I’m usually not a reluctant reader.
Even when I was in school, and we had to read certain books, I rarely minded – and usually wound up enjoying them. But I wasn’t (and still am not) much given to reading fantasy. So when, after I read The Hobbit in ninth grade (and liked it), my dad started bugging me to read The Lord of the Rings, I brushed him off. For years.
I did pick up his copy of The Fellowship of the Ring once or twice, but I got bogged down in the long prologue and first chapter. However, after the first (brilliant) movie came out, in 2001, I fell deeply and instantly in love with the story, the characters, the languages – everything about Middle-earth. I blazed through the first book in a week, went to see the movie again, then read the other two books long before the second movie hit screens. I’ve now read the trilogy four times – each time picking up my dad’s soft, worn set of 1965 paperbacks, with maps in the front and yellow-edged pages and original cover art by Tolkien in muted shades of blue, green, gold, brown and grey.
I hope to inherit those books from my dad someday – he loves Tolkien more deeply than anyone I know, and those books are a treasure of his – but I also hope that day is a long way off. And in the meantime, I’ll want to read them again and again. So I thought about buying them in nice, new editions – or even a three-in-one volume – but somehow that didn’t quite feel right.
There are dozens of editions of Lord of the Rings, of course – one-volume, three-volume, hardback, paperback, annotated, movie tie-in, whatever. But I wanted these editions. The ones my dad used to read aloud from, trying to convince me I’d love the books (his favorite scene is the showdown between Gandalf and the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Gandalf shouts, “You shall not pass!”). The ones with hand-drawn maps, so I can flip back and forth and follow Frodo and his companions on their journeys through Fangorn Forest and down the River Anduin and across the Emyn Muil. The ones I took to England with me and read on various bus and train trips, thinking as I did so, “This is the Shire. This is the country Tolkien wrote about.”
So I borrowed my dad’s copies once, twice, three times in college, took them with me to Oxford and Abilene, but still never bought my own. And then, in 2007, I found a copy of The Two Towers in just the right edition – my dad’s edition – at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. For 4 euros.
I bought it, of course, and they put the store stamp (which depicts the Bard’s head) in it for me. And ever since then, I’ve been sort of casually keeping an eye out for the other two.
I found a similar-if-not-quite-the-same edition of The Return of the King in Oxford, on one of my trips back in ’06 or ’07, for a pound in the stalls outside Arcadia. A pound! I couldn’t resist; despite the slightly cartoony cover art, the fonts, the maps, the heft and feel of it were right. I handed the bookseller a gold pound coin and counted myself lucky a second time.
The search for Fellowship, the first volume in the trilogy and the last to complete my set, has lasted another several years. I thought for sure I’d happen upon a copy in an Oxfam shop, or even strike gold twice at Shakespeare & Co., at Arcadia, or at Brattle Bookshop here in Boston. But no luck. I even found Two Towers and Return of the King in the Brattle stalls last month – and put them back, regretfully, since Fellowship wasn’t with them. And then, recently, I was in Brookline Booksmith doing some Christmas shopping, and wandered over to the sci-fi/fantasy shelf in the Used Book Cellar, out of habit, just to check.
And there it was: the perfect edition of Fellowship, with the painting of Hobbiton on the cover and the brief, gushing foreword by Peter S. Beagle (which ends with the lovely line “Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams”). In great condition for a 45-year-old paperback. For $3.
Yes, of course I bought it. And now I have the complete set – each book picked up in a bookshop, and a city, that has special meaning for me. A bibliophile/book-nerd’s dream.
I’m thinking this calls for a reread this winter.