This story was told to me years ago, one summer afternoon, in a centuries-old library in Mantua. It was whispered by an elderly scholar, as we took a short break after hours of patient, careful philological work…
It begins with a boy of eighteen, the shy, bookish sort, with the kind of passion for Ancient Greece that makes one court girls by lending them books of Greek poetry.
Now, this particular girl in the story was very pretty, but not overly interested in Greek poetry – and even less in young G: not long after the loan, she managed to part ways with the boy, but never gave back the book. Ah well – it happens. Poor G. moped for a while, but in time came to see the loss of his beloved poetry book as the worst part of the debacle. He went on with his studies, got a degree in Classical Literature, stayed on at the University, fell in love again, happily married – and, if he ever thought of that particular girl again, it was to regret being too shy to ask for his book back.
Well, the decades passed, G.’s career in academia went quite well, he taught, wrote, published – and he was nearing retirement age when, one very nice May morning, he stumbled on one of those stalls selling second-hand books. We’ve said that G. was the bookish sort, had always been: he wasn’t made to resist the lure of a second-hand bookstall. So he began to browse, and browse, and browse… and what must he see among the dusty heaps of old tomes, but a copy of that very collection of Greek poetry?
“How lovely,” he told himself, as he grabbed the book. There was something poetic in replacing, after all the years, and in this fortuitous manner, the book he’d lost as a student… He smiled at the yellowed cover, winced at the layer of dust (he’d have to to something about it before his wife caught sight of his prize) and, in what seemed to him like a touch of perfection, noticed that it was not just the same book, but the very same mid-Fifties edition of the one he’d lost…
But this only seemed so perfect because human faith in serendipity is, after all, rather limited, and there was more. There was better. When G. opened the cover, what do you think he found, glued inside? His own, decades-old ex-libris bookplate!
Things had come full circle, after all – and, as G. almost shyly whispered to me that afternoon years later, in the summer quiet of the library, when he walked home with his new old book in a paper bag, it was very much like bringing home an old friend, and even a scrap of youth found again.