Thursday, December 05, 2013
A search throughout the book room here at home for more to do with E.M. Forster has led me to revisit a three-volume set I first read around fifteen years ago (how's that for a convoluted sentence). Poet, novelist, memoir-writer Siegfried Sassoon's Diaries 1915-1918, 1920-1922, and 1923-1925 (Faber & Faber 1981-1985). Sassoon corresponded with Forster a bit, and they became friends after the war. The Diaries are peppered with mention of him, especially the last volume, but I soon became engrossed in them for their own sakes. I particularly enjoy Sassoon's running commentary on what he is reading.
September 28, 1922, Munich (p.256):
"...reading a hundred pages of Bleak House, which is superb. Dickens may be too sentimental at times, but when he writes like that he is, to me, intensely moving. And his descriptive writing is as fine as anything I know.... I have just hurled Ziska (a novel by Marie Corelli) out of the window. What a curious fluttering noise the pages made as the red-bound 1887 Tauchnitz volume curved and collapsed on to the grass in the courtyard...."
I have never yet tossed a book away in disgust (the famous Dorothy Parker quote of course comes immediately to mind, except, it appears She didn't actually say it...?). I've come close. To circle back to Forster, though, this passage of Sassoon's reminds me of the Merchant Ivory film version of A Room with a View, specifically Eleanor Lavish's potboiler novel about a romance in Italy, Under a Loggia - the copy left outside at Windy Corner, the copy that leads to the unraveling of Miss Lucy Honeychurch's engagement. But I digress. As usual. Not that there was anything else I was going to say, other than how delightful literary entanglements are, and the associations they bring to mind.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
no thank you
Meditations on thankfulness abound this week, as usual, and I hesitate to risk adding to the heap of platitudes floating around out there. But I am still recovering from a cold, my family is scattered hither and yon, and so I will be staying in this Thanksgiving. I feel very grateful to be able to remain quietly at home. And I don't mind saying so. No travel, no cooking besides that which we do for ourselves (oh, but there will be pie, make no mistake), no shopping, no interaction with beloved relatives fractious and otherwise. I think on so-called black Friday I will stay in and read, and snack (again with the pie). I am beyond grateful to have time to do this in my very own life.
Which reminds me of one more bit from E.M. Forster's Commonplace Book, written after he'd taken a few pages of notes from Dryden's Epistles (p.27):
"Reading these Epistles which have no connection with my work and little with my ideas, have (sic) given me a happy sense of my own leisure. Who has the necessary time and vacancy of mind to read Dryden's Epistles for pleasure in 1927? or to copy out extracts from them into a Commonplace Book? Or to write out more often than is necessary the words: Dryden, Epistles, Dryden's Epistles? No one but me and perhaps Siegfried Sassoon."
Who has the time in 2013 to do likewise? Well, I copied this passage into my own journal, and I copy it here too - as a small banner waving, as a symbol of the pleasure of reading for its own sake, as a reminder to take time to do whatever your heart desires, if you possibly can. Speaking of E.M. Forster again, I thought of asking Santa for his recently published Journals and Diaries (Pickering & Chatto 2011). I am still searching for something all-encompassing for my winter reading project, and thought this might be it, but holy crackers, at nearly $500 retail for the three-volume set, I must say no thank you.
Which brings me to my only scrap of holiday advice this year: don't forget to say no, when you need to. The sky will not fall. Blessings on you, whether you are at home or far afield.
Monday, November 25, 2013
what books do to us
A brief bit from the aforementioned Commonplace Book of E.M. Forster, edited by Philip Gardner (Stanford 1985) - a collection of quotations from his reading, thoughts about his work, notations on everything and everyone under the sun. Including this, from 1932 (p.93):
"I have to read a book at a certain rate and cannot look backwards or on. One of the pages turns out to be gold. I come to it with surprise joy and terror, and know it must be turned over like the others. How lovely if the next page could be The End."
No mention of what book he was reading at the time. But oh the shock of recognition, despite that!
Friday, November 22, 2013
In reading, as in life, it is a wonderful thing. I've been shipwrecked at home with a cold this week, and so revisited some beloved comfort reading, two of my desert island books. Sitting under a comforter in a patch of sun, with a cup of tea, a box of tissues, a heap of cough drops, and a dozing cat - well, add a few particular books and I was deeply happy, in spite of feeling terrible. First, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. The ultimate getaway novel - how to transform the unspeakably dreary by renting a Mediterranean castle in springtime! Then, in keeping with the vein of elsewhere (yes, more Italy, please, not November in bleak old Maine), A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. Read and re-read, this must be the fifth time I've gone through both of these novels in my lifetime, and I hope not the last. They are books for dreaming on, for seeing through the veil of the everyday. They are books about taking a stand for happiness, after awakening to its possibilities in the first place. It was wonderful to be able to read both from cover to cover, in two successive afternoons. My life is not exactly busy, but it seems to be that the only time I allow myself to read that way anymore is when I am under the weather, and unable (or at least unwilling) to do the thousand and one tasks most days require. Perhaps I should set aside one day a week just for reading marathons. Sunday afternoons...?
But back to serendipity. After finishing A Room with a View I wandered into the book room looking for what should naturally come next. Like a happy child, thinking More, please. I picked up two E.M. Forster books (that I've had for years and yet never read), thinking they would be perfect browsing to finish off the evening with. One is his Commonplace Book edited by Philip Gardner (Stanford 1985) and the other his Selected Letters Volume One 1879-1920 edited by Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank (Harvard 1983). After looking them both over I started with the letters, since he didn't begin keeping his commonplace book until 1925 and I feel that chronology should be respected whenever possible. Well, the letters are wonderful indeed, and I soon found out something I may have known once upon a time but had forgotten - that for several months in 1905 the young E.M. Forster was a tutor for Elizabeth von Arnim's children, at her schloss Nassenheide (then in Germany, now in Poland). I blissed out, at not only this serendipitous reading experience - picking a book on a whim and finding it linking so firmly the two books I'd just finished reading on more two more whims - but also at the glimpses behind the scenes, at it were. Forster recorded his experiences and opinions in chatty letters home to his mother, right at the time when his own first novel (Where Angels Fear to Tread) was being accepted by a publisher back in England. He writes of Elizabeth as a near-celebrity, or at least as a known person, and brings her down to earth gently yet firmly. I love hearing her vacillating opinion of his novel, in a letter to his mother from July of 1905 (p.81):
"My proofs are arriving at last. E. is very funny over it. She read ch. 1-3, and said it was very clever, but most unattractive, and she felt as if she wanted a bath. Then she read ch. 4, and said it was really beautiful, and she wanted to retract. Now she has read ch 6 - you wouldn't remember, but it was the one that you rather liked - and has gone back to her original opinion."
I also love Forster's adoption of Elizabeth's phrase The Man of Wrath, used in many of his letters to refer to Elizabeth's husband the Count, just as she herself does throughout her autobiographical Elizabeth and Her German Garden series. He doesn't spend much time with Elizabeth, however, and so, besides containing the pleasure of reading about two favorite authors at the very same time, his letters go on to become utterly compelling for many other reasons. His writing, his turns of phrase, his friends, his opinions about his own reading, his homosexuality, his travels in Italy and India, and his years in Alexandria during the first world war, well, it's all fascinating, and let's just say that this turned into so much more than merely a browsing book. I now must find a copy of Volume Two, and see where it leads me.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
in search of good reading
Winter looms here in Maine and I am feeling stymied about what to read next. During cold weather I usually immerse myself in a long-term reading project, something that will both stretch my intellectual capacity and lend a sense of purpose to what otherwise might look like simply giving up and going off to bed at seven or eight p.m. every evening. In a word, hibernating. But if I do so with tome in hand, I can instead say to myself, I'm reading volume VI of the Diary of Samuel Pepys, or I'm reading volume III of The Letters of Samuel Johnson, or One more week and I will have finished all of Montaigne's Essays! Two birds with one stone - books become building blocks for a kind of blissful self-education which thankfully has no end, and the winter passes by imbued with a greater sense of purpose. This has been an organic process, as usually books present themselves at regular intervals, practically begging to be read next. I develop an interest, then a tendency, then books collect in little windrows around these topics, whatever they might be, and I am all set for another couple of months. But this year, no such luck. The books on my bedside table tell the tale. They are all over the place. An art book, another art book, a third art book, a biography of a writer, a history book, some collected essays.
A few ideas involving reading something more challenging did flit across my mind, but were only met with rejection. For example.
Shakespeare? I have a parent who has been immersed in the plays and poetry for decades, and frankly (and sadly) the works of the bard make me a little nauseous at this point.
Proust? Again with the parents - my biological father says my mother divorced him because he spent an entire winter sitting in a chair reading Proust and smoking his pipe. Needless to say this is not my mother's version of events. I have given Proust a try, twice, and can't get past Within a Budding Grove. I chalk it up to childhood conditioning.
Anthony Powell? I've owned a set of A Dance to the Music of Time for fifteen years. Actually I had two sets, the attractive paperbacks from the University of Chicago Press, and the U.S. first editions. I sold the first editions a few years ago in one of my attempts to downsize the contents of our book room. Having two sets of the same books that I may never read, well. One set is enough. Of books that I may never read. (I mean, for god's sake.) Now I find myself eyeing the paperbacks as well, and thinking, Fifteen years? Unread? Off with their heads!
Angela Thirkell? Now we're getting somewhere. I have had multiple recommendations regarding this writer, of whom I know little and have read less. And yet I find myself with eight of her books. Eight! And there's an Angela Thirkell Society! Stumbling blocks: I'd need to acquire reprints of her early books, since I'd want to read them in chronological order; and, her books are mostly set in Trollope's Barsetshire, and I have read zero Trollope, so her allusions will be lost on me. Should I read Trollope first? People I know and respect love Trollope. The whole problem seems overwhelming, and so my Thirkell books languish, unread.
Thus I find myself seriously considering re-reading all of Patrick O'Brian. For the fifth time. Help! Is anyone reading anything absolutely splendid?
Monday, October 07, 2013
a love hate relationship
The lures of technology are many, it seems. I often admire what the internet hath wrought - this morning, for example, I looked at a few blogs I like, I ordered some art supplies not available in my area, and a book came in the mail, again ordered online since it was not available locally - but other times, not so much.
Case in point. Ryan and I went out for supper last night at the cafe at the local health food store (best salads around - huge, organic, homegrown, etc). In the cafe, we were the only people with no devices. Man in the corner had a laptop and a mobile, and was going back and forth between the two, while mostly ignoring his plate of food. Man on the side wall had a notebook and was watching something with the sound on (we were sitting less than five feet away from him and found this rather shocking). Two women at the next table were carrying notebooks, but they were off and just sitting on the table, inert, as the women conversed. Couple at the table behind us were both on mobile devices the entire time we were there and spoke perhaps three sentences to each other (nothing requiring actual dialogue, however). Young woman on the other side wall had an open flip phone but appeared to be concentrating on her supper, not the phone. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Man in the Corner was playing some kind of a game on his mobile device, one that made an audible clicking noise every time he made a move, which was often. Click. Click click. Click click clickety click. The only time he stopped was to take a bite, and once, to address someone else who came into the cafe, an acquaintance, to ask him if he'd watched "the youtubes" he'd emailed recently. Man #2 said no, please re-send, and Man in The Corner said he'd do it right now, and turned away, to his laptop, to do just that.
So, this is now acceptable behavior, it seems. Related thought - perhaps the cafe should disconnect its free wifi. So people can, like, you know, simply eat and be together.
Thankfully, just before we left, a young couple came in, sat down, and proceeded to eat their supper and pay attention to each other and their surroundings. And Ryan and I were there, to share a giant salad, catch up after a busy weekend spent largely apart, and gaze into each other's eyes. So this little rant is a tempest in a teapot. Still, the scene in the cafe has me thinking. About technology, connectivity, and relationships real and imagined. About loneliness and togetherness. I love the internet. I hate the internet.
Monday, September 02, 2013
a strange state of affairs
With the return of the cooler weather I hope to be back writing here more often than of late. For now I will say this - I don't have much book news to report, since week after week of golden summer weather kept me out of doors for the most part, far away from the book room and all it contains and represents. Besides, what little I have been reading recently has been the strangest stuff, books that are unclassifiable - art, religion, literature, memoir, all rolled into one, with no rhyme, reason, or pattern. I've been steering clear of bookshops, too (saving my pennies for art supplies instead), so very little new reading material has come my way. A strange state of affairs in this household! I haven't found much to sell, either, and have been actively avoiding friends-of-the-library sales, though in an antiques shop recently I did pick up a signed John Updike book for five bucks, a hardcover anthology of short stories which he edited and then autographed on the title page. That lovely find sparked my interest in book-hunting again, which has languished in the past year to what must be a twenty-year low. The spark is still there, but it's not strong enough to propel me to go out and seriously buy again. I'm not sure why, it's not that I don't still love buying, selling, and reading books as much as always, for they continue to tug at my heart- and purse-strings whenever I'm in their vicinity. I just no longer want to acquire, in the way I once did. Books or otherwise. In fact, the opposite. I look around and think What is all this stuff? Even though the 'stuff' was and is greatly loved. And so I carefully continue to cull and sell things from my own collection, and even though five years has now passed (how, I do not know) since I closed my own little bookshop, I still have inventory, bookshelves, supplies, and souvenirs from that time, amassed in a tidy corner in our spare room. This fall I plan to delve in and see if I can't lay those ghosts to rest once and for all. Who knows what I will find? Wish me luck. I approach this project with the same trepidation I would bring to revisiting a cache of old love letters. Not that I have any of those sitting around (ahem).