Tuesday, July 17, 2018
a cold day in july
Hey, friends. Long time no post. It's high summer around here and life has been overly full of wonderfulness. That is, whenever I am able to calm the nearly constant low-level (or high-level...) nausea induced by the news. Which news? All of the news. Pick a topic. Utterly revolting. As usual I feel like a dormouse, a tiny anonymous creature unwillingly caught up in some huge dire storm, and all I want to do is sleep and sleep until better days return. Unpossible, however. There is always good work to be done, so I do some of that whenever I can. Like write to our (Republican) senator again, urging her to do whatever she can to withstand and overturn All Things Tr*mp. (Can't bear to write his name, frankly.) It's hard not to feel insignificant, in the face of world events. Byron's famous words come to mind, as they often do this time of year:
"When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning - how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse."
Why do people in power not see this and act accordingly, I wonder. The only possible answers feel so tawdry and small - money, power, and the perceived importance thereof. Sigh. Yes, as I said, life is full of wonderful things and I do my best to live in that place, but it's chilly and foggy here on the coast of Maine this morning and I have been watching the news and I am not in the best mood. Maybe I shouldn't be writing. But when the sun returns I'll be back outside, far away from my computer, so here we are, right now. Let's make the best of it.
Shall we speak of books, while the Titanic steams cheerfully toward the iceberg? I read a novel recently, a huge contemporary novel by an award-winning author of many such. It looked promising. As its hundreds of pages turned slowly over I found myself caring about some of the characters, who were lovingly described by the writer throughout decades of their lives. There was so much good in this book. First and foremost a real sense of place and time. There was also so much I was not willing to suspend my disbelief for. I kept thinking, He would never say that, and She would never do that. Then, the ending of the novel contained a veritable cascade of deaths, of most of the problematic characters. Also not believable, and it felt like an easy short cut on the author's part, to finish a major literary work in that way. I don't know, though, who am I to say. Since I can't fathom what it would take to create an entire fictional world in such great detail, and people it, and see it through to some kind of denouement. Out of respect for the writer and some dormousy single-mindedness of my own I stuck it out to the end, reading it all, instead of setting the book aside. I also wanted to find out what happened to the one character I cared most about (she didn't die, but things she did still felt inexplicable to me - most unsatisfying).
I turned to nonfiction soon after that, with a distinct feeling of relief. I had to clear off the bedside table recently since the books there were merely languishing and had been for weeks and weeks. I tried Longfellow's diaries, from the Barbara Falk set. I tried a few other items of note but nothing was really clicking. I tore through Bill Browder's harrowing memoir Red Notice (Simon & Schuster 2015); gripping, but over too quickly and still very much an ongoing tale. Then during my quest to bookplate much of the contents of the book room I came across Alec Guinness's diaries again, and couldn't remember if I'd read the first one, last year after reading all that John le Carré (editorial comment: Spies, Russia, omg, it all happens irl not only in books...). Anyway, if I did read it, I just read it again with great pleasure: My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor (Viking 1996; with a preface by John le Carré, which I do remember reading last year). I immediately read his next and last volume, A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98 (Viking 1999) and loved that too. A dry and honest look at life and aging. He often mentions the books he loves - "Montaigne is always a wonderful bed companion, particularly when you are feeling peevish and a bit low. The Essays would be my Desert Island book above all others." (My Name Escapes Me p.102). He speaks of friends and memories from his acting career. He admires Frances Partridge when he meets her, reads Patrick O'Brian novels and the diaries of James Lees-Milne, and one of his good friends is Alan Bennett.
Which led me to pick up a book I ordered in late 2016 and was so looking forward to reading, I mean I couldn't wait for it to be published, then the election happened and my heart for doing much of anything drained away. I set a lot of things aside and Alan Bennett was on the shelf, until now. I just took him back down and started Keeping on Keeping On (Faber & Faber 2016), and this really fits the bill - a big collection of his writings, the first 400+ pages of which are his recent diaries, catching me up since the last ones I read, in his Untold Stories (Picador 2005). I'm only a few pages in, but am feeling right at home already.
Anyway, the point to today's long ramble is this: yet again I find myself preferring The Book of Things That Actually Happened over The Novel in Which They Didn't. A wild generalization but I am sure that readers and friends have come to expect these from time to time, here.
Well, I have written myself out of the doldrums. When the fog lifts, as it soon must, I will be here, with echoes of Alec Guinness:
"Sat in the sun for half an hour, drinking in the light greenness of everything, ruminating and wandering idly in my thoughts." (ibid p. 171)
July. Oh glorious summer. Let's keep a weather eye out for those icebergs and enjoy it while we may.
Tuesday, June 05, 2018
my ex (libris)
Thin cold rain is falling outside and a fire in the woodstove is slowly warming up Hodge, the room, and myself, in that order. (Hodge is closest. He's no fool.) The days are ridiculously full lately but this is a good quiet afternoon to continue our talk about books and bookplates for a bit. And the weather outside suits my interior mood quite well: a bit down, to be honest. Like the barometer, and the rain. Because as I work my way slowly along all the shelves in the book room, I find myself wanting to break up with some of my books. Books I loved for years! The ones I am thinking of repel all attempts at linking our names inextricably forever, by accepting my bookplates into their pages. Their endpapers contain maps or elaborate illustrations right out to their edges. Other pages contain half-titles, bookplates from previous owners, designs, what-have-you. No place whatsoever to put a bookplate. And let's not even talk about subject matter or specific authors. Well, let's, just for a second. A few authors in particular seem to be quite clear that there is NO ROOM in our relationship for any kind of reciprocity, from a basic, polite, readerly friendship to anything more serious than that - with their books it's truly The Them Show, and that's all there is to it. Kind of reminds me of someone I once knew very well. Someone no longer in my life, who made very little room for me, long ago, when I didn't even know I needed room simply to exist.
But those were during the dark ages. The years B.R., as we call them around here (Before Ryan). I have oceans of room now, and I don't want to dwell on any exes. And I don't even want to name any names! Of old friends, or of those authors whose books I bought religiously when I was in my 20s and 30s and then slowly stopped buying in my 40s and now at 50 find myself eyeing askance, while thinking Do we really know each other any more? And Why did things change between us? It's too sad to contemplate for long - we want the books we love to always be the books we love! At least I do, I know I don't speak for anyone else. Right now I'm not exactly culling the shelves of these lost loves, but I am not putting my bookplates in them, that much is certain. And they may indeed go, in the near future, to make more room for...
...all the beloved books. Let's mention some of those. It is a joy to visit with them anew, in my current quest to add bookish ephemera to the continuum of such. I was thinking the other day about how much ephemera I seem to generate, in life. Scads of it! When I had my bookshop, a local letterpress printer made several different bookmarks for me, and the shop receipts, and business cards. The shop was listed (and my antiques mall booth is still listed) in the local antiquarian and used book guide. I used to work in collage, and had files and files full of old paper scraps and images all sorted by subject. I also used to do quite a bit of letterpress printing, and made broadsides, miniature books (both printed and blank), not-so-miniature books, in editions and as one-of-a-kind items. Then as a painter I had postcards printed for various shows and for my new business cards, and in the past few years my solo painting shows have existed not only up on the walls of the gallery but also in printed catalogues for those shows. And now I am offering a few books I made using Blurb, on my painting website. And of course, I am putting these glorious commissioned bookplates into my dearest books, one by one. I think I've bookplated (new verb I just invented) around a hundred and fifty art books so far, and possibly two hundred other books, in the subjects of poetry, travel, memoir, and literature.
Interestingly, the subject that seems to me to accept bookplateage (new noun I just invented) most readily is that of belles-lettres. The books I have in this catch-all genre feel perfect for the addition of bookplates inside their front or back covers. Because let's face it, bookplates can feel a bit belles-lettrish in general. Twee, even. As do little essay collections about this and that. They are a match made in heaven, in my book. (Sorry.) Authors not widely known, almost always out of print, often considered minor (hate that), who may have written for literary magazines long ago, then collected their journalism, essays, and occasional writings into tidy cloth hardcovers and given them titles like Lemon Verbena (by E.V. Lucas, Lippincott 1932) or Pleasures and Palaces (by Frances and Gertrude Warner, Houghton Mifflin 1933). I love these collections of essays, reviews, short unclassifiable pieces, almanac-style materials, daybooks. In fact in spending time with my books in this close way, I have come to the conclusion that this genre might be one of my favorite of all. I do love diaries, and collected letters, and memoirs, and art books in which the artist writes about life and work, but yes I do love these odd little collections of sweet nothings so very very much. I can hardly say why. I am trying! Like, Old Junk (by H.M. Tomlinson, Jonathan Cape 1925). And Personal Pleasures (by Rose Macaulay, I have a softcover reprint, I pine for a first edition: Victor Gollancz 1935). I think of Horace Walpole and his dislike of epic literature and his love of the bibelot instead, and feel sympathy with him once more, as I did so often when I was reading his letters. Sometimes I do not want some big narrative or an entire novel or biography. I just want a bit of good literature: interesting, well-written, short, intelligent, about the stuff of life.
These are books and authors I cannot envision ever breaking up with. They contain lifetimes of steady enjoyment. They make room for the reader. And I may even rearrange my bookshelves, quite soon, to make more room for them. I am thinking of splitting off contemporary fiction and novels into their own bookcases, and creating a new section only for belles-lettres. Right now they are scattered throughout literature, reference books, literary criticism, even in travel, and books-about-books (where Christopher Morley resides, and lord knows he published many collections that could well be classified as belles-lettres). I'd like to have at least a shelf or two of these books. I'd like to visit some used book shops and find more! My bookplates sure love them, and as I already said several times, so do I. It bears repeating.
Thursday, May 17, 2018
A bit of unfinished business, for posterity, or rather for us kindred book-lovers. A kind note arrived from the far side of the world, via the comments then with a clarifying follow-up, from long-time friend-in-books Antony, after he read my post from early May about the blue Leary's price mark in the Longfellow set I bought from bookseller Barbara Falk. Antony informs me that page 198 of Christopher Morley's book of essays Off the Deep End (Doubleday, Doran 1928) adds focus to the blurry picture. Thank you! Excellent! I went to find my own copy, which I have not read in many years, and turned to that page, and the essay Ex Libris Carissimis, and followed along:
"...Leary's old bookstore in Philadelphia, where I first learned something of the pleasures of book-hunting.... Compared to most of Leary's alumni I am a mere freshman; it is only a little over twenty years since I bought my first Leary book as a boy of sixteen. Mr. A. Edward Newton, at the celebration dinner given in the store, was bragging that it was forty-seven years since he made his first purchase there, a copy of White's Selborne, and there are many of Leary's bibliophiladelphians far more veteran than he. But for him, as for me and innumerable others, Leary lit the lamp.... Though the Caliph Newton's little copy of Selborne, when he showed it to me, did not seem a genuine Leary trove because it antedated the days of the little price-figure written in blue pencil with a slanting dash above it - Philip Warner's hand, I believe. That, for us of the later generations, is the sterling stigma of Leariana."
Bibliophiladelphians. I ask you. And now one of our bookstore clerks has a name, Philip Warner. Not just any clerk, however. He appears in passing in Morley's books - Plum Pudding and The Haunted Bookshop - and in the essay Gentles, Attend! (printed as a scarce broadside essay from 1920, relevant parts of which are available to read on the google machine for free if you don't happen to have a copy of Christopher Morley's Philadelphia hanging around, p.93). Morley informs us in that essay that Philip Warner of Leary's is:
"...a man of strict serenity, righteous heart and fluent mind, a man of logic, a man of pity and easy bowels. A man of whom it is said: "He is always out at lunch,(") and therefore a man placable by oyster stew or a dozen of doughnuts such as may be found at Johnson's Doughnut Shop, Chestnut Street, north side between 9th and 10th. This is the optimus maximus of booksellers. He will do as I bid him: I hold him to the hollow of my palm. An he do not comport himself with charity, I will make him the villain of a bookshop melodrama."
Echoes upon echoes from the old days. But not all that old, in truth. I remember Barbara Falk telling me she attended a lecture that Morley gave, when he was getting on in years and she was quite young. Then I met her, when I was young and she was 80-ish. Only a few degrees of separation! It's lovely (and the kind of melancholy I savor most) to contemplate these days gone by, as I continue to add bookplates into my books. As I work my way along, I am particularly enjoying the timeless vagaries of alphabetical order. In the poetry shelves, Patti Smith comes just after James Schuyler and Sir Philip Sidney and just before a gorgeous old set of Spenser's Faerie Queene (Oxford's Clarendon Press edition in dust jackets). I haven't begun the literature section yet and expect more of the same there - the new and the old and the middling, sitting companionably together. But Morley? Well. He has entire shelves all to himself.
Monday, May 14, 2018
enough books for today
Remember the writing-about-one-book-at-a-time thing I was considering recently? I am still considering doing so. But today isn't that day, because here I am wanting to clean up the big stack of books next to me and tidy them away in the book room, but I can't seem to do so until I mention them here first. And discuss a few in detail. With pictures. I am still putting bookplates into my books (and will be for quite some time), and also attended a most excellent little library book sale last week. So, some new stuff to delve into. The book sale haul first. I bought five bags of books for about $85, and after sorting them all out, cleaning, coding, and pricing most of them, these are what is left over for me to investigate before taking any other drastic action:
A few of these I want to read, a few I want to own for keeps, a few I just want to browse through before attempting to sell, one I want to give away as a gift, and one I will destroy in the process of turning some of its pages into a collage. I used to do a lot of that, before painting became ascendant in my art-life. Long story for another day. Today - these books. I won't name them all, but the keepers include the short humorous novel by J. Trevor Story, The Trouble with Harry (Macmillan 1950), a first edition, interesting to me because I always liked the film Alfred Hitchcock made from the book. But I didn't know it was a book until I saw it at the sale! Maybe I will give it a try, since it looks Thurberesque and highly readable, and one of the characters is a painter. Other keepers include a softcover reprint of something actually Thurberesque, Thurber's The 13 Clocks (Penguin 2008) with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, then the John Dos Passos collection - "articles and scraps of narrative" says the printed note inside - In All Countries (Harcourt, Brace 1934, second printing), and Paul Auster's novel In the Country of Last Things (Viking 1987, a really nice first edition in a near fine jacket). Also, a reprint of The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser (Paris Press 1996), inside the front cover of which is a note written in faint pencil, thus:
"I am the poet
of small graces..."
Indeed. Will keep, will read, and will take to heart. Sometimes what is written inside books is so quietly stunning and mysterious. Such as. I blinked and I may have even gasped when I opened up one of the Richard Russo hardcovers, and saw this:
What do I do with that? I didn't even know it was signed when I bought it for two bucks. Much less inscribed to some other Sarah, who cast it aside so that I might pick it up. I see that one of the main characters is also named Sarah, and another main character is a painter in Venice. Suppose I'd better read this book...! After I finish another book from this photo, which I have already begun: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Viking 2012) and which is utterly fantastic so far, the kind of book you wish you had the ability and experience to be able to write yourself. Full report on that one whenever I finish it.
By the way, the other Richard Russo hardcover in the photo is also signed, although not to anyone in particular, as is the Terry Tempest Williams book. As I said, that was a really fine little book sale! Still basking in its glow, over a week later.
Enough books for now? No? A few more then, from my own shelves. One I struggled with, regarding the questions of: Should really I put my bookplate in this thing, and if so, where?
Somewhat shabby, it's true, but still a lovely old copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Rees Welsh & Co 1882). I offered this for sale some years back then decided to keep it for my very own. So, yes to a bookplate. But where? I mean, you open the front cover and there's a veritable circus already underway in there:
We have a publisher's ad tipped in along the gutter, the name of a previous owner, a stamp from another owner, a bookseller's code, and another bookseller's ticket! What to do. The next page is blank except for my own tiny pencil price, now no longer relevant, but I leave it there for old times' sake. So, inside the back cover we go instead, and yes, there is room there. I chose the pastedown, just opposite another piece of ephemera from the publisher, which is laid in, loose, and pleads with us to sell Rees Welsh & Co. our fine libraries and book collections:
I think my hand trembled a bit when I added my bookplate to this jumble. WHEW. This can be nerve-wracking! I have another copy of Leaves of Grass, a later reading copy (Small, Maynard & Company 1897) bound in green buckram, which also now carries my bookplate. I feel stealthy and greedy with two interesting copies of this beloved text, but it is such a good feeling, I must say, so I am going with it. But back to the 1882 printing, in the olive cloth, for a moment - the title page lifts my heart whenever I gaze at it, so here it is:
The text is lovely too. A sample, with the beginning of one of my favorite poems in the whole book, On the Beach at Night, which never fails to prickle my skin:
One more book? How about that large blue hardcover I used to keep the olive Leaves of Grass open, to show the spine and front cover in the photo above? Okay, here it is. I am still working my way through the poetry books, but am finished with those now, except for some strays here and there, and some anthologies. Carl Sandburg was in the Ss.
It was priced at $15. A bit high for this copy, even then, but I bought it anyway. Because the bookseller in question hadn't taken the time to flip one more page in, to see this other ink signature. Unmistakable, his handwriting, written with a generously fat-nibbed fountain pen:
Back to the shelves now with all of these books and more - enough for today!
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
Eight years ago I wrote a brief elegy for bookseller Barbara Falk. I bought some wonderful books from her when she kept shop on the Castine road, and when I wrote that elegy, I couldn't find one of the very books I most wanted to describe. All I could remember about the purchase was her voice, clearly saying, when I bought it, "No self-respecting antiquarian bookseller would ever be without it!" (She had many strong opinions such as this and I loved her for it.) Well, some time ago, probably during one of the last rearrangements of the book room, I found it. Or rather, them, since it is a set. I wanted to write about them before now, but today is the day, because I took them off the shelf as I worked my way along, deciding which books to put bookplates in and which not. This is the section I am in right now - poetry - and I put bookplates in a few volumes by or about Keats, then came to the Ls:
Why the cover cloth is so very teal in this picture I do not know, all I know is that I could not get the camera to read the dark forest green that it truly is. Anyway. There they are. In all their glory, the Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edited by Samuel Longfellow (Ticknor and Company). Volumes I and II are the second edition from 1886 and Final Memorials (ibid) is a first edition from 1887. Longfellow's translation of The Divine Comedy is a reprint (Houghton, Mifflin 1895) and the Library of America edition (2000) of his Poems and Other Writings is faintly waterstained along its bottom edge but otherwise decent and readably compact, for all its 850 pages. But back to Barbara Falk, Bookseller. FINALLY, after eight years (I said back then that someday, there the book would be, in my hand, and lo it has come to pass), here is her notation inside the cover of Volume I:
The blue grease pencil is the old price from Leary's, in Philadelphia. Barbara made a note of it, in pencil. Out of the picture, on the opposite endpaper, she also wrote, with another arrow, "note price mark" - and I wrote, with my own arrow pointing at that, "written by Castine bookseller Barbara Falk" - and now, the crucial question. Since I still have the set, after all these years, and I still have Barbara's voice ringing in ears (am I a "self-respecting antiquarian bookseller" now? was I once? have I ever been?). Should I put my bookplate in this set? And if yes, where? The endpapers are already carrying a heavy information load. Besides all the notes, I also see my own price code (inside the back cover, on the free endpaper), and my actual retail price too (inside the front cover, on the free endpaper), because I attempted to sell this set in my shop, pretty much the entire time I had a shop. I also see some erasures - notes Barbara either made or erased herself, from some previous bookseller unbeknowst to me. I must say I do like this line of succession: Leary's, for $4.00; then Barbara Falk, and I see from my price code that she charged me $22.50 for the set, in 2001; then I had it for sale for $80.00 in my shop (no wonder no one would buy it!). Since the internet scythed used book prices down to bare stubble many years ago, I wonder what I would price it at now, if I were ever to offer it for sale again. Off the top of my head, I would say $40.00, or perhaps $35.00, but I still don't think it would sell, at that price. Not for a few years, anyway. However, that price does strike me as cheap but fair, and the set is in very good condition overall, with just a bit of edgewear and bumping to the cloth covers and light foxing to the endpapers. But. This is all a moot point, because now and possibly forever, it's NFS.
I didn't know when Leary's closed, so I looked it up on the google and quickly found out this most interesting fact: the library at Temple University owns the Leary's archive. The papers look fascinating in their minutae - correspondence, contracts of employment (with names! yay bookstore clerks! otherwise lost in the mists of time!), book orders, sales records, catalogues, posters, prints, photographs, glass negatives, ledgers, and on and on. My, my. The library at Temple employed my father, and he also attended art school in Philadelphia, and surely went to Leary's. He read books like other people do something so common that it would make a great simile if only I could think of one that was apt without sounding trite. In short, he was a reader. Leary's closed in 1969, when I was still a baby, so I never made it there myself, as far as I know. I wish I had. I'll ask my mother, since she too was in art school in Philadelphia. I love that blue grease pencil mark. Someone in receiving - one of those clerks - unpacked the boxes from Ticknor and Company, checked the books against the invoice, and priced the books accordingly. I am a little embarrassed to mention that many of the pages in this set are still uncut. Shall I actually cut all the pages and read it someday? I wonder. I think I shall, since I just made a discovery. I always thought Final Memorials was a tribute volume, with copious other people's funerary remarks and memories of Longfellow. But opening it now, I see otherwise. It is actually Longfellow's journals and selected correspondence, from 1829 through 1882! And they look marvellous! New diaries to read, I cannot wait. Spotted at random, and seems fitting, even though the sun is shining at this moment - from early May, 1872 (p.185):
"5th. A dreary day. Paced up and down the veranda..."
One more note of discovery - I now also see that the set had at least one other owner, besides me, Barbara Falk, and Leary's, because there is a name written on the title page, and a date of 1894, and inside the back cover of just the Final Memorials volume, another small bookseller's mark in pencil, stating the price at $3.00 and the initials or abbreviation "hby" all in lower case. A price or inventory or date code? That clerk? A location within the store? I suppose I'll never know.
If there is still any question by now, then yes, I will add my bookplate to all these layers of occupation. And I'll be sure to pick a good spot for it and leave lots of room, because I hope the next owners of the set will add their names too, in whatever manner suits them best.
At this point I hope it's easy to see why the putting in of the bookplates is, um, taking some time. Good thing this is an ongoing, open-ended project, with no deadlines or even expectations. Because at the rate I am working at it, in and around all the other things of life, not to mention stopping to read all the time, I foresee weeks and months of more of the same. Almost every book I pick up seems to have some story that goes along with it, so I'll be sure to share more such discoveries along the way.
Saturday, April 21, 2018
book by book, take three
Bookplates continue to find their way into my books. Last night I was sitting in the book room long after dark, brush in hand, working my way through most of the books on two shelves. Funny, some books seem to call out for bookplates and others seem to have no interest in them whatsoever - they are complete as they are and ask for no additions and indeed definitely do not want any, even when offered politely. Sometimes the book's design simply leaves no room for anything extra, as I mentioned before, but more often than not it is a definite feeling. Most interesting, and even a bit eerie.
Another striking thing I've realized as I do this: some books have been with me for so long. We have been traveling companions through life, for decades and decades. The very first book I put a bookplate in was a gift to me from my stepfather, given when I was five years old. He inscribed it to me. It is a book I absolutely love and re-read from time to time. Ryan had never come across it, so this winter we read it aloud one evening, after I found a nice hardcover reprint to give to one of my nephews for his birthday, as he himself turned five. I inscribed it to him. What is the book? The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard (the story was originally a chapter in Grahame's Dream Days from 1898, then Shepard illustrated it as a stand-alone book in 1938). My old copy is a reprint. It's a bit shabby after all this time, but I do love it so. A great story about a book-loving boy and the peaceful dragon he befriends. Saint George comes to town and the boy, the dragon, and the saint conspire to set up a mock-joust so the villagers will have a spectacle, without anyone being hurt or actually fighting. A few of my other favorite children's books run along a similar theme - that of a big powerful creature purposefully choosing peace - The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson (Viking 1936, I have a later reprint), and Tiger Flower by Robert Vavra, illustrated by Fleur Cowles (Reynal 1969). Wonderful stories to visit and visit again.
But back to bookplates - the second book I put a bookplate in was volume one of a two-volume set that already had someone else's bookplate inside. So I tipped mine inside the back cover. It is the Loeb Classical Library Virgil, containing the Eclogues, Georgics, and all of the Aeneid, translated by H. Rushton Fairclough (Harvard University Press 1935, and still in print!). This copy was given to my grandfather, when he won his school's Latin Prize. How do I know this? The bookplate that was already inside the front cover says so, and has his name written neatly on it. This is what I mean by books being our companions throughout our lives. I am finding books like this, both from my family and books I bought myself, in high school and college in the 1980s, not to mention the many books I bought or was given as reading copies at my first bookstore job in the 1990s. I remember these books when they were brand new, fresh from the press! Now here they are, showing signs of age. Pages discoloring, foxing, general wear and tear. In other words, a lot like me, by this time in life, showing my age in no uncertain terms.
My grandfather's prize set is a wonderful keepsake, since I don't have many physical artefacts from his branch of the family, and he died a few years ago, after a very long and vibrant life. What else will I find, as I go through my books? By now, I have worked my way through many of my art books. Amongst them I came across a gift from my biological father, with his flowing pen inscription taking up most of the front free endpaper, and written in words that bring his distinctive voice clearly to mind, even though he too has been gone for a few years now. I also found a few art books I bought for myself when I first began to paint seriously, beyond just student work. And the many many books since then, as I've continued to paint and seek out narratives written by artists, to help me along in my chosen profession. And let's not even talk about my books-about-books yet, okay? My other profession. Another day, more books. This late cold spring has benefitted the whole bookplate project in general, since I don't yet want to be outside much. I'm doing a stack or two of books every two days or so, working in small bursts, and that pace feels ideal.
Reading, too. I didn't really have a winter reading project this year. But. My interest in the British countryside continues and nearly all of my recent reading reflects that, so along with the bookplates themselves (engraved and printed in Cambridgeshire), perhaps that actually was my winter reading project. And it continues into spring:
A peek at my recent to-be-read pile. We have been reading aloud again, bits of The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway by J.R.L. Anderson and Fay Godwin (Wildwood House 1979), and I am well into The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 (Warne 1966) and The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (New Directions 1998). I've read bits of poetry from Sebald's Across the Land and Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (Random House 2011). And have finished Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin (Vintage 2000). I must say this has been an ideal t-b-r pile and I am loath to break it up! Waterlog was a joy from start to finish, on the heels of reading Deakin's Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (via Ronald Blythe) many weeks back. With Waterlog, Deakin launched a wild swimming movement in the U.K. and beyond, and I can see why, because his writing is sublime and the reader wants to experience what he has described so well. Nature. Being truly engulfed in it, and part of it, in ways we have so often forgotten to be. A taste - his visit to swim on and around the island of Belnahua, in Scotland (p.238):
"The beaches were all silver, black and grey, with fine black sand and all denominations of the island's slate coinage, some flecked with a starry night sky of fool's gold, others striated with the finest random white pencil lines of quartz, the doodling of mermaids. The tides had sorted and screened them by size, stacking them like books end-on in flowing lines and whorls that traced the eddies and turbulence that clamoured over them."
All of these books are highly quotable. Please indulge me in another, since it reminds me so much of my beloved peaceful creatures, mentioned above, and the odd, old tug of what we held in our hands when we were young. From the Sebald poetry collection (pp.81-82), the first and last stanzas of his poem A Peaceable Kingdom:
"Like an early geographer
I paint a lion or two
or some other wild animal
in my white memory fields
Is it enough
to be overcome
at a few words
in our children's
Are these the emblems
of our love"
This question doesn't need to be answered but my heart can't help but say YES to it anyway. The white memory fields of blank book pages and of empty canvases, waiting to be filled. Oh dear. I really didn't intend to write this much today, about so many things all at once. I keep thinking I need to return to mentioning just one book at a time, here (...but did I ever actually do that?? hmmm, I have to wonder...), but I always seem to get carried away lately, and the books pile up. As they do. Perhaps in my next few posts I will in fact do something I've only thought about doing for quite some time - tell the story of just one book from my shelves. One book at a time, for a change. I am coming across many contenders as I work my way along, bookplates neatly stacked on the table beside me. They seem to interleave into the books like pressed flowers or four-leaf clovers. Lucky, lucky me, I often think, in the quiet of the evenings.
Monday, April 16, 2018
book by book, take two
Bookplate update: I have begun the process of affixing bookplates to books. At the local art supply store I found some excellent ph-neutral pva adhesive and am using that to tip in each bookplate. Many interesting choices must be made along the way, and small problems dealt with.
First, even though I enjoy other people's markings in old books, I have to say I struggled to overcome my own long-held belief that books mustn't be defaced (by me personally) in any way. I think the only time I ever wrote my name in a book or scribbled in a page's margin was when I was young, and once in college, in one particular book. And I did have that well-known 1970s generic bookplate of a behatted hobbit/garden gnome figure in profile, walking and reading a book at the same time. I remember receiving a gold box of them as a gift, and I wrote my name on a few and used them, but it's been a long time since I've come across one in any book I still own. However I am now confident that if I still have such a thing it will eventually come to light, as I work my way through all the books in the book room, shelf by shelf! Anyway, I did deal with this aversion to defacing my books simply because the new bookplates I now have are of such high quality that I convinced myself that I am adding something valuable to a book each time I affix one of Andy English's superb little wood engravings inside it. Not going to lie, though - I still have a faint frisson of doubt, each time! Will I regret this, in decades to come...? No, I don't think I will. Because this feels celebratory.
Second, when I bring a small stack of books to my work table and open them, I am almost always surprised by what I encounter within. So far: notes from friends, cards, and inscriptions and signatures from previous owners or best of all from the authors themselves. And, decorative endpapers. So, the dilemma immediately becomes - where to place the bookplate so it best complements whatever else is happening inside the book. I think that putting it smack dab in the middle of an endpaper can be too much. It takes up a lot of real estate and draws attention to itself and can be visually cut in half by the jacket flap, if there is one. I looked at some of my other books for guidance. Which I didn't find, because other people seem to have put their bookplates any old place they wanted. Okay then, I suppose that is guidance in and of itself! I am aiming for consistency as I go, and have for the most part settled on the upper left-hand corner of the pastedown endpaper, nestled into that pleasing 45-degree angle where the endpaper covers the book cloth. I like this spot, because if the book has a dust jacket the dust jacket flap protects and even hides the whole bookplate, just enough for it to be a surprise of sorts. But again, I have had to adapt and overcome my borderline obsessive tendencies to allow for what each book in hand calls for. With the decorative or pictorial endpapers in particular. Right now I am working my way through some art books, and many of them have elaborate paintings or illustrations by the artists reproduced on their endpapers. And I don't want to obscure them or cover up an important element in that overall image. Luckily, so far, there is always at least one corner that is more or less empty, either in the front or back of the book. Which leads to...
Third, how to glue each bookplate in. This time I did get significant guidance from some of the books I own that already have other people's bookplates in them. I find that I definitely prefer the tipped-in-along-one-edge vs. the completely-glued-down. I have a small paintbrush and some scrap paper, and it's becoming easy to go through the necessary steps with each book: open the book, fold back the dust jacket if there is one, decide where the bookplate will go and position it so I feel confident about both placement and visual appropriateness, then turn the bookplate over, place it face down on a clean area of the scrap paper, swipe a small amount of adhesive from the bottle on to the brush, gently brush the adhesive along the top edge (or sometimes along the bottom or side instead, depending on what else is already happening on the endpapers), being careful to use a thin layer and brush from the bookplate outward on to the scrap paper, not the other way around, so no wayward glue bloblets can work their way on to the front of the bookplate by accident. Then quickly put down the brush and pick up the bookplate, turn it over, place it carefully where it wants to go, and utilize that second or two before the adhesive takes hold to make sure the bookplate is squared up with the edges of the endpaper and the book cover itself. Then press gently down on the bookplate with a folded scrap of paper towel, over the glued area, to ensure good adhesion and flatness by removing any trapped air. This step also will pick up any stray bit of glue along the bookplate's edge, so I proceed with extreme caution. Then the book rests open for a few minutes to allow the adhesive to completely dry. I am leaving about a half inch of space between the bookplate and the endpaper's edges. Like this, in my copy of The Selected Writings of John Marin, edited by Dorothy Norman (Pellegrini & Cudahy 1949, a decent first edition in a chipped jacket):
This all sounds hopelessly obsessive and solipsistic, I do realize. I mean, beyond beyond. But in my own defense, should anyone decide to take me to court and judge me for it, I will say that this contemplative, repetitive task - the snail's pace of it and the timelessness of the project in general (booklovers and collectors and librarians have been doing this very thing for centuries! and I am now part of that continuum!) - is frankly joy-making. I am quietly and deeply happy, as I am when I am painting, come to think of it, making all these small decisions again and again, while engaged in this bookish work. It is a relief and a delight to turn off the news and turn to this instead - this news of the day. Placing a bookplate inside a book feels like putting a stamp on a letter, a letter to some future person I do not know but love anyway, with all my heart. A gentle, wonderful surprise, for that someone, that booklover of the future. And maybe even to my own future self as well? Because in years to come, when I take a book down from the shelf and open it up, I know I will smile when I see these bookplates looking back at me.