Tuesday, January 27, 2015
in the bleak midwinter
The opening lines from Christina Rossetti's beautiful carol are cascading through my mind this morning as I look out at the wildness of the blizzard.
"In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
So beautiful it makes me want to cry. Both the song and the storm. Oh winter, here we all are, in it together. Let's think about warmer weather for a moment. Or at least a reminder of it - I took this photograph a few weeks ago but the view from here is very similar today - snow, apple tree, curtain. I saw these lace curtains in the island summer house of a dear friend, on a breezy, sunshiny day, and they were gently blowing around. The birds looked like they were flying. Now, I am not much of a lace-curtain kind of person. But. These. She told me where she found them, and I went out and bought three for our dining room windows, and now whenever I look up I see the birds, and in my mind's eye, the island, the breeze, the warm summer wind.
Speaking of which, the other song that's been stuck in my head lately is something I played while packing away our Christmas ornaments. Last fall I bought a turntable at a yardsale down the street, and I've started playing my vinyl records again, not least among them several Frank Sinatra albums I've owned forever. One has an old favorite, Summer Wind. Loooove it.
But none of that is really what I want to talk about. Not songs, not lace curtains, not the weather. Books, right? After some weeks of diligence, I am falling off the ancient literature wagon. Backsliding. Thanks to one book in particular. Ryan and I visited a bookseller friend last weekend, and he sold me a very nice first edition of Mark Twain's Notebook, edited and prepared for publication by Albert Bigelow Paine (Harper 1935). I thought of setting it aside but it was insistent, and as soon as I read the opening entries (loooove reading diaries) I was lost. 400 pages later all I want to read now is more Mark Twain. So. Good.
But that is also not what I really want to talk about. Which is the history of this book. That is, its known physical perambulations within in the immediate vicinity. I bought it from my dear bookseller friend, who has himself owned it for 23 years. He bought it from the estate of a collector friend of his. This person was an avid buyer of books old and new, and used to be a regular customer of mine, at the first bookstore job I ever had, over 25 years ago. He'd call me up and ask me to tell him all about any new books we'd received in his areas of interest, before he'd make the trip to the store to see them in person. When I knew him he was elderly and rather frail, and usually traveled with an attendant. But back to the Mark Twain book. This collector bought it from another local bookseller, whose secret code is penciled inside the back cover. I wish I could crack this code and find out how long he owned it before selling it to the collector. Not to mention where he bought it in the first place. When I bought it, last Sunday, I brought it home and made careful pencil notes inside the front cover about all this, with names and dates. I wonder how long I'll own it, before it finds another home? I can't think about that for very long (memento mori and all that - too sad to contemplate, at least during a January blizzard, with old songs playing in my head). Well, I always wonder how books get from one place to another, and how long they linger with their keepers, and for once it is nice to actually know. And, sadness aside for a moment, I like to imagine this book's future, with other booksellers and collectors, as a valued, beloved object, one that brings the voice of this author so richly to life. It was such a pleasure to travel with him again, through these pages. What a writer.
Back to old songs for a moment. Mark Twain writes in his notebook that one of the most moving and pathetic things in the English language was, to him, (p. 319):
"...the refrain of a long-ago forgotten song, familiar to me in my earliest childhood: 'In the days when we went gypsying, a long time ago.'"
The pathos...! He also says, about his own fame (p.190):
"My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."
He knew his own worth, during his lifetime, and yet he still undervalued himself. Well, some of us no longer care for wine. And we are made of water - we need water to live. Blizzard notwithstanding...
Monday, January 12, 2015
papery and painterly paperwork
A quiet snowy Monday in January is the perfect time for paperwork. Reading too, but every once in a while paperwork takes precedence. I'm deep into the literature of the Roman Empire in The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature (up to page 700 so far, yay me!), but that's not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I've gathered up all relevant receipts and printouts and bill stubs (still analog, don't judge) and am preparing to file our income tax. We have a lovely accountant who checks everything over for us and files electronically. Foremost in this small sea of paper - I say small because I really do have something of a microbusiness at this point - are the printouts, month by month, of all the books that sold in my antiques mall booth. I like looking these lists over, and remembering when and where I first bought the books, not to mention pricing them and putting them out for sale, and now, hey, many have sold and are on to new homes and new lives with other booklovers! The system keeps working! The books number in the hundreds, and it still feels exciting to me, even after many years of buying and selling. So what sold? Fiction and poetry top the list, followed by cookery, memoir-y type books in various fields, and little bits of everything else, spread out over every bookshop category imaginable. Or every category I have in my book booth, I should say. Here is a sampling, in no particular order:
many Patrick O'Brian novels (huzzah!)
The Road to Oxiana - Robert Byron (sold two copies this year!! of one of my all-time favorites!!)
Word Freak - Stefan Fatsis
Monster in a Box - Spalding Gray
Bound for Glory - Woody Guthrie
lots of David Sedaris
current bestsellers including The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and several Nora Ephron books and anything I can get my hands on by Neil Gaiman
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
lots of Thoreau (maybe my bestselling author of all time)
My Life in France by Julia Child (so, so good)
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
poetry by Yeats, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Pushkin, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Louise Gluck, Gwendolyn Brooks, T.S. Eliot
tons more novels, by Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Stephen King (local boy...), Zora Neale Hurston, Fanny Burney, Mark Twain, Lorrie Moore, Wilkie Collins, Conrad, Dickens, Hawthorne, Mark Helprin (two copies of Winter's Tale!), Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, David Mitchell, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby
I haven't even mentioned Maine books, or nautical books, or history, travel, religion, art, gardening, nature, how-to, children's, etc. Lots sold from all these categories. My favorite might be classics, not just because that is my winter reading project this year, but also because I just LOVE that people still value these books, and buy them, and read them, or even simply intend to read them. On my lists from this year are Sophocles, Plutarch, Virgil, Plato, then on to Chaucer, and the Kalevala, Hildegard of Bingen, up to The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse and beyond.
Also sold are many books on how to write, including old favorites Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which has to be the most light-a-fire-under-you book ever for wanna-be writers, and On Writing by Stephen King, which runs a close second. See, hard evidence that people still read good books, and still want to learn to write good books too, isn't that a hopeful thing?
One more - some terrific books are gone from the books-about-books section, including a paperback copy of 84, Charing Cross Road.
As is evident from these titles and authors, I'm not selling many rare books these days. After buying and selling some wonderful and scarce (and expensive!) books in years past, both on the internet and at shows and in the little bookshop that could, I now have no real outlet for such items, and frankly I'm not finding them anyway, anymore, when I go out book hunting. The good folks at libraries and thrift shops are sifting their stock for rarities before anything ever comes close to the sales floor. I've made my peace with that, and while I still love to look, I'm not holding my breath thinking that a great first edition is going to be recognized and snapped up by me - not the way I used to find modern firsts, and real antiquarian books, fifteen years ago. (Note to Fate, or whomever: I do remain open to this possibility, though, so please do not forsake me! I shall remain vigilant!) All that is to say that I am content to scout around for the everyday secondhand books that I happen to love to sell and sell again, old favorites and recent favorites both. It's a win-win, since I get to book-hunt, and find new stuff to read, and also sell, on a manageable scale that leaves me all the painting time I could ever wish for, and then some.
Speaking of which, I glance back at the aforementioned paperwork and am very happy to report that is the first year in which income from my paintings has overtaken and surpassed my book income. A milestone. Whatever made me choose these professions, destined to keep me on the church-mouse side of impecuniousness for so long, I do not know (well, I have inklings...), but what I do know is that they both pay huge dividends in happiness and contentment, and I hesitate to ask for more than that. Why should I, when this life is fine as it is - I mean, who gets to do this...? Oh, I do! I thank my lucky stars for this surfeit of success. And think it's about time to find a winter library sale. I need to restock.
Monday, January 05, 2015
new year, new me?
Nope, same old same old. Which suits me fine. As Stephen Maturin says, often, in Patrick O'Brian's novels, "May no new thing arise." (New things being generally suspect and usually disruptive.) Thus in the coming year I am hoping for more of the same - reading, writing, painting, gardening. Oceans of quiet.
To that end I have cleared my decks, not for action necessarily, but for clarity, certainly. This is the time of open horizons. My painting studio is clean and awaiting the arrival of new work. Nothing remains on my bedside table except my current reading in ancient authors. I am making headway in one book in particular, The Norton Book of Classical Literature edited by Bernard Knox (Norton 1993). I brought this home from my book booth at the antiques mall. I see from my bookseller code inside the back cover that I've owned this book since 2005 and bought it for two dollars at a library sale. I had it priced at eight bucks, then marked it down to six. And still no buyers, after all this time, so home with me it has come once again. And glad I am, since it has proved to be a perfect extended introduction to the ancient writers of Greece and Rome. Bernard Knox says in his preface (p.23):
"This book is no more than a sampler. The texts have been chosen with one idea in mind: to whet the reader's appetite for more."
He does just that, giving us a chronological anthology from Homer in the late 8th century B.C. up to Marcus Aurelius and Saint Augustine in the early centuries A.D. Since I'd already read The Iliad and The Odyssey some years back, I skipped over his selections from those and began with Hesiod (7th century B.C.?), and since then, a week ago, with the help of a mild cold picked up at Christmas and lots of subsequent rest time, I've logged over five hundred pages in this wonderful book. And encountered so many authors I'd never read anything to speak of, unless quoted briefly elsewhere - Hesiod, Archilochus, Alcman, Solon, Anacreon, Simonides, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, well, the list goes on and on. I have read bits of Sappho, Pindar, and Plato before, but never with any kind of sustained attention. And in this particular book I still have the literature of Rome ahead of me - Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, Juvenal, etc. I thought this was going to be a textbooky kind of collection, classics-lite, but no, not at all.
Why read all this dusty old stuff, anway? Does it matter? Does anything matter? I dismiss these as January thoughts and instead look at the beautiful language I'm encountering, and its relevance. I will be forever grateful to Bernard Knox for bringing to my attention lines such as these:
"... it is best to do things
Since we are only human, and disorder
is our worst enemy" - Hesiod, The Works and Days, "When to Plow" (p.195)
"The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one.
One good one." - Archilochus, 14 (p.206; thoughts of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle naturally arise)
"...oh I wish, I wish I could be a seabird
Who with halcyons skims the surf-flowers of the sea water
with careless heart, a sea-blue-colored and sacred waterfowl." - Alcman, 1 (p.214)
"...In the honey and spice of a summer night." - Alcman, 2 (p.215)
"She was in love with what was not there; it has happened to many.
There is a mortal breed most full of futility.
In contempt of what is at hand, they strain into the future,
hunting impossibilities on the wings of ineffectual hopes." - Pindar, Third Pythian Ode (p.260)
"I will be small in small things, great among great.
I will work out the divinity that is busy within my mind
and tend the means that are mine.
If it were luxury and power God gave me
I hope I should find glory that would rise higher here after." - Pindar, ibid (p.263)
My skin prickles, hedgehog-like, as I read along - human nature seems to have changed so little over the centuries. What interests us? Love, fate, death, war, travel, humor, nature, human relationships, divine relationships. Ways and means have changed, but the essentials remain. And great writers remind us of this, again and again, no matter how long-ago they are. (I know I say this regarding almost all the books I mention here - please bear with me as I continue to err on the side of praise.)
As I got into reading the tragedies and drama, Homer came back to mind, and I remembered how repelled I was at all the blood and thunder of his epics. But that, along with every type of murder and mayhem you can imagine, is a huge part of these old stories, and judging from what's on tv at the moment (not that I have a tv...), we like a certain amount of this as entertainment, and always have. I find myself usually falling on the side of the pastoral, instead. I am loving the poets, their lyrics about nature, love, and the twists and turns of fate. I am grimacing my way through Antigone and Thucydides. The ancient gods set up terrible situations for hapless mortals and let them play out, intervening or not, if justice or whim calls for it. They are worth looking at too (obviously, not to sound like a complete simpleton here), squarely in the face, although maybe just once. That might be all I can stand.
The work of the translators Knox has chosen from must be mentioned, for it is their choice of language I am responding to, as well as the storylines. His choices are old and new, including Lattimore and Fagles, and some are more poetic and some more severe, but all readable in the best ways. The long introduction by Knox and his brief paragraphs introducing each author throughout the book are also so well-written and interesting, they left me wondering (as happened with Moses Hadas in his Ancilla to Classical Reading a few months ago) who he was and why he was championing the classics. I've seen his books before but never read any, so I had no idea. His 2010 New York Times obituary enlightened me, as did this New Republic essay by G.W. Bowersock, "The Warrior-Humanist."
I'll ask myself again, Why read the classics? Well, winter is a severe time, and a beautiful time. Life itself is severe and beautiful. These ancient authors mirror that state of affairs and I long for it, it feels like water and food and sunshine. In fact when my sister was ill last fall, I read some passages from The Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius; 524 A.D.; the book that got me started on this year's winter reading project) aloud to her, and at one point asked if she wanted me to continue. She said "YES, it's like cool water in the desert."
As usual, I could go on and on, and another day, I'm sure I will. Until then:
"...the great unwritten, unshakable traditions.
They are alive, not just today or yesterday:
they live forever, from the first of time,
and no one knows when first they saw the light." - Sophocles, Antigone (p.374)
Monday, December 29, 2014
favorite favorites, revisited
As the new year draws ever-closer I find myself reluctant to add to the various best-books-of-the-year lists out there. Instead I've been mulling over what my own ideal bookshelf might look like, after reading and admiring Jane Mount's paintings of other people's, in the aforementioned My Ideal Bookshelf (Little, Brown 2012; please revisit my post from mid-November for more about this fascinating book, which I read and loved and wished was much longer). I even took some notes on the subject a few weeks ago, when I was sorting and pricing some books in the book room. Copious notes, in fact. But then, sitting by the Christmas tree this weekend, I realized I could easily answer this question using one of the photos from my last post. The row of living room reading, by the chickadee. Here it is again, a little closer:
It's very, verrry close to what my ideal shelf would contain. Several titles stand in for whole genres of reading interests. A few all-time favorites rub shoulders with acquaintances I admire but wouldn't take to a desert island with me - if I had to choose - but we still remain life-long friends nonetheless. From left to right:
Gentle Manners: A Guide to Good Morals - a facsimile edition of the 1823 edition (Shaker reprint from Canterbury, N.H. 1978). I'm still interested in being good. Work in progress.
An Eighteenth-Century Gentleman and other Essays - S.C. Roberts (Cambridge University Press 1930). Essays about Samuel Johnson et al.
Scottish Nursery Rhymes - edited by Norah and William Montgomerie (The Hogarth Press 1946). Haven't read it, love it anyway.
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman (Small, Maynard & Company 1897). An old friend, this edition. It's traveled with me for about twenty years now.
Rural Rides - William Cobbett, two volumes (Everyman edition, J.M. Dent 1925). I think I was reading this set when I first began this blog. As you can see from the bookmark in volume one, I haven't finished it! Yet...
The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne - Gilbert White (Folio Society reprint 1994). Unread but fully intend to read. Soon. Practically any day now.
Another World Than This... - an anthology compiled by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (Michael Joseph Ltd. 1945). Gosh what a gem of a book. Read their war-time writings then turn to this anthology for words of sublime solace and beauty, as they must have done while compiling it.
A Country Life - Roy Strong (Pavilion 1994). I love this memoir but I love Ronald Blythe's even more. However, Blythe gets his own entire shelf, upstairs in the book room.
Ceaseless Turmoil: Diaries, 1988-1992 - James Lees-Milne (John Murray 2005). Still haven't read all of his diaries - oh, what I have to look forward to!
A Country Doctor - Sarah Orne Jewett (Meridian Classic 1986). I own very few mass-market paperbacks but came across this one and kept it, since I have no other edition of this lovely, quiet, autobiographical novel.
The Sayers Holiday Book - a Dorothy Sayers omnibus (Victor Gollancz Ltd 1963). Gaudy Night, Strong Poison, and In the Teeth of the Evidence (seventeen stories). So great is Gaudy Night. SO great!
The Practical Cogitator, or The Thinker's Anthology - selected and edited by Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet (Houghton Mifflin Company 1945). An old favorite. How I love anthologies, can you tell?
How to Be Idle - Tom Hodgkinson (Hamish Hamilton 2004). The jacket flap tells us this book is "...a spirited and joyful defense of laziness and good living." By the founder of The Idler - 'nuff said.
When We Were Very Young - A.A. Milne (Dutton reprint 1988). "Disobedience" is my favorite poem in the book.
Wayside Poems of the Early Eighteenth Century - an anthology gathered by Edmund Blunden and Bernard Mellor (Hong Kong University Press 1964). Another beauty of a book. I cannot resist a book with a title such as this. (I don't even try.)
The Week-End Book - no editor noted (The Nonesuch Press 1927). Browsability at its finest.
Corn from Olde Fieldes: An Anthology of English Poems from the XIVth to the XVIIth Century - edited by Eleanor M. Brougham (John Lane, the Bodley Head n.d. circa 1910?). Yet another anthology. They are perfect for a brief look-into, whenever that's all you have time for.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English - adapted by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, fourth edition revised by E. McIntosh (Oxford University Press 1952). One of the many Oxford dictionaries in this house, but all the others are dark blue.
The Book-Lovers' Anthology - edited by R.M. Leonard (Oxford University Press 1911). Sigh.
About that last title, as our editor tells us in his preface (p.v):
"There is a wide circle to whom this collection should appeal, in addition to the bibliomaniacs or mere collectors of first or rare editions to whom the contents are often anathema, for the love of books is not confined to scholars or great readers. This love is incommunicable: it comes, but happily seldom goes, as the wind which bloweth where it listeth; it is perfectly sincere, and knows nothing of conventions and sham admirations."
Picked out and placed there when I rearranged the living room a year or two ago, that's my row. It's held in place with reproduction Boston Athenaeum bookends, a gift from Ryan several years back. He knows just what I like:
That's it then, an ideal bookshelf. My problem, if it could be called such a thing, is that similar rows of books exist throughout the house. Filling entire bookshelves (usually topically! often alphabetically!). In which every shelf holds old friends alongside particular beloveds and worthy future reading. Who would I leave out? Just leave off my ideal bookshelf, willy-nilly? The Samuels (Clemens and Johnson)? Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Laurie Colwin, Mark Helprin, Ronald Blythe, Mary Oliver, Bruce Chatwin, Louise Andrews Kent, Christopher Morley, Patrick O'Brian?? Tintin? Patrick Leigh Fermor? The Secret Garden? Elizabeth and Her German Garden? Dave Eggers? Montaigne? And what about my art books...! Impossible to choose my very favorite favorites from among them all.
I say that, but one book does comes to mind. I've mentioned it before, over the years. This one truly did change my life. John Carter's immortal ABC for Book Collectors (my old edition was the buff-colored hardcover from Knopf; it's been updated and reprinted by Oak Knoll). It opened up a world for me, one I would inhabit for years. Come to think of it I live there still. Happy New Year, from the land of books.
Monday, December 22, 2014
holidays around the house
All my ancient literature reading plans seem to be on hold. The Aeneid, Moses Hadas's Ancilla to Classical Reading, and The Norton Book of Classical Literature, edited by Bernard Knox, are all hogging prime real estate on the bedside table. With stacks in the hinterlands of the book room, waiting. But I've been forgoing them all for new stuff, since I keep wandering into bookstores (and lingering over Patrick O'Brian still, too, not wanting the series to end, even as I know it will). In the last few weeks I've read brand new books by Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, and Maira Kalman, and read brand new-to-me secondhand books by Jonathan Lethem, William Plomer, and Paul Monette, ditto books about David Hockney, Picasso, and Beatrix Potter. They are mostly wonderful, but I must forgo full reports for now, since not only did I pound my thumb quite dreadfully with a hammer, while putting a tarp on the woodpile, I also drilled it with a drill bit while framing paintings, and I cannot easily hit the space bar on my keyboard at this time. In short, typing hurts. So I will merely send out my best wishes for a warm and cozy holiday season, along with a few pictures of same from around our old Maine house.
Every year I take some favorite Christmas books off the shelf and let them see the light of day for a few weeks. The Rockwell Kent book is a new addition this year. As is this vintage Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle figurine - she seemed to be calling for some candy canes, too. Happy to oblige:
Our Christmas tree has many birds on it. Just one in the nest on the lamp, though, a felt chickadee, resting near a row of living room reading, atop the printer's type case that used to hold court in my bookshop:
We had some extra strings of lights this year so I tumbled them across the top of the dresser where we put up holiday cards as they arrive. Can't have enough light around during this dark solstice week:
Until next time, when I hope to be less accident-prone and more verbose: wishing you a Joyeux Noël dear friends, and peace in the new year.
Monday, December 01, 2014
from one holiday to the next
December arrived so quickly this year, holy crackers what happened? Must've been the three big snowstorms we had here. They tend to keep one focused on the present moment quite nicely (I wrote icely at first, which seems appropriate), as survival instincts take over and time bends strangely.
Speaking of time, I have not had much to spare today, but since it's the first of December I wanted to make mention of the tradition of advent calendars. I've always loved their little windows of hope, small surprises, daily treasure. They remind me of pop-up books, with their ingeniousness and general spirit of invention. I remember one from childhood that even had tiny edible treats behind each door. Another favorite had little toys. And for the past few years I've used this gentle one, from Maine artist Anne Kilham. It reminds me of long ago, and of the old Maine houses I love, and winter fields, and the quietness of the season, as we approach the winter solstice and Christmas time. I don't mind using the same advent calendar from year to year, in fact it feels appropriate, in the way that unpacking beloved ornaments does.
However, a few days ago Ryan and I found ourselves at a bookstore (two bookstores actually, but who's counting), and after we each cased the place we met in the middle and he was holding this. I said, "Ohhh but we already have an advent calendar." (Longingly.) He said, "But we need this one too." (In a voice that means No debate.) So it came home with us, along with - need it be said? - several books, and tonight we will open its first door and see what sweet bookish item of note the good people at the Bodleian have chosen to share with us. I will still use my old calendar too, no worries there. I'm set in my ways, and besides, I'm still giving thanks today and both of them will serve as excellent reminders to keep right on doing so, as we move ever more steadily into winter.
Monday, November 24, 2014
It's that time of year again, around here. The annual holiday of thankfulness approaches. And while I continually attempt to live life from a place of gratitude, this year I find myself feeling more thankful than ever. Difficult times have come and gone, and I weathered them all somehow, and emerged with a renewed and heightened sense of appreciation. For peace and contentment. For those days when nothing in particular happens and everyday chores and tasks become lustrous and shining in their pure ordinariness. I could almost weep over being able to read a stack of books for pleasure, or follow a line of inquiry through a series of paintings, or bake gingerbread, or put up some pretty curtains and recognize the cheerfulness they bring to an already sunny room. All the stuff of daily life. How ridiculously grateful I feel for the smallest things! When a blizzard passes by, as it did last week, and then the snow finally melts away, as it did this week, and I see underneath all the small green things still growing - still going - I have to think That is the way to live. Storms arise. And they also depart. Meanwhile all the small things of life continue, regardless, in their due season. It's up to us to notice, take heart, and say thank you.
These are such old chestnuts, aren't they, the commonplace thoughts that make up traditional holiday fare. But what is sweeter, truly, than gratitude for what arises, storms and peace both. One illuminates the other. Blessings on your thanksgiving table, whatever your personal forecast.