My first job in New York was close enough to the Strand to drop by on my lunch hour. One day I came back to work pleased with myself, having found the last books I needed to complete the New York Edition of Henry James—the two volumes of The Ambassadors. The pleasure must have shown on my face, because it immediately caught the attention of my colleague George, whose wily old eyes followed me with increasing suspicion as I set down the books, put on my white coat, and sat at the workstation next to him.
“What’s got you so happy?” he said in his light Southern growl.
Now in his eighties, George had emeritus status in our department, and saw a light schedule of patients every Wednesday afternoon. These were mostly women of a certain age, who cabbed down from the Upper East Side and looked impossibly elegant walking the institutional corridors of the clinic. Our hospital wasn’t really big enough or distinguished enough to have emeriti, but we’d made George one because no other institution would. A lot of people still hated George, and the honors he expected after a long and distinguished career in academic dermatology (which included chairing two major departments) had been denied him. Each year my boss put him up for the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, assembling a thick dossier of publications and letters of support to accompany the nomination, and each year someone on the committee blackballed him. In his prime, George had been notorious for subjecting residents and fellows to public humiliation. Those who’d witnessed him in action recalled it with a shudder, even decades later: He was just vicious. It was really unnecessary. And now those residents and fellows were chairs themselves. George had trained them well.
I never saw the malevolent, vindictive side of George. And that’s an understatement. Rather than getting grilled on differential diagnoses in front of a packed auditorium, or dismissed with annihilating contempt when my answers came up short, I got back rubs. If George found me sitting alone at the workstation, he’d come up behind, drop a big hand on each of my shoulders, and give a surprisingly powerful squeeze. George’s clawlike hands still had a lot of grip in them. These massages never went on for long. I’d squirm away, he’d laugh, and we’d both get back to work. But the old stories of George dominating grand rounds with his relentless bullying were not hard for me to believe. A hint of the same aggressive energy persisted in the attention I received from him, harmless as it was.
When I asked about George, an older dermatologist who’d trained under him said, “He’s clearly gay, but I don’t think he’s ever—there’s never been anyone, that I know of. Nothing open, at least. George has always been a ‘confirmed bachelor’”—the dermatologist waggled his fingers to indicate scare quotes—“which was the only option in those days, if you wanted to chair a department.”
In conversation George often maintained eye contact a beat longer than normal, which had the effect of putting an unspoken question in the air. But the day I returned from the Strand, his eyes were darting all over me, trying to figure out what I’d been doing. “What’s got you so pleased? What’ve you been up to?”
“I went to the Strand during lunch.”
The teasing look dropped from his face. His eyes went dead. Only then did he notice the yellow bag on the desk. “That what you got?”
“Show me.” I pulled out one of the volumes and handed it to him. He looked at the cover. He didn’t open it. “Henry James,” he read, then slowly shook his head, a sardonic smile forming on his lips. “Is this what you run out on your lunch hour to do? This is what you want to get out of life?”
The answers to George’s questions were yes and yes, but I couldn’t say that to him. I knew how he’d react, and I didn’t want to hear it. George was always after me to publish in the big derm journals, submit my name for junior positions on Academy committees. And while I was willing to accept his mentorship within the field of dermatology, what I did with my life outside that—well, let’s just say George didn’t strike me as a good example to emulate. I figured I could do a lot better on my own.
About a decade earlier, when I was still a medical student, I’d found thirteen of the twenty-six volumes of the New York Edition of Henry James. They were in a cardboard box on the sidewalk outside a bookdealer’s shop in West LA. The dealer came hurrying out when he saw me looking at them.
“That’s a broken set,” he said right away. “They’re not all there.”
“I understand,” I said, still kneeling over them.
Asked about price, he named such an impossibly low figure—I think it was ten bucks—that I wanted to snatch up the box immediately; but before I could, he said they were for sale under one condition: that I never try to complete the set.
“Because you won’t be able to do it! You’ll drive yourself crazy looking! Don’t even try!”
He was like the guy in an old movie who staggers out of the desert, utters these fateful words, and dies. I’m sure he meant well, but I didn’t think I needed his advice—from what I could see, there didn’t seem enough overlap between our lives for it to apply.
“Promise me you won’t do it,” he insisted.
I tried to laugh off his warning.
“I’m serious! I’m not letting you have these if you don’t promise.”
I have made three public pledges in my life: the Hippocratic oath, my wedding vows, and this one, the promise I made to this desperate, broken man, standing on the sidewalk of Westwood Boulevard.
I promised: “I won’t look for them.”
“OK,” said the man, visibly relieved. And let me take the box.
As I drove away in my secondhand Tercel, the box of books riding alongside me in the passenger seat, my heart began pumping with dark joy. Because I would find the rest of those books. I knew I would. If the world was one enormous shelf, somewhere along its length—it might be at mile two or mile two thousand—were the books I was looking for. They were out there, and I was coming for them.
In the end it took me ten years—nearly a third of my life at the time. Our lives are meaningless without desires, and for a decade I had the good fortune to live a life replete with meaning. Every bookshelf I came across put me under a kind of spell, while my eyes scanned for the telltale spines: black, with a gilt-edged blue band, or if they still had dust jackets (highly preferable), a distinctive, elegant blue-gray, the color of a smoky Venetian dusk. Most of the thirteen were found in used-book stores, but I discovered one at a public library sale in Memphis, Tennessee, and came across several more—they were volumes I already had, alas—at a yard sale in the Poconos. I even spotted a set on a White House tour. The set was complete, but lacked dust jackets. Security was too tight to risk snatching a volume.
The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition presents the works of the Master that he chose to preserve for posterity in a deluxe, uniform edition. In it, James collected (and recollected) himself. Scribner’s offered to publish a complete works in thirty-five volumes, but James insisted on limiting it to a selection. According to biographer Leon Edel, the number of volumes he originally fixed upon for the New York Edition—twenty-three—held special significance for James, but he had miscalculated and could no longer squeeze all the material into that size. The twenty-four volumes of the 1907–09 first edition—followed by two posthumous volumes in 1919—contain the famous prefaces, written specifically for the edition, in which James sets down his thoughts on the art of fiction. In several cases the donnée, or germ, of his most famous stories is disclosed as well.
To be clear, my collection is not an original 1907–09 set, with photogravure frontispieces by Alvin Langdon Coburn, but the uniform reprint edition put out by Scribner’s in the ’60s. I did come across a complete first-edition set once, in the kind of antiquarian shop—Oriental rugs, polished library tables, busts of Dante and Cicero—that doesn’t put prices in its books. But I wouldn’t spend that much on Henry James even if I could afford to. What would be the point? It’d just spoil the fun.
Same thing with the internet. Nowadays, thirty minutes on Bookfinder, Amazon, and eBay is all you need to complete even the most broken set of the New York Edition. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for packages to arrive. You’ll get the books you want, but you’ll pay a premium, and not only in terms of price. Immediate gratification achieves the former at the expense of the latter. The pre-internet way of searching for a find—hunting through used-book stores, crouching among the mildew and dust—wasn’t efficient, but it served a purpose. All that time spent looking kindled desire. It made the book you wanted seem even more precious. All those afternoons when I found nothing—and that I regarded as futile and wasted—were in fact forging value, as with each passing hour, with every scanned shelf, the sought-for titles grew more desirable in my mind.
And then when I actually found one, I couldn’t believe my eyes. That’s what happened during my lunch hour that day at the Strand. I wasn’t expecting anything, just popped into the “J” aisle as part of my usual rounds, and there they were: volumes 21 and 22, The Ambassadors, in beautiful “near fine” condition, unmarked except for the burnished patina unhandled books acquire with the passage of thirty tranquil years. A wondering sense of disbelief swept over me as I pulled them from the shelf; even held in my hands, they didn’t seem quite real. And of my feet carrying me to the checkout counter, or floating up Broadway to return to work, I have no memory.
For a collector, a great find always makes life feel, for the moment, like a dream. You cannot believe your luck. Suddenly the everyday world isn’t big enough to contain your happiness. The expanding joy crowds out everything else. In those moments, there is only the dream.
Of course, this state of affairs can’t go on forever. Something always wakes you up. For me that day in the clinic, it was George.
In our year of working together, it had occurred to me more than once that George was a bit of a Jamesian character himself. There was the same crepuscular fondness of the aging-but-still-feeling man for the unformed, promising youth (that would be me). But unlike the original ambassador, Lambert Strether, George never said, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to”—he didn’t even read those words, though he could have that day in the clinic. All he had to do was open to page 217. But an outburst like Strether’s—summoned through the deep and difficult work of reckoning with one’s life experience—wasn’t really George’s style. Whatever “reaction against the mistake” he might have felt was not a matter he was willing to disclose—not to me, anyway.
“I want you to tell me something,” he said, gazing pensively at the book in his hands.
“All right,” I said.
He didn’t continue right away, though I could see he was about to. Something was on his mind. The little muscles at the corners of his mouth were working while he thought out the best way to put it. Speaking slowly, snapping out each word like a cardsharp laying down a winning hand, he said: “What has Henry James ever done for you?”
He raised a bristly gray eyebrow in quivering triumph.
“Think about it,” he said, and tossed the book at me.
For a terrifying instant the book bounced around in my juggling grasp, until I managed to grab hold of it and, with shaking hands, restore it to the safety of the bag. When I looked up, George was watching me. The question he had asked still hung in the air, but I just smiled and gave no answer. George nodded, having expected as much. To him, there was no answer to his question—only the obvious “nothing.” The question was meant to be a trap, and he’d sprung it perfectly.
In 1907, when Henry James received the first volume of the New York Edition from his publishers, he wrote back to them, “The whole is a perfect felicity, so let us go on rejoicing.” And that’s pretty much what I had done for those ten happy years: rejoiced from one store to another, one book to the next. And now the whole was complete. That evening I would slide the final volumes into their place on the shelf.
I could have tried explaining this to George, but I didn’t think he would get it. Whatever I had to say for myself would be overcome by his innate hostility. Like many people (most people, actually), he thought my time would be far better spent playing tennis, or networking to further my career—anything but combing through used-book stores in search of some grimy tome. But we can’t always expect our pleasures to be understood. That’s asking too much of them. It’s enough that they please us. We live the way we can, and take what joy we’re given. It’s a mistake not to. And while he would never say so, I had the feeling that on some level George understood this too.
 This is Leon Edel’s idea, and I don’t know how accepted it is by other scholars. He writes: “The choice of 23 volumes was thus not arbitrary. There seems to have been a special reason for it. The figure seems indeed to have had a certain magical quality for James; when he needs a date, a youthful age, a general number, he often fixes on 23.” Edel then quotes a bit of dialogue from The Awkward Age: “I see you go in for sets… big sets. What’s this— ‘Vol 23 The British Poets.’ Vol 23 is delightful—do tell me about Vol 23.” Edel goes on to some psychological speculation—that James was always the third person in relations with his mother and brother, that his aunt Kate was the third person in his parents’ marriage. “Triangular relations are at the heart of his novels.” Finally Edel notes that Balzac’s complete works came out in 23 volumes, a numerical fact noted by James in his first essay on Balzac, the novelist James considered “the father of us all.”