first-hand stories of French soldiers, from their perspectives. The insolent, irreverent and fearless publication soon proved so popular, however, that by 1925 it was a monthly distribution, with an ever-expanding subscriber list.

In its 80 year run, Le Crapouillot varied widely in its insights and opinions, striving to seek the truth and to publish without censorship or fear of reprisal. That bold attitude resulted in a fantastic series of historical snapshots, with issues addressing so many social, political and economic struggles throughout the century. For instance, the July, 1933 issue, “Hitler, est-ce la guerre?” (“Hitler, is This War?”) explored in detail the personality of Adolf Hitler, his intentions, and his possible trajectory, despite being published very early into Hitler’s rise to power.


Le Crapouillot was unusual at the time, as it devoted each issue to one sole subject to focus on, and nothing was off the table. Art, sexuality, drugs, the economy, social trends, class warfare, and of course politics – everything had its moment within the pages of the magazine. Le Crapouillot enjoyed enough traction to attract the attention of some larger publications, and was given a nod in a December, 1935 issue of Time Magazine as a “Paris muckraker” worth exploring. (What is muckraking?)

In its later years, publication frequency was fitful, irregular and unreliable. By the time the magazine folded in 1996, it had become a staunchly conservative, right-wing publication. But for any magazine collecting enthusiast or French history buff, the back issues of Le Crapouillot are a unique goldmine of information to explore – a time capsule of nearly an entire century of France’s social development. Copies are, for the most part, surprisingly affordable, as well.

There are well over 2,000 issues of Le Crapouillot available for sale on AbeBooks, ranging in price from $2.00 all the up to $1900, with a median asking price of approximately $15.00.

The best travel books and world’s most literary city according to Patricia Schultz

1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz

We recently had the pleasure of meeting author Patricia Schultz, the woman behind the best-selling 1000 Places to See Before You Die books. We were anxious to pick her brain about the world’s most literary towns and the bookshops she’s seen along the way, and she was generous enough to indulge us.

AbeBooks: Tell us about the most interesting bookshops you’ve discovered in your travels.

Patricia Schultz: I have traveled all over the US speaking at travel shows, libraries and bookstores. I’ve found that the smaller independent bookstores so full of character - some of them owned by the same book-loving family for generations - are generally the most interesting, having had to grow, evolve and keep up with the ways and trends of the times. Those that have survived appear to be much more of a welcoming social center than the larger and more impersonal chains. It is so important to support our independent stores.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos OzAbe: What books are in your suitcase?

P.S.: I always bring a guidebook or three (with others left behind at home) – but for my trip to Israel in a few weeks, I will also be bringing A Tale of Love and Darkness, the autobiography written by the acclaimed novelist Amos Oz. Three different friends have told me it promises a sensitively written and profound insight to Israel, a very special destination where I last visited 15 years ago.

Abe: In your opinion, what is the most literary city in the world? Why?

P.S.: Ireland’s deep love of words go far beyond James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Yeats and Beckett – back to the Druids and Celts. Dublin is a great city all around, with a longtime love and respect for its famous story tellers and awarded literary heritage. The capital city names bridges and streets after writers, and erects statues and memorials to commemorate them. In 2010, the UN declared Dublin an official City of Literature (a credential it shares with just six others in the world: Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Melbourne, Norwich and Krakow)…and did I mention its dozens of literary pubs?

Our Man in Havana by Graham GreeneAbe: Who is your favorite (fellow) travel writer?

P.S.: I couldn’t possibly list one – nor all of them. Some I happened upon randomly, others because they were linked to a destination I was planning to visit. I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom before my first visit to Egypt. Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s books led me to Greece’s Mani Peninsula, while Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene stoked my curiosity about Cuba. I don’t read travel literature half as much as I would like to, as I am always up-to-here with guide books, mountains of periodicals and research that need my attention for more practical purposes – but they too are insightful and inspiring in their own way.

Abe: What inspired you to travel the world, and what inspired you to write about it?

P.S.: That curiosity with which we are all born did not diminish in me over the years. My parents – although we traveled infrequently as a family due to a very modest lifestyle – always helped to keep that curiosity alive and nourished. I always traveled as much as I could, beginning with three experience-packed years after college when I lived in Florence. I never really fancied myself a writer – I had never studied writing or journalism and I read a lot (mostly to keep alive the second and third languages I studied in school) but not voraciously. My first writing assignment came to me by chance – and that’s when the light bulb went off. What if I could make a living off of my wanderlust? Beginner’s luck was good to me and kept reality at bay. It isn’t an easy (nor lucrative – at all!) career choice, but I was enjoying it too much to reconsider during those first (very) lean years.


American Tourist Accidentally Locked Inside London Bookstore

When I was a little girl, I saw a movie in which some children are trapped overnight in a shopping mall. I can’t remember how that came to pass, what they did in there, or the eventual outcome (I feel sure they made it out alive). What I do remember, however, is trying to go to sleep later that night – and even two or three nights following -  and being absolutely buzzing with the imaginings running through my brain. If only I could be trapped overnight in a shopping mall, preferably with a friend or two. We could run up the down escalator! Drop rubber balls from the top floor all the way to the courtyard and fountains four storeys down! We could take every pillow in the bedding department and make the world’s most comfortable fort. We could work the soft serve machine with our own hands and make ourselves sick! Makeovers in the makeup department! Cover the sporting goods department floor in basketballs, baseballs, golf balls, softballs, soccer balls, volleyballs and more – and then corral them all down an escalator! Dress up and hold still and pretend to be a mannequin during an epic game of hide and seek!

I lay there, clutching the bedsheets in my damp little hands, willing my fevered brain to slow, to stop the dizzying cavalcade of wistful possibility from keeping me awake. In summary, it was a mammoth fantasy of my childhood to be trapped inside such a place, and given free rein, if only for one night, and next-day consequences be damned. I often thought it would be a wonderful grand prize for some kind of childhood contest.

Now that I am an adult, of course, my tastes have matured, and I’ve grown too discerning and reserved for such flights of fancy.

David Willis, Texan tourist, squanderer of golden opportunities (photo: Twitter)

David Willis, squanderer of golden opportunities (photo: Twitter)

The previous statement is of course a lie, and the reason I could only shake my head in mute disappointment at Texas resident David Willis (pictured, right), who on Thursday, October 16th, had been browsing through the stacks in London’s famed Waterstone’s bookshop in London (Trafalgar Square, no less), when he realized he had been missed by the store’s employees, and the store was now closed for the night. The lights were out, and he was the only soul in the place.

This is where the story should go: Mr. Willis, delighted at his predicament and recognizing his  absolutely once-in-a-blue-moon good fortune, could hardly decide where to begin.  First, he took a moment to simply breathe, and stretch, and take in his surroundings. He listened to the silence, he scanned the room, and eventually tested his solitude with one brave “Hallo?”. Hearing nothing in return but his own echo bounced back to him off the spines of hundreds, and hundreds, and thousands of books, still on their shelves and waiting for him – David Willis embarked on the best night of his life.

Imagine – the shop closed at 9pm. Even if it opened again at 7 am (which is very early), Willis could have had 10 full hours of perusing an almost unending supply of books, with nobody to distract him. No other customers jostling his elbow or making conversation; no staff trying to sell him something or repeatedly inquiring whether he needed help; no spouse, no children, no television even. Just a glorious, uninterrupted ten hours of books. And he was on vacation, so no work the next day!  Nothing to do the next day but amble back to his hotel for some well-deserved sleep, and to prepare how best to tell his wonderful story.

Sadly, that is not where the story went, in real life. In actuality, David Willis tried the door, set off the alarm, spoke to store security, called the police, and even resorted to taking a photo of the inside of the darkened store and tweeting it out to the Twitterverse as a last cry for help. At last, his pleas were heard, and he was released. All told, he spent only two hours in the store.

I must admit, I would have absolutely no idea where to start or what to read. But I would start, eventually, and I would read. I can’t help but feel this was an enormous waste of a rare opportunity. Still, I suppose not everyone shared my childhood fantasies.

What would you read if you had a full night, uninterrupted, and a vast landscape of books at hand?