Friday, November 03, 2006


New and Improved?

I myself prefer old and rickety. I don't want to switch to the new version of blogger, but I suspect I will shortly be forced to. I haven't been able to sign in to post most days this week. Anyway, it's been slow here at the shop, so not much to report, and I'm heading out for the weekend. I've sold some good books here and there over the past week, including some Noam Chomsky, a nice old book about John Winthrop, Manguel's A History of Reading, Ellman's biography of James Joyce, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, a history of the Ottoman Empire, a copy of one of my all-time favorite leisure reading books, which whenever I see I always buy so I can have copies in the shop, How To Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man (thanks to Godine for reprinting it, thanks to Sue for buying it), many others. Not that many, though. This is an inbetween-time here in Maine - the fall tourists are gone, the locals are struggling to get their wood in and finish their construction projects before any snow flies, and no one's really Christmas shopping yet, though you'd never know it by the look of the stores around here. Halloween and Thanksgiving have been bypassed completely in favor of Christmas tchotchkes. I ususally put out a few holiday books, and some white lights, and maybe a bucket of candy canes, but not until Thanksgiving weekend. Lest this dissolve into a rant, let's move on.

I've been reading about the bookish Edmund Gosse this week - his fine memoir Father and Son, published anonymously in 1907, and now The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, 1931. In Father and Son he presents an unflinching and absolutely pity-free view of his childhood and relationship with his ruthlessly evangelical Purtitan minister/creationist/naturalist parent. The glimmers of life throughout the book are inevitably Gosse's encounters with books, as in this passage:

"I persuaded myself that, if I could only discover the proper words to say or the proper passes to make, I could induce the gorgeous birds and butterflies in my Father's illustrated manuals to come to life, and fly out of the book, leaving holes behind them." (p.43)

Metaphorically speaking, this is what he eventually does, because he ends up moving to London to work as a clerk at the British Library, then becomes a famous writer and friend to practically anyone who was anyone in the Victorian and World War I literary scenes. The memoir ends with his escape and individuation from his beloved but tyrannical parent, and then the Life and Letters offers a view of his later life, and his close friendships with and letters to Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Austin Dobson, Maurice Baring, Max Beerbohm, William Dean Howells, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Siegfried Sassoon, among others.

Gosse's first spoken word was book. This endears me to him no end, and as his memoir and letters unfold, he further endears - he comes across as a struggling poet, a generous booklover who inspires lifelong friendships, an essayist and true man of letters. In Father and Son one of my favorite passages describes the first time he reads an actual work of fiction (he hadn't been allowed to read any children's stories, fables, tales (anything made up being anti-scripture, apparently) - it's too long to quote here, but shows the excitement and passion that books inspire, and foreshadows his later life. I'm halfway through the second book, and am now thinking that he's the kind of writer who can become a window onto an entire age. And what a pleasure to read about the wide world he grew into, one of adulthood and free will, after escaping from the narrow, stunting, dogmatical box of his childhood. I have several more of his books at home; I think his Gossip in a Library is next. Though I also have a book about the books in his personal library - that might not wait.

I went to a church rummage sale today and picked up an interesting item: The Letters of Lord Bryon,selected by R.G.
Howarth. It's a British edition-J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd,with several photo illustrations.

I don't always read letter collections but this looked too interesting to pass up. Wonder if in the future,scholars will be reading the e-mails of major writers and artists?
I often wonder if emails and suchlike by literary notables are saved (or printed out and saved?). I hope so. I worry about things like this because I LOVE reading collections of letters and published versions of diaries and I don't want them to become lost forms of literature. They are so immediate and honest. I have a set of Byron's letters too, I haven't read it. Yet.
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