episodes & recollections
#52 the gift
IT WAS AN ART BOOK. One of hundreds I sold for pennies, along with everything else I owned. I sold my records and cassettes. I sold my powder blue ’67 Dodge Dart. I even sold stuff I didn’t own, like the couch that had come with the apartment I was leaving.
I sold it all – everything but my shirt and pants – to finance a move from Virginia to D.C. I did it for a woman. Two weeks after we moved, she found a job and dumped me.
It was an art book. One of hundreds I sold for pennies. It was a softbound Dover art book, fifteen years out of print. It was Art Anatomy by Dr. William Rimmer, the greatest American sculptor of his day, now almost entirely forgotten.
The work was published in a small edition in 1877. Fire destroyed the original plates and all unsold copies. In 1905, a second edition was prepared from the original pencil drawings and printed via the now-forgotten heliotype process of reproduction. Through the 1930s and 1940s, life drawing books acknowledged the influence of Rimmer’s work. But with the rise of modern art, Rimmer was again forgotten.
In the 1960s, Dover Press put out a softcover edition of the no-longer-copyrighted work. My father gave me the book as a gift. I grew up studying Rimmer’s strangely emotional drawings, and trying, in my childish way, to copy them.
In the 1980s, no longer a child, I sold my father’s gift and everything else I owned for a woman who dropped me like a Christmas ornament when the cash ran out.
A few weeks ago, I told the story to another woman. Not the part about the first woman. Just the part about William Rimmer, the fascinating, forgotten artist whose book I’d treasured in childhood, and then sold for five cents in desperate times.
It was a throwaway conversation about a thrown-away book, whose most recent edition has been out of print for about thirty years.
We might have been talking about things we’d had and lost. We might have been talking about how, when love ends, it’s easier to focus on the things you’ve lost (“I’ll sure miss those Persian rugs”) than to think about the person you’re losing forever.
Last night she gave me the book. Not the cheap softcover edition I’d lost, but an extremely rare second edition from 1905. Oblong folio, binding stained with old paints and water, fading on the upper and lower spine, hinges cracked. No dust jacket. Otherwise in good condition. Former owner a painter and illustrator who had kept the book propped open in his studio (hence the paint and water stains and the hinge cracks). A book that was studied. A book that was loved, and bears the marks of that love. As do we all.
What she gave me was more than the book I’d lost. More than the old, dead love I’d lost so long ago I no longer recognized the stains and cracks I still bore from it.
What she gave me was more than the uncanny surprise of resurrection, more even than the surprise of simply having been listened to, though that would have been enough.
What she gave me was more than can be expressed by that word we all use so often and find so rarely.