Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Quest for a Rare Book

I read a lot. The amount of books I read has diminished in the past few years, but I still manage to stalk, overpower, consume, and digest several books a month. Lately I've been getting in on some of the audiobook phenomenon and it's been nice. Not extraordinary, because I will always love the weight and smell and feel of a true book*, but it has had its advantages, such as listening to beloved Narnia tales alongside my little lady.

*Before you label me as a "book hipster", I'll have you know that the word you're searching for is "bibliophile". I DO like reading ebooks but often find the process for adding books to my Kindle or smartphone akin to wrangling an ostrich into pajamas. One day I'll be able to take my Kindle into my local library and "e-borrow" (as much as I hate the fad of adding "i" or "e" in front of things to make them sound techy, I wasn't sure how to explain my idea) a book for three weeks. When that day comes, I'll drop real books like they're full of termites.

But there are certain books that cannot be downloaded, copied to a PDF, or sent to an e-reader. Neither would they fare well as an audiobook. This post is about such a book.

One of my most favorite man-made objects ever created is the Lockheed SR-71 stealth plane, nicknamed "Blackbird". You may not recognize the name, but you'll definitely recognize the plane. We're talking about an icon of American Freedom right up there with bald eagles and Abraham Lincoln.

Every time I look at that magnificent beast, I appreciate it even more.

The SR-71 retired from the skies when I was still in diapers so I have never seen one fly, but I have seen two of the exquisite creatures in person. One, in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, and the other in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Virginia. If I were to take a road trip starting at one museum and ending at the other, it would take me roughly 42 hours by car, traveling over 2,873 miles. The SR-71 could do the same trip in 1 hour, 8 minutes, and 17 seconds while averaging 2,112 miles per hour. Seriously, don't even get me started about this aircraft unless you want to be completely DELUGED with trivia.

But how does one become packed with trivia about an airplane that has little public information released? You read books about the airplane, of course! And the best books are written by the builders, the engineers, and the pilots that spent countless hours with the airplane. A few months ago I discovered an online article written by SR-71 pilot Brian Shul. The article was excellent and I wished there were more. In the comment section was a mention of a book Mr. Shul had published called "Sled Driver."

Cool, I thought. Maybe I'd buy a copy off Amazon. SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A USED COPY?? (or $1,999.95 + $3.99 shipping if you want the collectible version.) Good gracious, I haven't seen prices that bad since I bought textbooks for college classes. Perhaps I would download the book or borrow it from a library. NO DOWNLOADS OF ANY KIND AVAILABLE, EVEN THE ILLEGAL TYPE OF DOWNLOADS?? What kind of ultra-rare book am I dealing with here? It turns out that crafty Mr. Shul had released a very limited run of his book; a giant glossy coffee-table monopolizing tome filled with photographs that he personally took of the airplane. Supposedly, the way to sell expensive books is the following:

1. Take an exotic, secret aircraft that became an unrivaled champion of speed and stealth for decades, swath it in a cozy blanket of top secrecy.

2. Get selected for the grueling, extra-top secret SR-71 pilot program.

3. Pass aforementioned program training (along with the extra rigorous physical examinations) with sanity intact.

4. Fly the airplane successfully without piledriving into the ground at the 3 times the speed of sound.

5. Write a book about your experiences. Snap a few photos.


7. Profit.

Brian Shul has just recently re-released the book in another Limited Edition run with glossy golden book covers. Those copies, under the lofty title of SR71 Golden Anniversary Set are fetching the princely sum of, uh, $550? For a brand new book? Granted, that's still astronomical but used copies are more expensive than that. What's the deal, Amazon?

Faced with such a ghastly price tag, what was a purebred Mennonite to do? Acquiring a copy of the book just to read it became an obsession. None of the local libraries had a copy so I started looking into interlibrary loaning (or ILL for short), which is a cool book-sharing system (one could say that it's a SICK program hahahaha okay I'll stop). If a local library doesn't have a resource, it will reach out to its network of libraries to see if THEY have the resource. If they do, the local library will borrow it on your behalf. I started by asking the ponderously large Iowa City Public Library and they informed me that "...[ILL] is just for Iowa City residents, you country peasant!*"

"Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" -Monty Python

*I may have added the "you country peasant" part. In reality, the ICPL librarian I spoke to was stern but kind. That seems to be the norm for all librarians worldwide, as if they all attended the same college and learned how to be stern and informative and quiet hahahaha but seriously.

Next, I visited a small local library about five minutes from my home in the town of Wellman. The Wellman-Scofield Public Library is run by one of my most favorite librarians, a sweet lady named Carol. Carol is not stern in the slightest (maybe she missed the Stern Librarian course in college?), even when I forget to bring in my library card to borrow items...which is every single time I visit the library. I told her about the book, which by now had grown its own identity, that of an elusive hardcover unicorn. I admitted that I wouldn't be surprised if there were zero copies available. After all, who gives a $700 limited-run book to a public library? And what library would let grubby little kids mash their Cheeto-stained fingers all over the aforementioned $700 book?

Carol checked the ILL database that her library was affiliated with. The database contained literally dozens of libraries across the state of Iowa, which may come as a shock to those of you who thought Iowa contained 2.5 towns, at most. A most surprising search result came back: there was one copy of Sled Driver in the library database. Huzzah and hip hip hoorayyyyy! I nearly shouted, until I remembered I was in a library. Carol explained that she would have to send in a request to see if the library would send the copy to Wellman. If so, she would give me a call when the book arrived. I thanked her and left, knowing full well that no library in their right mind would transfer that book. After all, what library loans out a $700 book to let OTHER library districts get their Cheeto-crusted fingerprints all over it?

The Harlan Community Library in Harlan, Iowa, that's who.

Carol called me several weeks later and told me that my book had came in. I didn't have to be reminded which book she was referring to. I rushed over to the library and picked it up.

 *reverent whisper* I FOUND ONE IN THE WILD.

The book was extremely good, just as I had hoped. I took my time and enjoyed reading through the chapters, getting to know the author and the plane just a little bit more.

It cost me $1.50 in ILL postage to read this book. Take that, Amazon resellers! 

I was tempted to take a photo of every single page and make a PDF or eBook but I decided against it because A) the real book is just too wonderful to confine to a series of photos and B) the pursuit of the book was half the fun.

After I finished reading the book, I passed it on to my dad, and then my fiance's dad. Is it a coincidence that I'm marrying a woman whose father loves the same aircraft that I do? Yes, that part was a coincidence.

Brian Shul is truly an amazing author, and like many have already commented on forums and Amazon comment sections, Brian makes you feel like you're in the cockpit with him. The book didn't contain the story I had read online, which I found slightly odd...WHAT!? Brian Shul wrote another book, entitled "The Untouchables"? I MUST ACQUIRE A COPY.

*Checks Amazon* Amazon wants $200 for a used "In good shape" copy of The Untouchables?? *sigh* The book is about as difficult to obtain as its name implies.

Those of you who have been following the links in this article saw that the SR-71 Golden Anniversary Set includes a copy of Sled Driver and The Untouchables. The Mennonite in me wants to buy the Golden Anniversary set for $550, read the books several times, then run to Amazon to sell Sled Driver for $700 and The Untouchables for $200, thereby making a fabulous profit.

Eh, maybe I'll just check my local library again.

Small local librarys are truly lovely. Take a little time out of your week to stop in and visit yours.