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On a narrow, unassuming road within the bustling, chaotic streets of Boston, the Brattle Book Shop stood quietly and welcoming. As I leapt from the warm interior of our cab, I raced through the rain and stepped through the book shop’s doors. The second I took in the perfectly lined shelves stacked high with books, and the winding staircase that led to the two stories above me- also filled with books- I couldn’t contain my excitement. In fact, I’m certain I positively glowed as I gazed gleefully around me. I remember feeling this way when stepping into a brightly-lit candy shop as a child and inhaling the temptingly sweet aroma of all the colorful candies and chocolate. Only this time I was inhaling a scent much richer and tempting- that of old and well-loved novels. I trailed my fingertips along the worn and colorful spines as I winded my way down each aisle, my mind racing as I imagined all the wonderful stories being played out within those covers. I knew I wouldn’t be leaving empty-handed, but I needed to pick the one. But how to choose in a book shop this big?
I slowly made my way to the top floor of Brattle’s where the rare and antiquarian books were located. I froze at the top of the staircase- my gaze falling upon novels and tomes that have clearly been around a lot longer than I have. I took in the faded leather bindings and pages browned with age and inhaled the euphoric scent of antiquated novels. Oh yeah. I was in bookworm heaven! To say I lost myself in enjoyment and pleasure as I gently and reverently picked up novels in every genre imaginable, from centuries long-past, would be an understatement. I just knew the one I was looking for was located on this floor…and it took me quite a while to find it.
I found “the one” while ambling past the section labeled “Civil War”. A small, unassuming brown novel with the faded words “The Female Spy” on its spine was tucked away in the looming shadows of much larger novels. I can’t exactly say what made me pause and pick it up. Maybe it was the interesting title? Or the soft brown fabric with the unique floral design? I still honestly don’t know. I flipped the cover open and saw that it was printed in 1864 in Boston and was written by S. Emma E. Edmonds. The full title was “The Female Spy of the Union Army. The Thrilling Adventures, Experiences, and Escapes of a Woman, as Nurse, Spy, and Scout, In Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields.” It was quite the title- and my interest was instantly piqued. I found it intriguing that the publisher basically apologized for some of the alarming and unnatural content- such as the descriptions of the female author having to dress as a man! (how risqué!). They went on to say that the author’s morals should not be questioned as everything was done for patriotism and for a good cause. My how the times have changed! It made me chuckle to think of all the warnings that would need to be placed in modern literature. Can you picture this 19th century publisher reading Fifty Shades of Grey? I envision the Foreword reading something like:
The content of this novel does not reflect the beliefs, opinions, and morals of this publishing house. Some of the content (most of it actually) may be disturbing to readers. If you do not wish for your delicate sensibilities and own moral fortitude to be otherwise discomposed, we ask that you heed this warning- this novel depicts a young woman placed in a somewhat binding and disturbing relationship with a more mature, though sadly spiritually conflicted, man of a much higher standing in society. Should you be offended by any of the following, we ask that you do not proceed beyond the Foreword. These topics of debauchery will be thoroughly addressed and demonstrated: the loss of virginity outside of matrimony, a contract of a darkly sexual manner, and the use of devices to stimulate a physical response from its recipient.
I then proceeded to read the first chapter and was instantly hooked! Though the price tag on the novel made me shudder a bit- I knew I had found a lovely little gem that would keep me entertained. Learning that it was a first edition was equally thrilling. After stepping out of Brattle Book Shop with my bag clutched happily in my hands, I found myself missing the shop’s comforting interior. It truly is one of the best places to visit in Boston if you find joy in books the way I do.
Stay tuned for my review of The Female Spy!