Sunday, August 21, 2005

Rare Books and Scissors

One of the lesser reasons to have children is to give yourself an excuse to do things you've always wanted to do. I've always wanted to collect art postcards. You know, the ones with the pictures of priceless artifacts on them that you find in museum gift shops? Growing up, the only picture postcards I ever saw were tacky souvenirs, my family never went to museums (in spite of my pleas) and I couldn't have afforded to buy anything in the gift shop. Collecting art postcards sounded so cool.

After I got out on my own, I found out you could mail order art postcards. Good! But I still didn't have time, money or space for them. Not good. I decided I would put it off until we had children. It sounded like a great way to teach art history, like those slide shows we had to sit through in college only without the eyestrain. Apparently someone else had a similar idea, for later on I found the Child-size Masterpieces program.

Cut to this summer. I get the "Child-size Masterpieces" handbook and the first set of cards. There's some Rube-Goldberg advice for making display folders, or we're told that if you're doing this at home you can just use bags. Hah. I haven't collected comic books for 25 years without learning how to store flimsy paper goods. The craft store has archival quality photo storage boxes in their scrapbook section, and quart-size Ziploc bags are just the right width to fit in the box and store 24-30 regular-size cards at a time. To store 30 of the oversized cards you turn the bag sideways. The acid in the Ziplocs will degrade the postcards over time, but I've got a few years to hunt down archival Mylar replacement bags and acid-free backing boards before I have to worry about that.

There are card sets for "Child-size Masterpieces" which are very nice and well-chosen for their job. But let's face it, they're just the excuse -- er, examples. Then I head over to Dover Publications, that treasure trove of out-of-copyright books where art postcards start at 6/$1.00 and average a quarter a piece. Dover mostly handles smaller museums, but web-snooping at the bigger museum gift shops reveals that they have their postcards made by Pomegranate Communications and sell for 30/$9.95. Dover postcards sets are available at decent bookstores and both sell postcards on their websites.

My local Books-a-Million flat out refused to order Dover for me because the prices were too cheap. The cheapest way to get Dover products turned out to be through my local independent bookstore. I can usually order Dover publications online through their Booksense website at a better discount than the online bookstores offer for Dover and pick them up at the store when they arrive. My local independent bookseller has seen a lot more of my business since I discovered that trick.

I ordered a set of Dover postcards and immediately discovered a problem. Souvenir postcard sets are sold in clear plastic packets. Not so with art postcard sets. They are sold stapled together like magazines or bound together like hardcovers. In order to get those postcards out where I could use them, I was going to have to destroy a book.

This is a big deal. I love books. They are holy relics to me, even the rotten ones. They literally saved my life in childhood, which sometimes got so bad the only reason I didn't kill myself was to find out how my current paperback ended. I can't tear up a book. I can't even bring myself to cut pictures out of old magazines.

The little 6/$1.50 set I have in my hand is staple bound with a postcard on each side and a perforated line in the middle between a glossy cover. It certainly looks like a book to me. Um, okay, maybe it's not a book? Maybe it's a, a, a -- package! And that thing that looks like the cover? That's the wrapper! And the fact that it's sold in bookstores? That's clever marketing! And the International Standard Book Number and bar code on the back? That's even more clever marketing!

Y'know, I'd be a lot easier to get along with if I could swallow an argument like that.

Okay, it is tearing up a book. But it's a book that's meant to be torn up. And it's for a Noble Cause, the artistic education of my children. And most important of all, it's Still In Print.

A few days later I'm on ebay and find a Dover postcard collection of *gasp* ancient Roman glassware from the Corning Museum! I love the time period, I love the material, I love the price. I don't love that it's out of print. I can't take it apart without destroying a collectible.

The set arrives, and it's everything I hoped for. It's filled with beautiful pictures of priceless artifacts. The cover contains even more information about the postcards that would be lost if I threw it away. In fact the pictures and writeups are much better than anything currently online about them, as I find out after I google the Populonia bottle, which it turns out is a priceless artifact because it's the World's Oldest Tacky Souvenir.

What to do? Leave it in one piece as a collectible or tear it apart so my children can learn more from it?

I could stick it up intact and just let my children look at it, but at almost 20 years old it starts to fall apart along the perforations when I turn the pages. It would never survive their handling it, at least not until they are so much older it would defeat the purpose of teaching them art appreciation when they're still in the Wonder Years.

For about a month I blame the Corning Museum for not keeping the stupid thing in print and causing me to worry like this. Then reason kicks in and I reassure myself that they would if they could make enough money off them.

I show the girls the cards I've already put in the box. Sunshine loves them. Brighteyes takes a little longer to warm up to them, but both girls like the pretty pictures and enjoy matching them with other pretty pictures.

Okay. After a lot of mental wear and tear I decide my greater obligation to the future is to turn out well-educated citizens, not to maintain a collectible that's already starting to fall apart. It takes a lot of re-examining my priorities to get to that point though. It will take some time for me to get comfortable with the new side of myself that emerged.

Until then, there's a postcard set of engraved Steuben glassware that's just shown up on ebay....

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