Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happy Burns Day, and a Book Rescue

Tomorrow, January 25, is Robbie Burns Day--the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (who, according to Wikipedia, is also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland's favorite son, the Ploughman Poet, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire, and, in Scotland, as The Bard).

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to delve into original source material (or Wikipedia, as you wish) to find out  more about the man who penned "Auld Lang Syne," "To a Red, Red Rose," and more. Despite having been an English major, I have had very little contact with Robert Burns and his work.

Which means I also did not know much about Robbie Burns Day and the wonderful institution of having a Burns supper, replete with ritual, special dishes, speechifying, and levity to spare. Rats.

A herd of haggises (Wikipedia)
Not that I ever, ever want to try haggis, that saggy sack of sheep's insides mixed with oatmeal, spices, and onions, though I'm insanely jealous that the Scots have a food that is brought to the table accompanied by the skirl of bagpipes and that is then celebrated in verse ("Address to a Haggis," by guess who). I can safely say I've never called anything put before me the "great chieftain o' the puddin-race."

But I can say that I Have Done My Bit for Scottish poetry. (Film of calendar pages flipping back through time, here.)

A few years ago, I was in downtown Seattle with a friend of mine who enjoys treasure-hunting at the Goodwill Outlet.  Yes, Goodwill, that outlet of outlets, actually has an outlet of its own. It is the last step for objects before they are recycled, thrown away, or, in the case of clothing, shredded to make rags or baled up for shipment to Africa and other overseas markets.

At the outlet, most of what you buy is priced by the pound. You shove it into a sack and they weigh it at checkout. Other items, such as books and appliances, have a different (though still very low) pricing setup.

A glance at the contents of the battleship-sized wheeled blue bins reveals why most of this stuff never sold in the Goodwill store itself (it's ugly!), but it's amazing and somewhat disheartening to see just how much good stuff is mixed in with the jetsam.

My friend L. has found vintage, high-quality clothing and even antiques, such as a century-old handmade quilt and a darning egg. My daughter found a brand-new Breyer stuffed horse, clean with the tags still on. I found a brand-new L.L. Bean down coat for a friend's young son. I met one woman who scours the bins for brand-new or barely used baby clothing, which she takes home, washes, and then donates to organizations that will make sure they actually end up on babies and not in the shredder or baler.

The outlet has its own rules and culture. One of the cardinal rules is that, when a new bin is rolled out, nobody touches a thing in it until a Goodwill employee gives the signal. The "regulars" at the outlet immediately surround a bin when it's put into place, positioning themselves around it like diners at a feast--though in this case it's more like contestants at a hotdog-eating contest. It's rather fearsome.

Most casual visitors, like me, stand back and cede this turf to the regulars, who seem to be made up of people who are truly down on their luck as well as people who dive for treasure to sell on eBay or in vintage shops.

On one of my rare visits, I was present when a new bin of books rolled out. The book bins are usually pits of remainders, tattered romance and mystery  novels, old magazines, ancient Reader's Digest condensed books, outdated textbooks, and the like, but sometimes there can be decent copies of novels, children's books, and the odd, interesting vintage volume.

So when I saw hordes of people descend on the new bin and take their stations, I naively thought they were avid readers or book collectors eager to see what possible literary gems might lie in this ultimate slush pile.

Not a book collector. (Wikipedia)
Which shows you what an idiot I am.

When the signal to dive in was given, the chaos that ensued was like a nature documentary about vultures ripping into a dead elephant. People grabbed books willy-nilly and flung them by the armload into shopping carts and rolling canvas bins. Woe betide the person standing in the wrong place if volume M of an encyclopedia came flying through the air.

As the bin emptied, the book-flingers trundled their carts off to the outlets' sides, where they quickly sorted through their haul. Some had hand-held devices for scanning bar codes on the books. I don't have a clue as to what, exactly, people sought in their purchases, but after a quick sorting they began bringing the rejects back to the bin and unceremoniously chucking them back in.

At this point, the book barge was now attended by only a few pickers, and I tentatively joined them. That's when--whump!--a big brown book was tossed back onto the heap. A big brown book with gold embossed on the cover, deckled edges, and no bar code.

It turned out to be an edition of Robert Burns's poetry published in the late 1800s. It showed its years; the binding was ragged, a mouse had nibbled the corners, ink stains marred its edges.

But it was beautiful, just a beautiful object. Holding it, you got a sense of how, before mass production make cheap clothing and books possible, a book might be something you'd cherish and pass along through generations, even if you didn't particularly love the poems inside it.

I couldn't believe such a book didn't make the pickers' cut, though later I understood why; eBay alone had several of these old books, and they weren't budging at only eight bucks. But still, this book needed rescuing, so for 50 cents I took it home.

Over the next few weeks, I picked it up from time to time to admire the details and care that had gone into producing it.

It was filled with elegantly wrought engravings of lonely lasses, mournful dogs, heaths and moors. When I ran my hand over the fine-quality paper of pages, I could feel the impression of the type on the other side of each page.

Even the penmanship of the book's owner was a little work of art.

This book would prove to be one with a most happy ending.

One day, during my  monthly craft-group gathering, conversation turned to the Robbie Burns night celebration enjoyed by one of my friends, who is married to a Scotsman. She told us about the speeches, the haggis, and the existence of a rather tasty vegetarian version of haggis (who knew?).

It was quite clear where this edition of Burns's work belonged--and so it was passed along (without any flinging, Highland or otherwise) and now resides in a place of honor on a desk, where it's regularly perused by my friend's children.

So, Happy Birthday, Robert Burns.  “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?" Not this edition of your work, at least.


  1. Love this! I have a little volume of Burns poems on the shelf by my bed. I particularly love saying the Scottish phrases, such as "the best laid plans of mice and men GANG AFT AGLEE." Gang aft aglee! First of all it sounds as if a normal sentence suddenly loses its mind in mid-stream. Secondly, that last little phrase is just so much fun to say aloud. For that reason, I use the expression at every opportunity.

    1. I agree. And now you should start addressing your meals thusly: "Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,Great chieftain o' the puddin-race! Aboon them a' ye tak your place."