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The two gentlemen of Illinois

If I could have a conversation with a historical figure, I’m not sure who I would choose, but Abraham Lincoln would be near the top of the list. He is an imposing figure in American history, the Great Emancipator, but he also sometimes seems like a legend, a canvas onto which many have projected their ideals and hopes for the greatness of a country that in his time was still caught in the moral quagmire of slavery. It was a problem that the founding fathers — despite the triumph and poetry of the Constitution and the declaration of independence — were unable, perhaps unwilling, to address. Lincoln’s vision alone did not solve it, but in keeping the Union together, it was his hope that all Americans together might. At least that’s what I like to think (see what I mean about projection).

So, Abe — can I call you Abe?
Did you really think you were up to it, running a fractured country?
Did you realize what was before you as you made your way to Washington from Springfield to take office?
Do you think Mount Rushmore captured your best side?
Was Stephen Douglas really that much shorter than you?
How did Douglas help shape you as a politician, as a thinker?
Did you think, on the day of his death, also the day of the first battle in the Civil War, that you could go on without him?

These last two questions are addressed in a book by Roy Morris Jr., The Long Pursuit, about Lincoln and Douglas’ famed rivalry and as the subtitle puts it, their 30-year “struggle for the heart and soul of America.” It’s an interesting historical analysis of two flawed, complicated men and how their political ambitions and ideas played out in the decades leading up to the Civil War. (If my high school history teachers had assigned this book or others like it, I might have been more interested in their subject.) Morris looks to their childhood, their personal lives, their acquaintances for clues as to what made these men.

Douglas, the Democrat, was “born into upper-middle-class privilege, the son of a Vermont physician with sturdy New England connections going back 200 years.” Lincoln, a Whig who would become the first president from the newly formed Republican Party, was the son of “an illiterate backwoodsman” from Kentucky. Both made their way to Illinois to find opportunity. Morris suggests that their disparate upbringings helped form their disparate views on slavery. The slave-state-born Lincoln understood of the plight of a man forced to work for nothing, but free-state-born Douglas remained aloof to the cause of a people he encountered only as a pawn in political machinations. Still, Lincoln was not an outright abolitionist (not publicly, anyway), nor one to consider the black man his equal, and before Lincoln took office, Douglas understood, perhaps more than his rival, that the future of the country was at stake; his efforts on behalf of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War were for the sake of keeping the Union together. His were delay tactics, though, and upon Douglas’ death, and Lincoln knew that the problem was his to face.

The Long Pursuit is incredibly well researched and annotated (the last quarter of the book is reserved for the author’s notes), but Morris doesn’t lose himself in historical minutiae. He doesn’t spend as much time on the legendary debates as I would like, but he approaches the rivals’ relationship through so many lenses (Douglas courted Mary Todd before she married Lincoln, apparently) that you come to understand that their rhetorical back-and-forth extended beyond the stages they shared in those seven encounters. Morris paints a picture of two real men. One would fail in his ambition to become his country’s president, but in his failure, he prodded his rival to greatness.

Book sale day, or one of the best reasons to work for a newspaper

There are good things and bad things about working at a newspaper, both of which are very difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t. This is the main reason, I think, that Hollywood gets the journalism profession, particularly print journalism, so wrong so often in TV and film. “The Media” seems so omnipresent in our lives that it’s easy to think we know everything about how it works, but “The Media” is Anderson Cooper, not me copy-editing a story about a meeting of the local teachers’ union. Newspapers operate in a universe all their own, a mostly unchanging daily routine of minute details and endless jargon. It can be exciting and also exceptionally boring.

The best days to be a newspaper person, in my view, are Election Day (lots of breaking news and free pizza) and the day of the annual book sale. I can’t say if the latter is something that happens at every newspaper, but it’s a ritual I came to love at the ones that have employed me.

Over the course of the year, various authors and publishing houses send copies of new books in for review, and on book sale day, employees are allowed to browse through them all and buy them for a few dollars each depending on their size. Most are books you’ve never heard of, books that only you will read, but there are also hidden gems, soon-to-be best-sellers and tomes you might never have heard of otherwise. And really, if a book is only $3, it’s worth buying, right? (Warning: This philosophy may force you to buy many, many, many bookshelves and make moving a huge pain.)

There are strategies to book sale day. You can go early for the best selection, but morning is also when prices are at their highest. A previous employer of mine marked everything down after 4 p.m. to all you could fit in a box for $10.

Unfortunately for me this year (but fortunately for my lack of space at home), I missed the memo announcing the book sale and didn’t realize it was going on until I showed up for a night shift and saw the women in charge of it starting to pack up. Without much time to work with I only found four, but for $12 total, a pretty good haul.

All sound very interesting. One might even get read by the end of the year (my list is long). None top the best book sale find of all time, though: Madame Secretary by Madelaine Albright. A political memoir worth its weight (and it’s a heavy one) in frustrating days on the job. 

Bookstores: rare, medium, well done

In Lakeview, our old neighborhood in Chicago, on the corner of Clark and Wellington, there’s this old book store my husband and I used to walk past on our way to the movie theater.

We went in only once, maybe twice, because it was usually closed whenever we walked by. The inside was a huge mess. Books were stacked on every possible surface in no particular order. This in itself is not a bad thing — there are far worse ways to spend an afternoon than working your way through shelves and shelves of old books. Still, it didn’t seem as if much was being done to keep the books in good condition. The store was dusty, for one, and the window displays weren’t exactly inviting. They really weren’t displays at all, just books thrown haphazardly into piles and with little thought to at least putting the spines facing out so that passersby could see what was available. It looked like an old literature professor’s attic, and maybe that’s what it was. I remember an old, bearded man at the counter, writing into what looked like a ledger.

If it had a name, I never knew it. The lettering on the windows read, “BOOKS RARE MEDIUM WELL DONE.” A lover of puns, I always thought that was clever. Every time I walked by I wished I could somehow buy the store (or better yet, have it be given to me, since I don’t really have the capital to invest).

Wanting to own or run a bookstore is a bit of a hipster cliché, I suppose, and books aren’t necessarily an easy or lucrative business. That one seemed to have so much untapped potential, though, and a location commercial real estate agents would salivate over. So what was the deal? I suppose there was a story to be found there, and if I were blessed with more curiosity or initiative, I might have bothered to seek it out.

I’ve loved old books since I was a little kid. When we lived in Colombia, my mom used to have this encyclopedia set, and one of the volumes had a collection of beautifully illustrated old fables. I used to love reading them and looking at the pictures over and over. I don’t know what happened to that set. When moved to the United States, I was too young to consider what would happen to the treasured nick-knacks that we’d leave behind.

Maybe if I had bothered to really look, I would have found the volume in that old book store, a place full of things that looked like treasures to no one but their original owners. Maybe what I felt walking by wasn’t a desire to remake the bookstore in my own image but to leave it just as it was and get to be the old man sitting there at the counter.