Thursday, August 31, 2006


The Royal We

I've been catching some flak for being away, and yesterday my dear pal-in-books Gary came by to visit and catch up, and he gave me this sign for my shop door - I particularly like the use of The Royal We (I have no employees):

Hee hee. I love it. One person yesterday actually chided me rather angrily about being away - she said that lots of people can't go on vacations and I should consider myself very lucky and some people are far too busy and professional (oooh!!!) to be able to get away for so long and this and such and so forth. Well, this is a good time to talk about that word "luck" - people tell me all the time how lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing. Lucky lucky lucky. I myself have come to believe that luck has next to nothing to do with it, and I've started saying so. For luck substitute hard work. My decision to close the shop for a week now and then means that I have no income for that week, so I have to make it up by working harder before or after I go away, both in the shop and online. And I worked hard to build my shop, and I work hard to keep it open. Or, should I say, We work hard. I suppose I can include my husband in The Royal We. He's a big help around here.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


What I did on my summer vacation

I feel like I'm writing an essay for the first week of school. I hope this is a bit more interesting than that, but when it comes down to it, it probably isn't... Finally I am able to load a picture: here is a small watercolor I made last week of the northeast corner of the house I stayed in. The windows and front porch face the sea and other small islands, and the scene changes with the weather as islands come and go in the fog. The house rests on a giant piece of ledge, and bits of this ledge are also emerging from the ground in the front yard. I'd like to be sitting on a chunk of it today. I'm still getting used to objects such as telephones and computers and cars, and even books, so bear with me, please, this week - I'm taking the return to the world a bit hard.

A good bit of manual labor seems to help a difficult transition such as this, so I've been hauling out and sorting and cleaning my books from the book sale the day I left. I did find a few happy surprises, but it's slow going and I came across a few charming specimens with skanky blue mold growing behind their otherwise pristine dust jackets. I carefully examine my books before I check out, but a few moldy ones always sneak into my boxes somehow. Yuck! They go straight into a plastic covered bin destined for the dumpster or the Goodwill, whichever I head for first. Poor old books. I rarely toss books out completely, but I don't want to pass on the moldy ones if I can help it. Some things are beyond saving, much as it pains me.

A bit of unrelated but happy news which actually makes me glad to be back in the world: my favorite living poet, Mary Oliver, is coming to Maine to read and sign books at the end of September. I'll close a few hours early that day and head down to get a good seat. Her poetry has gotten me through many a rough day. I've been browsing in Garrison Keillor's poetry anthology Good Poems (Penguin 2002), and in the introduction he says, about good poems, "You could, without much trouble, commit these poems to memory and have them by heart, like a cello in your head, a portable beauty to steady you and ward off despair." (p.xxi) That's what Mary Oliver's poems do for this reader, and I've memorized a few. Front row, if I can manage it. Back to the books...

Monday, August 28, 2006


A picture is worth a thousand words...

...but unfortunately I cannot seem to upload any pictures to blogger this morning. I've tried several times and nothing's happening after long, looooong stretches of time pass by. I'm in the stone age here at the shop, with dial-up and an antique rotary-dial telephone. So in a word, I'm back. I'll have a show-and-tell later on this week. I had a marvelous time away and am finding it hard to return to "civilization" such as it is. Many thanks to everyone for the comments - I am very happy to have more books to add to my want lists, and, as I suspected, my transition back to reality is eased by the knowledge of more good books in the world. I'll be more specific in the comments sections of the past few posts. I mean, what a joy to come back to my shop, but oh god, my shop... even a good used bookshop doesn't compare to a wild and beautiful Maine island. My first day back: I'd been home for two hours and I walked down here to pick up my mail, and of course I ran into one of my most difficult customers out on the street. She pigeonholed me and I couldn't get away for several minutes. Eventually I closed my eyes and said I've got to go. I don't think anything could have illustrated to me more the difference between where I was last week and where I am now. Anyway, don't feel in the least sorry for me, because I'm off again in late September to another Maine island. My customers will really be irritated with me then! And I do love my shop. In case I forgot to mention that.

Meantime, I've got several cartons and bags of books lurking behind me, waiting to be cleaned and sorted, from the library sale I went to right before I took the boat out to sea, a week ago Saturday. I have no idea what I bought, except I have a vague recollection of being terribly excited about two books in particular (Is this a first edition, IS THIS A FIRST EDITION?? It is, IT IS!!). What they were I now do not know. So I will be surprised and gleeful all over again! Other than that, it's been a quiet day so far and I've spent most of it coaxing my plants back to life. Ryan came by to water them twice, but they are happiest when I'm around and all the lights are on, and one of them had really given up all hope. I had to prune it and give it a good soak in the sink and now it's standing up again. I'll leave things there for now - more shop chores are calling.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Favorite books on the art of living

Day five of my favorite books – and what can I possibly choose to round off the week? Well, this is the last list before I leave tomorrow, so it will have to serve as a catch-all for many subjects on the theme of living well. Brain food to help both the mind and spirit grow through life: favorite children’s books, cookery and home life, poetry, belles lettres, anthologies, and other odds and ends. These have educated me in the art of living:

Children’s books I still love to read as an adult:

A Child’s Garden of Verses – Robert Louis Stevenson. Everyman, New York 1992. Stevenson could do it all, really – children’s tales, novels, poetry, letter-writing. These poems are still what I love best.

Now We Are Six – A.A. Milne. Dutton, New York 1988. Pooh is very dear, but like the above, I love the poems more than the tales.

The Adventures of Tintin – Hergé. Little, Brown, Boston 1980s. Twenty in all? I’d read twenty more if he’d written them. My favorite evening read when I want something familiar and comforting.

The Reluctant Dragon – Kenneth Grahame. Rand, McNally, Chicago 1966 (circa 1900). Like the story of Ferdinand the bull, a tale of a peace-loving beast, a gentle, shy monster who still manages to save the day.

He Went With Marco Polo – Louise Andrews Kent. Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1935. The one book that lit a fire in the child-me to see the world. I have, though largely through books.

The 13 Clocks – James Thurber. Simon and Schuster, New York 1950. Deeply strange, and I still love its weirdness.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster. Knopf, New York 1989. Ditto.

The Dolls’ House – Rumer Godden. Viking, New York 1962. Pathos in a doll family. Rumer Godden’s novel China Court should have been on my fiction list on Wednesday (it hinges on rare books, and has a fascinating, complex structure). Godden is often bittersweet.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett. Lippincott, Philadelphia 1949. Who doesn’t love this book, and Sara Crewe (The Little Princess). These books were IT for me when I was young.

The Wonder Clock – Howard Pyle. Harper, New York 1888. I think I got most of my ideas about beauty and style from the illustrations in this book, and perhaps from Andrew Lang’s series of color fairy books. A wonderful series of tales for each hour of the day.

Cookery and home life:

The Gastronomical Me – M.F.K. Fisher. World, Cleveland 1948. I don’t really get people who aren’t much interested in what they eat. I’m not a cook, really, but I know what I like, and I enjoy eating almost as much as reading. So reading about food is doubly good. Fisher isn’t just a food writer; she's an incredible writer who just happens to choose food as a main theme. I love her prose style, she is a master.

Mainstays of Maine – Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Macmillan, New York 1944. Bowdoin professor, poet, essayist. This book combines his love of his home section of the Maine coast with his memories of the best of Maine food. I re-read this book often, its exuberance and vitality is palpable.

The Transcendental Boiled Dinner – John J. Pullen. Lippincott, Philadelphia 1972. An extended essay on the fine art of cooking a Maine boiled dinner.

The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection – Robert Farrar Capon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1989. Like the above, Capon writes an entire book about cooking just one dish. One of the best books about true epicurianism.

How To Cook a Rogue Elephant – Peter Van Rensselaer Livingston. Little, Brown, Boston 1971. I kept this book for its title, which I love seeing on the cookery shelf in my kitchen every day. WASP-y, upper-crusty recipes and stories.

Pot on the Fire and Serious Pig – John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne. North Point, New York 2000 and 1996. Two books of essays for the true chowhound. I often give these books as gifts.

The Tummy Trilogy – Calvin Trillin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1994. Witty, deeply funny, simultaneously light and serious. For Trillin, Food = Life. He will go anywhere and try anything in search of an authentic dish. And then write about it for The New Yorker.

Home Cooking – Laurie Colwin. Knopf, New York 1988. Novelist Laurie Colwin also wrote essays about food and cooking for Gourmet magazine. This collection is wonderful; her stories about food, home life, and travel are funny and fine.

More Home Cooking – Laurie Colwin. HarperCollins, New York 1993. A second collection, equally fine.

The Epicure’s Companion – editors Ann Seranne and John Tebbel. McKay, New York 1962. Fat anthology ranging from ancient authors to Dumas and Flaubert.

Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style – editors Michael Snodin and Elisabet Stavenow-Hidemark. Bulfinch, Boston 1997. One of the best books I’ve seen about how to completely construct the kind of life one wants for oneself, from clothing to home architecture, furniture, books, and art. Lovely illustrations.

The Old Way of Seeing – Jonathan Hale. Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1995. A wonderful book about why certain old New England buildings and homes are pleasing to the eye, and fit in their landscapes, and why new mcmansion versions do not.

Buildings of Delight – Alec Clifton-Taylor. Gollancz, London 1988. Quirky and unique residences and buildings in England, from all historical eras. Written with joy.


archy & mehitabel – Don Marquis. Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, New York 1928. The cockroach and the cat, they will never go out of style.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman. Small, Maynard, Boston 1897. The best American poet? One of the best, let’s say that. Superlatives are difficult.

Harvest Poems 1910-1960 – Carl Sandburg. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York 1960. Sandburg’s short poems about nature are among my favorite poems ever.

The Captain’s Verses – Pablo Neruda. New Directions, New York 1972. Love poetry at its most verdant and passionate. Read this, then find Neruda’s books of odes – more love, for everything, not just for another person.

What the Light Was Like – Amy Clampitt. Knopf, New York 1985. A few Maine-themed poems in this collection haunt me.

House of Light – Mary Oliver. Beacon, Boston 1992. Really, anything she writes is so beautiful, but this little book is the one I pack on every trip I take. The first poem is one of my favorites of hers.

An Altogether Different Language: Poems 1934-1994 – Anne Porter. Zoland,
Cambridge, Massachusetts 1994. Poems about nature, family, God, art. Quiet and deep.

Where Water Comes Together With Other Water – Raymond Carver. Vintage, New York 1986. His poems are tough, painfully truthful, often difficult, and usually elegiac. If you’re a woman, read them to learn what it’s like to be a man. If you’re a man, read them to learn how to be a man. No offense meant to men or women.

Essays, anthologies, and miscellanies:

The Practical Cogitator or The Thinker’s Anthology – editors Charles P. Curtis and Ferris Greenslet. Houghton, Mifflin, Boston 1950. One of the best anthologies I know of, and the perfect bedside-table book, either for one’s own room or a guest room (but buy several because guests will want to take copies home with them).

Time and the Art of Living – Robert Grudin. Ticknor & Fields, New York 1988. Unclassifiable essays of great beauty.

Intimate Things – Karel Čapek. Putnam, New York 1936. One of those books I was pricing at the shop, and I opened it randomly and started reading, and realized an hour had passed and I’d read half the book. I took it home.

What Am I Doing Here – Bruce Chatwin. Viking, New York 1989. The best collection of Chatwin’s short pieces: journalism, interviews, essays, tales. I had to add him to every list this week, he is that important to me.

Prefaces Without Books – Christopher Morley. Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin 1970. Morley wrote prefaces for many books, both for reprints and for friends. He is often at his best in short descriptive pieces such as these.

Letters of Askance – Christopher Morley. Lippincott, Philadelphia 1939. Essays on many topics.

Forty-Four Essays – Christopher Morley. Harcourt, Brace, New York 1925. More essays, I couldn’t choose just one book.

Inward Ho! – Christopher Morley. Doubleday, Page, Garden City, New York 1923. Short, often tiny, pieces about poetry, writing, authors, and philosophy of life. Perhaps my all-time favorite Morley book. Almost pocket-size.

The Old Court Suburb – Leigh Hunt. Lippincott, Philadelphia, n.d. (circa 1815). A master essayist, and dear friend of the poet Shelley.

One Man’s Meat – E.B. White. Harper, New York 1950. The other master of essay-writing.

The Bottom of the Harbor – Joseph Mitchell. Little, Brown, Boston 1960. A primer for anyone interested in learning how a perfect piece of descriptive journalism is put together. The magic, though, is unlearnable, and he had it in spades.

Book of Uncles – Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Macmillan, New York 1942. A collection of tales about Coffin’s favorite Maine uncles. Sounds strange, but boy is this a fine book. Another one I started reading at the shop, and took home that night to finish. And kept. A recurring problem for me.

How Proust Can Change Your Life – Alain de Botton. Pantheon, New York 1997. A little life philosophy: how to use Proust to solve real-life dilemmas.

A Theory of Everything – Ken Wilber. Shambhala, Boston 2000. One straight philosophy book, for some balance. Wilber is one of the great thinkers of today, and shuts himself away from the world for long periods of time to try and figure out What It All Means. Then he writes books to help us figure it out, too.

Ancilla to Classical Reading – Moses Hadas. Columbia University Press, New York 1954. Who the heck were all those dead white guys, anyway? Who lived when, and who wrote what during which empire? Who was best friends with whom? And why should we care today? This is a fine companion for anyone sneaking up on the classics of Greek and Roman thought and literature.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes – editors Iona and Peter Opie. Oxford 1951. Scholarly, but still very high on the browsability scale. The stories behind famous and not-so-famous nursery rhymes. The Opies are known for their collection of children’s books, games and toys, and folklore surrounding the life of children.

Wodehouse Nuggets – selected by Richard Usborne. Hutchinson, London 1983. A hilarious compendium of quotes culled from P.G. Wodehouse’s works. Cheers me immensely and immediately, when I need cheering. I can’t think how I came to leave Wodehouse off the fiction list the other day.

Critical Times: The History of the Times Literary Supplement – Derwent May. HarperCollins, London 2001. Deep geek for booklovers and TLS fans.

The Art Spirit – Robert Henri. Lippincott, Philadelphia 1930. I refer constantly to this book about painting and living as an artist. I can open it anywhere, start reading, and be reassured and aided by this master.

Hawthorne on Painting – Charles Hawthorne. Dover, New York 1978 (1938). My other essential art book, after the one listed above. Along with Mary Oliver’s poetry book House of Light, I pack this on every trip I take (both books are very slim and light in softcover). As a painter, this book has been the most useful to me of anything I’ve ever read.

And let’s end this, finally, with some bookish reference books, perfect for browsing:

The Atlantic’s 50 Best Book Reviews – editor Sage Stossel. Atlantic Monthly, Boston 2004. Entertaining and wide-ranging.

Anthology: Selected Essays from the First 30 Years of The New York Review of Books 1963-93 – editors Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein. New York Review of Books, New York 2001. Like the above, but a bit more hip, if book reviews can be such a thing.

The Reader’s Encyclopedia – editor William Rose Benét. Crowell, New York 1948. Essential! I use mine almost every day. It’s still in print, in a new edition that I don’t use half as often as my good old brown 1948 copy.

Bartlett’s Quotations – Christopher Morley edited this twice, so I prefer those editions. Morley even inserted some fake quotations, happy hunting! 11th edition: Little, Brown, Boston 1938. Another perfect bedside-table book, endlessly browsable.

The Lifetime Reading Plan – Clifton Fadiman. World, Cleveland 1960. Educate yourself, here’s how, from the most well-read man in twentieth-century America.

Books About Books – Winslow L. Webber. Hale, Cushman & Flint, Boston 1937. A bibliography of books about books. My want list in a nutshell.

The List of Books – Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish. Harmony, New York 1981. Great books in all topics, this book makes my week of lists look paltry, miserly, and lean.

The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors – editors Laura Miller with Adam Begley. Penguin, New York 2000. Who the heck are all those hip young things writing good novels and winning literary prizes? And why should we care today? Find out here.

An Almanac of Reading – Charles Lee. Coward-McCann, New York 1940. Good reading suggestions throughout the year, in a gentle, whimsical almanac format.

Ex Libris Carissimis – Christopher Morley. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1932. He lists “85 Golden Florins” at the end - a fine reading list.

That’s it! I’ve been packing and re-packing for tomorrow, checking items off tiny lists, and generally losing my mind. It really does seem that it takes twice as much energy to get ready for a vacation as it would have if I’d just stayed here and lived my regular old life for an extra week. But once I’m there, it’s all worth it.

The lists - what a mammoth project. I hope people find it useful. When I re-open the shop on the 28th I will immediately return to writing tiny little blog posts of three lines each. Seriously, though, thanks to everyone for suggestions and comments – mull it over and add more of your favorite books while I’m gone! Surprise me! I haven't delved much into nature books, history, philosophy - I ran out of week - so feel free to add books in these subjects, too. After a vacation, my abrupt return to civilization will be greatly eased by the delight of hearing about who loves what books. Thanks for reading this week, bookish friends.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Favorite books about books

Book lists, day four, this one is books about books, in which category I am known as something of a greedy truffle pig. I will start the list by plagiarizing myself: back in December I listed a few of my favorite books to aid people who dream of having their own bookshops. After those, however, I've got some new suggestions. This is my second attempt at posting today - earlier I listed a thousand books or so and my computer had a spasm (a technical term, I know) and I lost my entire post, arg and double arg. I am now writing in a word document FIRST. This list will contain mostly books about book-collecting, bookshops and booksellers, and a few examples of book arts, particularly printing. They are all in my library at home, next to a few hundred others. I will refrain from listing books about or by publishers and librarians or libraries, otherwise this post would be just too damn long and no one would read it. Many titles in this category are self-explanatory, so I will keep my comments to a minimum. Books ahoy:

The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter - Charles P. Everitt. Little, Brown, Boston 1952. Hands-down, my favorite bookseller memoir of all time. Rollicking, joyful, it makes me yearn to have been his apprentice. A brief foreword states that he died just after finishing the manuscript.

Trafficking in Old Books - Anthony Marshall. Lost Domain, Melbourne 1998. Droll collection of articles about keeping his used bookshop in Australia. He's published a second volume that I have yet to track down, which I hear is equally good.

The Side Door: Twenty-Six Years in My Book Room - Dora Hood. Ryerson, Toronto 1958. Great memoir of a dealer in rare Canadiana (this is more interesting than it sounds at first...).

The Seven Stairs: An Adventure of the Heart - Stuart Brent. Simon & Schuster, New York 1989. He sold new books and jazz records at his shop in Chicago, and his memoir captures and transfers his book-love to the lucky reader.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling - Madge Jenison. Dutton, 1923. Long on dreams and short on practicality, but wonderful nonetheless. "There is a special and curious situation in the book trade different from that which exists in any other undertaking where buying and selling are carried on. It does not support the people who do it." (p.6)

Dukedom Large Enough: Reminiscences of a Rare Book Dealer 1929-1956 - David A. Randall. Random House, New York 1969. Gossipy, rich, the New York City rare book world during its true golden age.

Complete Guide to Starting a Used Bookstore: Old Books Into Gold - Dale L. Gilbert. Upstart 1991. Nuts and bolts. How to build good shelving, stock your shop, deal with customers, and the like. Written pre-internet, but still essential.

ABC for Book Collectors – John Carter. Knopf, New York 1991. The book that changed my life. Really. It taught me the language I wanted to learn, that of rare books, at a time in life when I was desperate for change.

Modern Book Collecting for the Impecunious Amateur – Herbert Faulkner West. Little, Brown, Boston 1936.

The Romance of Book-collecting – J.H. Slater. Elliot Stock, London 1898.

First Editions: A Guide to Identification – Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler. Spoon River, Peoria 1995. A desk reference for the first edition hunter. My copy sits behind my desk at the shop.

A Primer of Book Collecting – John T. Winterich and David A. Randall. Bell, New York 1966.

The Used Book Lover’s Guide – David and Susan Siegel. A regional series of guidebooks from Book Hunter Press. Essential for road trips.

Points of Issue and A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions – Bill McBride. McBride/Publisher, West Hartford 1996 and 1995. Back-pocket guides for first edition hunters.

Book Collecting 2000 – Allen and Patricia Ahearn. Putnam, New York 2000.

At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries – Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, and Christopher Simon Sykes. Southern, New York 1995. Eye candy for booklovers. Yum.

The Philobiblon – Richard de Bury. Meyer, New York 1899. Reprint of the first book ever to deal with the subject of book-collecting; de Bury lived from 1287-1345.

The Book-Lover’s Enchiridion – editor Alexander Ireland. Houghton, Mifflin, Boston 1883. An anthology of all things bookish.

Bibliomania; or Book-Madness – Thomas Frognall Dibdin. Chatto & Windus, London 1876. A classic, THE book on the disease of biblioholism.

On the Art of Reading – Arthur Quiller-Couch. Cambridge 1928.

The Book-Lovers’ Anthology – editor R.M. Leonard. Oxford 1911.

Bookman’s Pleasure – compiled by Holbrook Jackson. Farrar, Straus, New York 1947. Another fine anthology for browsing.

How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education – Mortimer J. Adler. Simon & Schuster, New York 1972.

Great Books and Book Collectors – Alan G. Thomas. Excalibur, New York 1983.

Book Shops: How to Run Them – Ruth Brown Park. Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, New York 1929.

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books – Ian C. Ellis. Perigee, New York 2001. A good general book for the beginning book scout or fledgling dealer.

A Gentle Madness – Nicholas A. Basbanes. Holt, New York 1995. And sequels. He’s the best journalist writing about rare books today. Wide-ranging and intelligent.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World – Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.
St. Martin’s Press, New York 1997. And sequels. Gentle, easy reading.

For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most – Ronald B. Shwartz. Grosset/Putnam, New York 1999.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1998. One of my favorite books of essays ever.

The Book on the Bookshelf – Henry Petroski. Knopf, New York 1999. The history of book-storage. Fascinating, minute, more detail than we may ever need to know.

Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books – Paul Collins. Bloomsbury, New York 2003. Another all-time favorite. I’ve convinced many many people to own this book, and I myself have a fine first edition and an advanced reading copy in my collection at home.

A History of Reading – Alberto Manguel. Viking Penguin, New York 1996.

Bizarre Books – Russell Ash and Brian Lake. Pavilion, London 1998. Funny book titles and oddities, this is good for some chuckles.

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff. Grossman, New York 1970. What is left to say about this book? It has inspired millions, and most everyone who loves books about books loves this one in particular above all the rest. Her book choices are what get me - they illustrate a reader educating herself as her interests and desires naturally evolve.

Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart – W.G. Rogers. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York 1965. Another favorite bookseller memoir, and fascinating side-lights on everyone from Christopher Morley to James Joyce.

Infinite Riches: The Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer – David Magee. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Toronto, 1973.

Born in a Bookshop – Vincent Starrett. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1965. Vincent Starrett was a bookman in the truest sense of the word. He helped found The Baker Street Irregulars club, the group of Sherlock Holmes collectors and appreciators.

The Last Bookman: A Journey into the Life & Times of Vincent Starrett (Author-Journalist-Bibliophile) – editor Peter Ruber. Candlelight Press, New York 1968.

Books in My Baggage – Lawrence Clark Powell. World, Cleveland 1960. A rare book librarian travels the world in search of treasures. He wrote other books equally as good as this one.

Books and Bidders – A.S.W. Rosenbach. Little, Brown, Boston 1927. A titan of twentieth-century bookselling.

Rosenbach – Edwin Wolf 2nd with John F. Fleming. World, Cleveland 1960. The classic biography of the author/bookseller above.

Yankee Bookseller – Charles E. Goodspeed. Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1937. Dry, but good information about Boston bookshops, Goodspeed’s own in particular, and the literary scene.

Collector’s Progress – Wilmarth Lewis. Knopf, New York 1951. The memoir of an obsessed, driven, determined, endearing book collector.

Black Sun – Geoffrey Wolff. Random House, New York 1976. The biography of Harry Crosby, with his wife Caresse, founders of The Black Sun Press. Wild Parisian jazz-age carousing and decadence with artists and authors.

A Rare Book Saga: The Autobiography of H.P. Kraus. Putnam, New York 1978.

Shakespeare and Company – Sylvia Beach. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1991. Beach’s autobiography of her famous Paris bookshop.

The Fortunes of Mitchell Kennerley, Bookman – Matthew J. Bruccoli. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego 1986. An incredible (and ultimately tragic) journey through the rare book world in New York City in the first half of the twentieth century. One of my favorite books about a bookseller, publisher, auctioneer, and general all-around bookman.

Antiquarian Books: An Insider’s Account – Roy Harley Lewis. Arco, New York 1978. The London used book scene. Great book-hunting and book-selling stories.

Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and ‘Books & Co.’ – Lynne Tillman. Harcourt Brace, New York 1999. The life of a New York City bookshop and its idealistic owner.

A Memory of Vermont: Our Life in the Johnny Appleseed Bookshop – Margaret Hard. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York 1967.

The Unspeakable Curll – Ralph Straus. Chapman and Hall, London 1927. Eighteenth-century bookselling at its most scurrilous and deranged. Curll was a much-hated publisher and bookseller – hated by authors, that is.

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. – Jeremy Mercer.
St. Martin’s Press, New York 2005. Mentioned earlier in the week in the memoir list, thanks L.T.! I read this when it was published (with a cover blurb by Paul Collins) and wished I had gone to live at this famous bookshop myself. Not about books per se, more about living the bohemian life, but the bookshop is central to the action.

Off In Zora – Alan Armstrong. Booksellers House, Tarrytown, New York 1997. Tales of a traveling bookseller roaming the U.S.

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion – Madeline B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg. Doubleday, New York 1997. Again, L.T. beat me to it. These antiquarian dealers have written several books both memoir-ish and scholarly, all are good.

Book Row – Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador. Carroll & Graf, New York 2004. Tales from many booksellers about their shops and the golden age of bookselling in New York City on Fourth Avenue.

The Business of Books – André Schiffrin. Verso, New York 2000. The downfall of modern publishing. Acerbic, for good reason.

Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley. Doubleday, Page, Garden City, New York 1917 and 1919. How could I not list these gentle classics. They were written when Morley was quite young, and for me they only hint at his flowering genius. Still widely read, because they exhibit such a high level of true book-love.

Booked to Die – John Dunning. Scribner, New York 1992. And sequels. Bibliomysteries written by a rare bookseller. I don’t read many mysteries, but these are good.

Pi – Bruce Rogers. World, Cleveland 1953. A collection of short bits and pieces by this master book-designer/typographer.

Daniel Berkeley Updike and The Merrymount Press of Boston Massachusetts 1860 ~ 1894 ~ 1941 – George Parker Winship. Leo Hart, Rochester, New York 1947. I have a small collection of the books Updike saw through his press - they are elegant and lovely, a joy to read.

A Tally of Types – Stanley Morison. Godine, Boston 1999. A reprint of Morison’s book on classic typefaces and their origins and designs.

The Ideal Book: Essays and Lectures on the Arts of the Book – William Morris.
University of California, Berkeley 1982.

Books and Printing: A Treasury for Typophiles – editor Paul A. Bennett. Beil, Savannah 1991.

Bookbinding, and the Care of Books – Douglas Cockerell. Lyons & Burford, New York 1991. A reprint of the classic book on binding and repair.

A Short History of the Printed Word – Warren Chappell. Knopf, New York 1970.

Anatomy of a Typeface – Alexander Lawson. Godine, Boston 2002.

Five Hundred Years of Printing – S.H. Steinberg, revised by John Trevitt. Oak Knoll, New Castle, Delaware 1996. A scholarly overview of the history of printing. With great pictures for browsing.

I could add so many more, but this is getting ridiculous, and these really are my true favorites in this field, the ones I re-read and linger over, or use for reference all the time. I hope I'm not just preaching to the choir here, because I'd like this list to lead more people to the world of books, book collecting, and bookselling. It's consuming, and life-changing. But for those that are called to it, it's a fabulous way to go.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Favorite fiction

Day three of my favorite books. I have to tackle fiction eventually, so it may as well be right now. I'll include novels and some collections of short stories. Mark Helprin once said in an interview that a novel is the whole sprawling opera, while a short story can be, at its best, an aria. I paraphrase, but you get the idea. I think he went on to say that he hated operas, but loved arias. Ha. So, fiction - classic and contemporary. I don't read many mysteries, or much (any, really) science fiction, but I welcome suggestions for the neophyte (me) who wants to start with the best: novels and stories of all kinds that bring some comfort and understanding to the unsettled and often haphazard state of being human.

Persuasion – Jane Austen. Penguin, New York 1987 (1818). I could have easily listed Pride and Prejudice here instead, but the love story in Persuasion is sweeter to me because the heroine thinks her case is hopeless. Also, in Persuasion, Austen's character portraits are positively ruthless; she spares no one. Her best, in my opinion. Written at the height of her literary powers, and near the end of her life.

The Country of the Pointed Firs – Sarah Orne Jewett. Anchor, Boston 1989 (1896). A quiet book in which not much happens and we don't ever care, we are so lost in her gentle prose. A timeless time-capsule of a particular corner of my home state.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald. Collier, New York 1992 (1925). Perhaps my favorite novel of the twentieth century, this story has it all. The narrator is my favorite character in the book, he watches the beautiful and the damned of the jazz age for us, the readers, and even gets out alive at the end.

Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian, the Aubrey/Maturin series, twenty volumes and a fragment. Norton, New York 1990 forward (1970 forward). I've read this series four times, and certain scenes always brought me to tears. The books get richer and richer with each re-reading. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but most certainly MINE. I have deep, deep love for these novels. See the Horatio Hornblower entry further down the list.

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens. Penguin, New York 2002 (1860). I read this as a teenager and I still love it, imagine that. My favorite Dickens novel.

In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York 1992 (1913-1922). Ok, I'll come forward and admit that I haven't read it all. Halfway, then stuck, then sidetracked, just like the Pepys diaries. Still, I have the gall to list it here, simply because when I began to read it I was so shocked and delighted. I expected, for some reason, something impenetrable and dense like Joyce at his thickest, and instead I found a meandering, lush, romantic meditation on the beauty of the past and the timelessness of memory. No wonder Proust and Joyce had nothing to say to each other when they met.

A Soldier of the Great War and Memoir from Antproof Case – Mark Helprin. Harcourt Brace, New York , 1991 and 1995. I've shouted from the rooftops about Mark Helprin before this, so I'll just add that when someone comes into my shop asking for a great novel, these are what I talk them into reading. Well, a bit more: both novels use a narrative device I love, that of someone now grown old who is telling his life story to someone in particular, and hence also to us, the readers.

Spoonhandle and Candlemas Bay – Ruth Moore. Morrow, New York 1946 and 1950. She is the John Steinbeck of Maine, and I say that because she deserves much more than the usual phrase regional writer. Her novels, and these two in particular, deal with family relationships in small towns in coastal Maine. Her families always have one or two heroes, and one or two truly bad seeds, and like Austen, she doesn't spare them.

John Mistletoe – Christopher Morley. Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, New York 1931. I didn't list this with the memoirs yesterday, so I will add it here. The best of Morley. Lyrical, beautiful, this book means worlds to me.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré. Knopf, New York 1974. Something a bit different. Le Carré's anti-hero George Smiley is one of my favorite fictional characters. The whole trilogy, published in an omnibus edition called The Quest for Karla, is very fine. Spy fiction at its best. I still find it thrilling, even though I now know who the guilty mole is.

My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok. Knopf, New York 1972. I read this book when I was in school, and it remains one of the best novels I know of about what it truly feels like to be a visual artist. Asher is a teenage art prodigy and a Hasidic Jew who has to reconcile his gift with his family and his religion.

Happy All the Time – Laurie Colwin. Knopf, New York 1978. A perfect little novel, about two handsome best friends and the women they fall in love with. Laurie Colwin once said (again, paraphrasing here) that she wrote about rich, happy people because she'd been poor and unhappy herself and she hadn't found it very interesting.

Utz – Bruce Chatwin. Viking, New York 1989. More Bruce Chatwin. Another perfect little novel, about an obsessive collector of Meissen porcelain in Prague, and the ultimate fate of his collection. Should have won the Booker Prize, but they gave it to Salman Rushdie that year instead. I'm still fuming about this.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim. Macmillan, London 1922. I mentioned this yesterday, too, alongside her memoirs, and it's a wonderfully warm novel about two Englishwomen who decide to rent a villa in Italy for a real vacation, without telling their husbands. Rather like the British play/film Shirley Valentine, except in that story the heroine goes off to Greece. Anyway, both are about escape from the everyday and transformation through beauty.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses – Choderlos de Laclos. Doubleday, New York 1998 (1782). A fine portrait of the development of evil, better than the film versions. Plus I have a weakness for epistolary novels. And for the dissolute, aristocratic period leading up to the French Revolution. Off with their heads.

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy. Signet, New York 2000 (1905). More aristocrats during the French Revolution. My favorite swashbuckler and a fine beach book.

These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer. Dutton, New York 1966 (1926). Can I pretend that one of my favorite books isn't this one? No, I cannot. Not a book by Faulkner, or Joyce, or some Russian novelist, instead it's Georgette Heyer. I've read this at least ten times. There it is, a fact. The original romance novel, in my opinion. Pure escapism, and again, those aristocrats...

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier. Doubleday, Doran, New York 1939. Haunting. My favorite opening line in all fiction, just thinking of it gives me chills. Go look it up immediately.

A Room with a View – E.M. Forster. Vintage, New York, n.d. (1908). I also love A Passage to India, but really, give me a happy ending any day of the week. There's enough flat despair in the world without having to experience it again in one's leisure reading. I love everything about this book, from its chapter headings to its final sentences. And the ending of the book isn't quite so happy as the ending of the film.

The Far Pavilions – M.M. Kaye. St. Martin’s Press, New York 1978. A big, fat, sweeping epic of a romance novel, set in India. Usually found in two volumes. Kaye's memoirs about her childhood during the days of the British Raj are also great - the first one is called The Sun in the Morning, and come to think of it, I should have listed it with the memoirs yesterday.

Embers - Sándor Márai. Vintage, New York 2002 (1942). I have to add this, even though I just read it for the first time this spring. I know I was raving about it on this blog. I'm still trying to figure out how the author built and maintained the suspense so perfectly. This also gives me chills when I think of it.

The Lymond Chronicles – Dorothy Dunnett, 6 volumes. Vintage, New York 1997 (1976 forward). Rollicking historical series set in sixteenth-century Scotland, Europe, and the Mediterranean. The level of detail she achieves is truly stunning, it reminds me of a medieval psalter, its cover encrusted with rough gemstones and knotwork and metal, all to ornament the story within. Another series that had me completely engulfed for weeks.

Captain Horatio Hornblower – C.S. Forester, a trilogy, with sequels, and prequels. Little, Brown, Boston 1939 forward. Another series to get lost in. I am fascinated by the doings of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and these novels (along with Patrick O'Brian's) allow me a vicarious experience - that of time travel. If past lives exist, this is my time. I feel it on a cellular level.

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh. Little, Brown, Boston 1945. I love the structure of this novel as much as the story. The soldier-narrator returns to Brideshead and remembers his old life, before the war. Reminds me in an odd way of The Great Gatsby: the narrator looking in, yet also part of the drama as it unfolds.

A Very Long Engagement – Sébastien Japrisot. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York 1993. Reading about World War I led me to this novel about a young wheelchair-bound girl searching for her lost lover in postwar France. A mystery surrounds the events of his death, and she becomes convinced that he is still alive. I liked this more than Birdsong.

The Dream-Detective – Sax Rohmer. Dover, New York 1977 (1926). My mother gave me this Dover copy when I was a young teenager and I still love it today. A collection of mystery stories about an investigator of occult occurances, Morris Klaw, and his vampish daughter Isis. At this age I wanted to be an archaeologist, and was reading books about Howard Carter and Egyptology, and this fit right in. Kitschy, campy, Egyptian-revival, reminiscent of Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Cathedral – Raymond Carver. Vintage, New York 1984. The king of short stories. Blunt, tough, beautiful. I'll leave it at that, in honor of the original minimalist (Hemingway be damned).

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain – Robert Olen Butler. Holt, New York 1992. Pulitzer-winning short story collection about Vietnamese families in New Orleans, and the echoes of the Vietnam War. Lush and beautiful.

The Lone Pilgrim: Stories - Laurie Colwin. Knopf, New York 1981. I think I've read this collection four times. The first story is my favorite, read it and see why (hint, books...).

A Dove of the East and Other Stories – Mark Helprin. Knopf, New York 1975. I can't pick my favorite story in this book. They are all very beautiful; they are like little shrines to beauty.

Ellis Island and Other Stories – Mark Helprin. Delacorte, New York 1981. Again, I love them all, but especially "The Schreuderspitze."

The Pacific and Other Stories – Mark Helprin. Penguin, New York 2004. I can pick one favorite in this collection: "Monday." Helprin writes about the things I am interested in for the long haul: beauty, hope, loss, redemption, love. Big themes, but he also has a sense of humor, which tempers any sense of too-bigness.

I could go on all day in this category. But really, I can't - I've got a lot to do before I close up shop tonight. Can I really add all those Mark Helprin books at the end of this list, all willy-nilly like that? It's my list, so yes, yes I can! I can't choose just one or even two of them. Even if I can choose only one Jane Austen novel to start the list. Well, who says I have to be consistent. I know as soon as I post this, I'll think of ten books that I should have added. Like Virginia Woolf's Orlando. And something by Jack London, whom I love, perhaps The Star Rover, or even better, Martin Eden. And how about Nancy Mitford's two books, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate? I can see that I'll have to continue this at some unknown future date. A new list tomorrow, a different topic.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Favorite autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs

Day two of some of my favorite books of all time. Today's list deals with the delicate art of encapsulating a life. When I read a good memoir, published diary, or biography I think of flies in amber: the intricate and fascinating structure of the body, the shell, is there, but the life, the spirit has flown. Well, the best books capture some of the spirit, too, somehow. It helps if the biographer has an affinity for the subject, or the author is honest with himself or herself about their prejudices and actions. Published diaries are particularly fascinating to me - usually not intended for publication, unstinting with both praise and damnation. Reading them is like listening to authors speak to themselves under their breath. Today's caveat: there are no books about books, booksellers, or publishers on this list, simply because they will appear in a later list. I don't know about classifying books in this way, it's a losing battle, really. Some of the titles below could appear in a history list, or travel, or belles lettres. Here we go, and again, no particular order.

Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen. Random House, New York 1938. I couldn't list this with the travel books yesterday, because I consider this a memoir. Everyone knows the story, but it's her language, and what she doesn't say, both about her husband and her lover, that cuts to the core. One of my very favorite books of all time. I have a collection of books that are peripheral to this one: the fine biography of Denys Finch Hatton, Beryl Markham's West with the Night, and many of photographer and diarist Peter Beard's books.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom – T.E. Lawrence. Cape, London 1935. A book I can return to again and again, truly a masterpiece. Crucial reading for anyone interested in the Arab world, but don't read it just for that, read it for its beauty and obsessiveness, too.

Far Away and Long Ago – W.H. Hudson. Dutton, New York 1918. Hudson's account of his childhood in the wilds of South America. So different and beautiful and strange. I love reading about remote places, hence yesterday's list, and Chatwin's In Patagonia is a good modern companion to this memoir.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer – Elizabeth von Arnim. Macmillan, New York 1899 and 1900. Very gentle books, and I love them for this. A German countess reads and gardens, raises her children, eyes her husband, The Man of Wrath (as he is known in her books), warily, and writes about her inner life and the restrictions placed on women in her station in life. Written as fiction, but they read as straight autobiography, and have photographs in them of her home, gardens, library, and children. She also wrote the novel The Enchanted April (the movie of the same name is based on this book).

Noa Noa – Paul Gauguin. Brown, New York 1920. Talk about desert-island books, this is one of the originals. Artist Paul Gaughin's autobiographical sketches about leaving Europe and the West behind as best he can, to live and paint in Tahiti.

Pack My Bag – Henry Green. New Directions, New York 1993. I love reading authors' accounts of often-hellish childhoods. This is the finest one I know of. It covers Green's early life, his schooling at Eton and Oxford, and his child's-eye-view of English society and of his own eccentric family. He wrote it thinking that he would be killed in the looming war (World War II). He wasn't, of course, but thank god it inspired him to write this book.

Another Self – James Lees-Milne. Coward-McCann, New York 1970. I have been trying for several years to assemble a collection of the diaries of James Lees-Milne. Unsuccessfully. So I re-read this memoir of his English childhood to tide me over until I can get my hands on the rest of his oeuvre. Almost as good as Henry Green's memoir above, and that's saying a lot.

Not Entitled – Frank Kermode. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1995. My last name is Manx, from the Isle of Man, and being thus interested in all things Manx I picked this up. I also love Kermode's TLS contributions and scholarly works, and this quiet memoir of his childhood on the Isle of Man, and his life as a young soldier and scholar, was also wonderful.

The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler – Jenny McMorris. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001. Very dry, but like a martini, much better that way. How else could a biography about the author of Fowler's classic Modern English Usage be?

Mister Jelly Roll – Alan Lomax. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York 1950. Something a little different - a lively biography of New Orleans jazz artist Jelly Roll Morton.

My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell. Viking, New York 1957. This memoir of naturalist Durrell's childhood on Corfu is another of my favorite books ever, probably because my family read it aloud several times when I was young, so I've been imprinted. But also because I can re-read it at any time and fall in love with it all over again, his language and description is so beautiful. The stories are often very funny, and I love the sense throughout of his being the youngest and quietest in the family, the observer. He wrote several sequels which are also good, particularly for those interested in seeing his brother Lawrence Durrell in an informal light.

Undertones of War – Edmund Blunden. Cobden-Sanderson, London 1930. The best of the soldier-poet memoirs to emerge from World War I. Beautifully written, heartbreaking.

Good-bye to All That – Robert Graves. Doubleday, New York 1957. His truly classic account of World War I and the personal breakdown that followed, with his refusal to accept the roles that British society dictated he should uphold.

The Diaries of Siegfried Sassoon. Faber and Faber, London 1983 forward. Published in several volumes over a decade or so. Sassoon was well aware that his diaries would be in print someday, and self-edited them for years, but even so they retain an immediacy and intimacy that keeps me going back to them. The first volume covers the World War I years, and later volumes his social and literary life in the 1920s and 30s.

The Letters of Gertrude Bell. Benn, London 1927. Probably my favorite collection of an author's letters to date. She describes her travels all over the Middle East, Persia, Arabia, and Mesopotamia, particularly in what is now Iraq.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge – Calvin Tomkins. Modern Library, New York 1998. Tomkins's short biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy. Written almost by accident - one of Tomkins's children met Gerald Murphy over a hedge in their backyard one day (they were neighbors), and one conversation led to another. Tomkins eventually realized that the Murphys were the same people that F. Scott Fitzgerald based the Divers on, in Tender is the Night.

Doing Battle – Paul Fussell. Little, Brown, Boston 1996. Fussell has written a few books about his experiences during World War II, and this is the one that leaves me the most thankful.

My Search for B. Traven – Jonah Raskin. Methuen, New York 1980. A biographer mystified and finally stymied by his notoriously elusive subject, B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Death Ship, and other novels.

In Pharaoh’s Army – Tobias Wolff. Knopf, New York 1994. I still haven't read This Boy's Life, which sits next to this book on my shelves at home. I'll get to it. Someday. In the meantime, this book is very fine, about his Vietnam experience and his return home.

Memoirs and Passions and Impressions – Pablo Neruda. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1977 and 1983. Neruda's prose is as fluid and meaningful as his poetry.

Greene on Capri – Shirley Hazzard. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2000. A perfect book, impeccable writing, a sideways glance at Graham Greene during a particular time and in a certain place.

Bruce Chatwin – Nicholas Shakespeare. Doubleday, New York 2000. I think Chatwin will show up at least once, somewhere, on all of my lists. He was unique and has many admirers, for good reason. This is the official biography, written with the cooperation of his widow, and delves into both the darkness and the light.

Wordstruck – Robert MacNeil. Viking, New York 1989. A funny and joyful look at how books, writing, and journalism awakened him to the world at large. I see that a book about books, in a way, has managed to sneak on to this list after all. What is there to do but acquiesce.

Life in a Day – Doris Grumbach. Beacon, Boston 1996. One of the only books I've ever read that truly captures how a bookish person thinks during any given day. Reading this is like browsing in your home library, jumping from book to book, topic to topic, following your natural inclinations. This isn't really a book about books, it just looks that way from my encapsulation.

The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists – edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. Canongate, Edinburgh 2000. Snippets of personal diaries from all times and places. The Taylors picked masterful entries, too, ones that are shocking, sometimes horrifying, often beautiful. Many of the selections are previously unpublished, and many are from very well-known authors (Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys - Yes, yes, I still intend to finish reading his diaries...).

It’s a Slippery Slope – Spalding Gray. Noonday, New York 1997. He spares himself nothing, he will say anything about how he's really feeling. In this case about his terrible personal behavior, and about learning to ski. I could have picked others of his books for this list, but read this recently and thought it was so funny and hard and truthful and real that it would serve.

Dry – Augusten Burroughs. St. Martin’s Press, New York 2003. For the same reason as above, I'm adding this because it's such a hard, good book, and the author doesn't spare himself. Addiction, alcoholism, recovery, even triumph.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers. Simon & Schuster, New York 2000. While I was reading this, a small (and getting continuously louder) voice in my head was saying, Thank god, thank god, someone in my generation has found a way to write a real book, a great book, one that means something real, that rejects postmodern irony and distance and all that junk, and really goes right for the guts... The voice was saying this, I should say, only when I wasn't completely involved in the prose itself. When I took a break to catch my breath.

Once again I must stop here. I've got bookcases at home bulging (an unattractive word, but there it is, they're bulging, albeit neatly) with memoirs and could list so many more, but these will have to suffice for now. What have I left out? Joseph Mitchell's book Joe Gould's Secret, perhaps, one of my favorite books about a forgotten man, a semi-crazy street bum, the kind of person that memoirs don't usually get written about. Or The Education of Henry Adams, which I finally read this spring. And Pepys, of course. And Christopher Morley's autobiographical novel John Mistletoe. Oh dear. I can see that I may live to regret this undertaking.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Favorite travel books

In honor of my upcoming vacation, and one of my favorite kinds of books to read, I'll start with favorite travel books. I've always been an armchair traveler, and in fact I've read so many British travel narratives that I automatically want to write traveller instead of traveler. After the title and author, I'll list the publisher and date for the edition I happen to have - which in many cases isn't the first date of publication. If I can find the original publication date I'll list that too. Enjoy. I sure have. These books appear in no particular order. Pack the steamer trunks, slap on the luggage labels, and I'll try to go easy on the superlatives.

The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron. Picador, London 1994 (original publication date 1937). This was Bruce Chatwin's holy grail, and he carried his copy in his haversack on his own journeys until it practically fell to bits. Written in the style of a diary, this book was actually the result of hard labor long after his 1930s journey around Persia took place. Byron died when his ship was torpedoed by a u-boat during World War II. Oxford University Press keeps this book in print, bless them.

Passenger to Teheran – Vita Sackville-West. Moyer Bell, New York 1990 (1926). An absolute classic of British literary travel between the world wars. The Moyer Bell edition is published with the author's photographs. I consider her travel writing much finer than her fiction.

Twelve Days – Vita Sackville-West. Doubleday, Doran, Garden City, New York 1928. The follow-up to the above, equally good, but much harder to find. Her account of traipsing around the Bakhtiari Mountains in southwest Persia.

A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor. Penguin, New York 1988 (1977). His account of of a walking trip across Europe, when he was 18, in 1933. This volume covers his journey from London to Holland and then on foot to Hungary. I just bought a copy of the second volume, in which he continues to Constantinople, Between the Woods and the Water (1987), and I can't wait to read it. This may be one of the books I bring with me next week. I cannot stress enough how truly beautiful this author's prose is.

The Traveller’s Tree – Patrick Leigh Fermor. Murray, London 1951. His thick lovely book about the West Indies. Another of Bruce Chatwin's favorite authors (a theme seems to be emerging here).

The Women of Cairo – Gérard de Nerval. Routledge, London 1929. Unusual, descriptive, Flaubert-ish but more mystical. Strange title, because the women of Cairo are not the focus of the book in general. Perhaps the publisher thought this mysterious title would sell more copies of an otherwise-straightforward travelogue.

The Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford 1967. Eighteenth-century author whose husband was the British ambassador to Constantinople. Her letters are witty and intelligent, and she must be classified as one of the first bluestockings.

Orient Express – John Dos Passos. Harper, New York 1927. I've tried to read his fiction and I can't make any progress whatsoever. This book, however, I really loved - a vivid account of his journey on the famous passenger train. The original edition of the book is illustrated with a few of his own watercolors.

Hot Countries – Alec Waugh. Farrar & Rinehart, New York 1930. Tahiti, Ceylon, a chapter entitled "The Englishman in the Tropics" - this is my favorite travel book (barring Byron's) from the period of travel writing between the world wars. I love Alec's travel writing, but can't get interested in his fiction at all, meanwhile his brother Evelyn's travel writing is interesting but not (so far) fantastic, yet his fiction (and letters) are terrific. Go figure.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee. Atheneum, New York 1969. I keep using the word classic, but this really is one of the great travel books, about the author's walking trip to London, and then through rural Spain.

Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger. Dutton, New York 1959. Thesiger's account of his travels among the Bedouin tribes and deserts of southern Arabia. Written with deep love for the landscape and the people. One of those books in which the reader senses that the author has been lucky enough to discover a true spiritual home, one which was not the country of his birth.

To the Back of Beyond – Fitzroy Maclean. Little, Brown, Boston 1974. Detailed history and travel narrative-style description of Mongolia and the wilds of Central Asia. A compelling book on this remote region.

A Short Walk – Eric Newby. Doubleday, Garden City, New York 1959. Called A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush in later U.S. editions, the title is meant to be facetious (because there is no such thing). The intrepid author and a friend decide they will go mountainclimbing in the Pamirs. They have never climbed so much as a hill before. Hilarity and despair ensue. Newby wrote many travel narratives but this is my favorite, a gem in the fine tradition of the intrepid and self-deprecating British travel memoir.

The Light Garden of the Angel King – Peter Levi. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis 1972. Peter Levi and Bruce Chatwin and friends scramble around Afghanistan on donkeys. Chatwin was going to write a book about this trip, but Levi got there first and Chatwin thought Levi's book was better than anything he could have written. However, some of Chatwin's photographs are in Levi's book, so this is a must-have for the Chatwin collector (that would be ME).

In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin. Summit, New York 1977. He finally appears himself. My aunt, god love her, sent me this book as a Christmas gift when I was twelve. I still have that copy, with her gift tag, which says, "This is one of my favorite books." Now it's one of mine. And what a strange and lovely book it is - part memoir, history, travel book. Immediately captivating. Chatwin legend says he sent a telegraph to his boss at the Times, saying, "Gone to Patagonia." If it didn't really happen, it should have.

The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen. Viking, New York 1978. Part Himalayan travel book, part Zen memoir. Matthiessen wrote this account of a trip with scientist George Schaller, who wrote his own book, Stones of Silence, about the wildlife of the Himalayas. Interesting to read them back to back, though they are completely different in style and substance.

In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods – Galen Rowell. Sierra Club, San Francisco 1977. Rowell is known as a photographer and climber, but his writing is also fine - this book is about Rowell's attempt to climb K2 as part of a team of American mountaineers.

Steaming to Bamboola – Christopher Buckley. Congdon & Lattès, New York 1982. Tramp freighter travel and container-ship travel is an obsession of mine. This rather dark memoir helps to dispel any romantic illusions one might have about this form of travel.

Rolling Nowhere – Ted Conover. Penguin, New York 1985. Who says it's too late to be a hobo. Like Buckley's book, this one also clears up any romantic ideas we might have about riding the rails. Good journalism, and a great memoir.

Falling Off the Map – Pico Iyer. Knopf, New York 1993. Subtitled "Some Lonely Places of the World." Iyer's third book, and my favorite thus far (clarification: I have some more recent books of his which I have not read yet, but fully intend to).

The Sun Never Sets – Simon Winchester. Prentice-Hall, New York 1985. Winchester visits all the remaining (and remote) outposts of the British Empire, such as it was in the 1980s. Odd, and rather wonderful.

The Happy Isles of Oceania and The Pillars of Hercules – Paul Theroux. Putnam, New York 1992 and 1995. I'm tired of hearing Theroux described as curmudgeonly. Sure, he's got bad things to say about a lot of places and people, but I find that these bits of sullenness are always balanced by descriptions of great beauty and moments of joy. He's after the whole experience of a place. The Pillars of Hercules particularly kept me captivated, but I took a lot of notes out of both books as I read. I wanted to go too, the test of a great travel book?

The Art of Travel – Alain de Botton. Pantheon, New York 2002. I've already dithered about de Botton, but he's just so good. This is too, and it's not like any other travel book I've ever read. Why do we travel? Is it ourselves we wish to leave behind? Are we lulled into thinking this can actually happen? How does a beautiful or sublime place affect us?

Travels with a Tangerine – Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Welcome Rain, New York 2001. I devoured this book. I know there's a second part that was published last year, and it's not available in the U.S. yet. I may break down and buy the British edition, because I must have it. Mackintosh-Smith follows in the footsteps of fourteenth-century Muslim traveler Ibn Battutah. When I finished this book, I realized many things: I will never travel this route, thank god the author has, and has written about it, so I can follow along, thank god that intelligent books such as this are still being published, I wish I knew ten languages, what else. One of my favorite new-ish travel narratives. Real substance here, and again, that classic British self-deprecation that I so admire.

Ok, I've got to stop somewhere or this will take all day. I know I've left out so many people, like Freya Stark, and Dervla Murphy, and - holy mackerel - Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which I dearly love, and so many others - these authors are on my shelves, but what can I say. There are only so many reading hours in the day. List number two, new subject, tomorrow.


My upcoming vacation & desert island books

I leave this Saturday for a week on an island out in Penobscot Bay. This island has no tv, radio, or computer access. It does have some solar electricity, some hot water, one satellite phone for emergencies only, and one vehicle (that isn't a boat, I should say). It's a tractor. I'll be spending the week in a large house with a small group of people, only one of whom I know, and we'll be doing yoga and meditating part of the time. The rest of the time is for hiking, sketching, writing, sunbathing, swimming, and generally being alone outside. My particular idea of heaven. And did I mention the person in charge of this retreat has hired a chef and a sous chef and will be feeding us three lovely meals a day? More heaven. All I have to bring is clothing, sketching materials (watercolors, paper, etc.), hiking boots, sweaters for cool nights, a flashlight, my camera, a bathing suit, perhaps a book or two. Or three. But really, this island is overwhelmingly lovely and wild, and books become secondary to simply looking around. This from a true book lover! As Alain de Botton says:

“Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.”

(How Proust Can Change Your Life p.197)

Throw them aside - in favor of real life, that is. Not that reading isn't real life, perhaps I should say exterior life instead. I was lucky enough to visit this island twice last year, and am positively gleeful to be returning again, I've been looking forward to this for months. Meantime, I am wondering what to do to keep blog-readers happy while I'm away. So I thought I'd post a few lists over the next few days of some of my very favorite books in different genres, and while I'm gone I hope people will send in their additions to these lists. Take your time, think about your additions for a while, add something then come back and add a few more - I'm looking for the books you are truly crazy about, from any era or author, the ones that bring you the most joy, thoughtfulness, love, despair, comfort, the ones you read once that changed your life somehow, and the ones you re-read every year. Surprise me, and give us all some great books to add to our want lists. I know I talk about my favorite books all the time, but there's room in this big world for many many more. I'll post the first list later today. I'm still trying to decide what today's genre will be.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Saturday this 'n that

After a ridiculously busy morning (when it was sunny and bright outside), the afternoon has been as flat as a pancake (now that it's cooler and rainy). Hm. Things are looking up, though, someone just asked for Richard Brautigan novels, and I have a big stack. Though often folks ask for books, and I have the books, but they don't buy them. They say, "I'll think about it." I think, You've been thinking about it, that's why you asked me for it - and the book in question is, like, six dollars, for a nice clean hardcover...

Anyway, unrelated to shop business or lack thereof: I was sitting in the park this morning finishing Waugh's Labels, which makes me want to visit Malta, among other places, and a cloud passed over and broke the reading spell I was under. I looked up and saw a huge bald eagle making circles above me. The flock of downtown pigeons were nervous. I watched the eagle for about twenty minutes - the bright sunshine was flashing off his head and tail as he wheeled up higher and higher, until I couldn't see him anymore. Eagles are fairly common around here - they fish in the Penobscot River (Bangor is on the west bank of this section of the Penobscot) and nest upriver near a large dam. Salmon used to be prevalent, not so much now, but I hear they are coming back, so perhaps my eagle was on a break from fishing. Sure was beautiful.

Also unrelated to the shop, but in relation to one of my favorite living authors - heck, one of my favorite authors ever, living or otherwise - there's a new Mark Helprin interview in the latest issue of Doublethink. I've read and listened to several interviews with him, and the more I read and hear, the more I respect him and love his sense of humor. And his books, holy cats, do I love his books. Need I mention that I collect his first editions? Well, I guess I just did.

What else, what else. I'm headed out after closing time to visit my new nephew & co., and am of course bringing along a few books for him (one is Burt Dow, Deep Water Man by Robert McCloskey - have to make sure he has all of our old favorites handy). It was my sister's birthday last week, and Ryan's is this week, so we're having a birthday bbq tonight. Other than that, there's not much happening. Except that a week from today I go on a much-anticipated vacation - more about that shortly.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Book design in a nutshell

One of the books I bought last weekend has this chipped and scrappy but still lovely dust jacket:

I started reading the front flap of the jacket, thinking that this would clue me in to what the book was about, but it doesn't - instead it is a short manifesto about good book design techniques, as practiced by the fine folks at Alfred A. Knopf in their series of Borzoi Pocket Books, of which this is one. The flap reads in part:


It hurts to read poorly printed books. Headaches or permanently injured eyesight may result.... A famous modern type designer, quoting the remark that a good page should be transparent, so that you look through the type to the idea behind, adds this illuminating simile: 'Reading a poor type is like trying to look at a landscape through a window with a thick fly-screen on it.'

There are many factors in the making of a transparently readable book: good size type, proper type design, even inking, even impression, good paper surface. Great skill is needed to combine all these requirements successfully. The fine results achieved in the Borzoi Pocket Books are due to the long experience of their publisher, who, for more than a decade, had led the way in the making of beautiful books."

The book itself is "...a happy choice of the world's best stories about cats." It contains tales by Twain, Poe, W.H. Hudson, Algernon Blackwood, et al. I love quirky little anthologies, so I'll take this home to browse in.

"Peril in thine eye" sounded familiar but I had to google to discover that it is a phrase from Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo says to Juliet:

"Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords: look thou but sweet,
And I am proof against their enmity."

The book dates from 1930, and I love how Knopf blithely assumes that all his educated readers will recognize this quote, and appreciate the fine design of his books to boot. Now that I know it is Romeo speaking, I can stretch the quote to encompass book-love. I fell for the sweet design of this small book, not, perhaps, as killingly as Romeo for Juliet, but surely as quickly.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


The witty Waughs

As I've mentioned before, on sunny mornings I like to read in the nearby park before opening the shop. Over the weekend I picked up a bunch of Penguin reprints of Evelyn Waugh's travel books, including his first, Labels, which I haven't yet read. So I started it in the park this morning, and the wit, the wit, it's so good it had me chuckling to myself, no doubt alarming passers-by:

"Now, one of the arts of successful authorship is preventing the reading public from forgetting one's name in between the times when they are reading one's books. It is all very puzzling because, as far as I can see, there are only two respectable reasons for reading a book written by someone else; one is that you are being paid to review it, and the other that you are continually meeting the author and it seems rude not to know about him. But clearly there are masses of people to whom neither of these reasons apply. They read books because they have heard the author's name. Now, even if you are very industrious, you cannot rely on writing more than two books a year, which will employ your public, as it is called, for about six hours each. That is to say, that for every hour in which you employ your reader's attention, you are giving her a month to forget you." (pp.7-8)

As he leaves off these humbling ruminations and packs for his journey (of which this book is the record), he says:

"... I packed up all my clothes and two or three very solemn books, such as Spengler's Decline of the West, and a great many drawing materials, for two of the many quite unfulfilled resolutions which I made about this trip were that I was going to do some serious reading and drawing." (p.9)

Labels was first published in 1930, when Waugh was just twenty-seven. There must be, somewhere, sound recordings of him reading his work. I'd love to hear them, because as I read to myself, I can hear a smart, clipped, English voice. A bit later in the book is an amusing anecdote about his being mistaken in Paris for his brother Alec, also a writer, and originally more popular than Evelyn, probably until Brideshead Revisited was published. One of my favorite travel memoirs is Alec's book Hot Countries. Perhaps I'll write a longer post soon on travel books, but for today, it's the witty Waugh brothers.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Novels of mistaken identity, sort of

My beach book this past weekend was a softcover reprint of Josephine Tey's mystery Brat Farrar, which I'd never read before. I couldn't put it down. It is now added to the short list of books I love in which twins impersonate each other, or lookalikes impersonate someone unknown to them, as part of some nefarious plan. Right up until the end of Brat Farrar, I wasn't quite sure if Brat really was an impersonator or not (and I'm not telling). That, Brat's innate goodness and desire for retribution against the true villain of the tale, and the neatly-constructed plot, kept me turning pages quickly. It reminded me in many ways of an almost-gothic novel from the sixties, I think, by Mary Stewart: The Ivy Tree, in which a young woman is hired by a no-good handsome farmhand to impersonate the lost prodigal daughter, who was apparently her double. Both novels also feature horses in the English countryside as key points in the plots. The Ivy Tree is also a page-turner and is one of my beach books from my mother's bookshelf. I first read it when I was around sixteen. Even though I know how it ends, Stewart's writing is a pleasure to re-read. Others come to mind: The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain, the twins and mistaken identities in the plays of Shakespeare (particularly in Twelfth Night, the twins Viola and Sebastian), and another Mary Stewart novel, Touch Not the Cat, which features a set of possibly psychic and possibly wicked twins, but the reader doesn't know if they are heroes or villains until the final chapters. I don't usually read mysteries, but I'd always heard good things about Brat Farrar, so when a copy turned up at one of the recent book sales, that tipped the scales and I grabbed it as I was leaving the shop. Glad I did. Anyone have other mistaken identity tales? I know I'm missing one more, but I can't think of it.

I've been sorting books for two days now, and am almost finished. Three boxes to go, but I'm not going to get to them today, I've got other chores to do before I head out tonight. Whew. Teetering stacks all around me of the books I haven't shelved yet. If they fall over and crush me, I wish you all the best, dear readers. Please don't think of me with sympathy, I brought it on myself, you know.

Monday, August 07, 2006


Up to my ears in books

What a weekend - I made a housecall to buy books on Friday night after closing up shop, then I was up early on Saturday to head to a library sale down on Mount Desert Island (this is one of my favorite local friends-of-the-library sales, because the books are consistently fine from year to year), then I went to another library sale, also on the island. The car was full by the time we headed for home, after getting the book-dust rinsed off in the ocean, and a few hours of lounging at the beach in Seal Harbor. So here I sit, surrounded by boxes. I am a bit of a neat freak, so I've got to go through them and get the books out, and the boxes broken down and have everything tidy again, but this is a little ridiculous - seventeen cartons of books, people - seventeen. My, my. I'll be busy for the next two days at least.

My usual routine for sorting books goes something like this: unpack one box at a time, clean off the books with very lightly damp rags/paper towels, remove old stickers and gunk, code the books with my secret price code, put dust jacket protectors on all the books with jackets, sort into piles - keep/read, price and put out in the shop immediately, squirrel away for a bookshow, list on Amazon, and mystery books which need some research. Price the books I can right away, and shelve them. One box at a time until I'm through. Half the fun is discovering what I forgot I bought. The only things I distinctly remember right now that I'm very excited about unearthing are an early Edward Gorey hardcover with a jacket, a signed Fitzroy MacLean hardcover in jacket (I love his travel/history books and I've never seen a signed one before), and a fine first edition in fine jacket of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. That's just three books out of the sixteen boxes, though- there's lots more to report on later.

Friday, August 04, 2006


On keeping journals

When I read (for at least for one significant block of time daily, unless circumstances are wildly beyond my control) I usually have a little chit of paper tucked in the book at hand, and as I come across sentences I want to remember, I jot down the page number and first word of the quote on the chit. Then when I finish the book I go back and copy these quotes over into my journal. I got into the habit of keeping a journal in college, although I also kept diaries as a teenager (oh the shame), and now it's something of an addiction. I could never bring myself to underline passages in my books, so this is my alternative, and the beauty of it is that interspersed with my journal entries I have a tidy history of my reading life. It's rare that I read a book and don't find something to copy out of it. I like the act of copying another writer's sentences into my own book - it lodges the quote in my brain, and lets me revisit what I thought was important when I flip back through years' worth of pages. I think I've called it a commonplace book, or books, before now on this blog, I can't remember. But mine has the quotations mixed in with everything else.

All this is on my mind today because I've been searching in my old journals for the entries concerning certain paintings (I also make a tiny thumbnail sketch in my journal when I make a painting, as well as writing about the painting itself). I've been lax about labelling my work this year, so this is a catch-up project. The up side of this is that I'm re-reading old quotes, which is always fun, they bring back the best of what I read last year. Here are a few things I found in Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler (Turtle Point Press 2004), which I read last fall, long before (gasp!) I started to blog:

"It seems to me that I've been so GOOD that I couldn't hate myself more. I don't see why I couldn't have been born a robber baron type instead of a fool." (p.33)

On work: "It isn't that it helps so very much, it's just that when your mind is engaged you can't brood with quite the intensity as when you're staring at the wall or lying on your back or washing the same cup over and over." (p.40)

"...Irving Thalberg had wonderful ideas about how beautiful and glamorous beauty and glamour are." (p.115)

"...I've always imagined that true maturity would be to read, enjoy and understand a Sherwood Anderson novel. A day I hope to postpone as long as possible." (p.198)

I see that Schuyler's letters to Frank O'Hara are due to be published in September (they aren't included in the above collection), can't wait...

So who underlines books? Who dog-ears pages? (Have I asked this question before? And did anyone actually answer?) And when you do these things, dear readers, do you ever actually go back to the book in question and re-read what you've marked, or is it an exercise in futility? I see an awful lot of underlined books in my travels, and I try not to let them into my shop, though they sneak in somehow. I have a friend who keeps his commonplace book on his computer, all indexed by author and even subject. I wonder if he reads it, I'm too shy to ask. I used to use plain black sketchbooks, the kind I used in school to keep art journals for my painting and drawing classes, but a few years ago I switched to the ubiquitous Moleskine journal, still plain, black, and unlined, but smaller and easier to keep with me when I'm out and about. I've filled five this year. Expensive little buggers, when you go through them quickly. Hang the expense, they were Bruce Chatwin's notebooks of choice. As soon as I found that out, I was lost.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Back to what is really important

Books, of course. The last few posts seem whiny, which I hate. So I will balance them out with a few quotations about book-love, which is the reason I'm in this business, and I assume the reason that some folks read this blog. I'm almost finished reading Dreamthorp, and in one of his essays ("Men of Letters") Alexander Smith says:

"Books are a finer world within the world. With books are connected all my desires and aspirations. ... I care for no other fashion of greatness. I'd as lief not be remembered at all as be remembered in connection with anything else. I would rather be Charles Lamb than Charles XII. I would rather be remembered by a song than by a victory. I would rather build a fine sonnet than have built St. Paul's. ... Fine phrases I value more than bank notes. I have ear for no other harmony than the harmony of words. To be occasionally quoted is the only fame I care for." (pp.171-172)

I am happy to quote him. I also like this from his essay entitled "A Shelf in My Bookcase":

"... when we open them (books) these past experiences and conditions of life gleam visibly to us far down like submerged cities - all empty and hollow now, though once filled with life as real as our own - through transparent waters." (p.233)

Books as submerged cities, a wonderful image.


More about customers

Most of my customers, as I've said before this, are delightful, quiet, intelligent people who feel the need to buy books from time to time. Bless them. The tarnished side of the coin, however, is the rest of the buying (or not-buying, more likely) public. I've just had a slightly exhausting morning listening to the bombast of two people who felt the need to sound off about the various political issues of our day. Which do concern me, but. The first person is slightly unhinged but stable, and she always buys a lot of books when she comes in. The second (they came in back to back, lucky me) is a retired teacher, and in his own words, "I have to get out and talk to people, since I've retired and don't have a captive audience anymore in the classroom." The problem with this type of customer is that I become the captive audience. It's wearying, after a time, being lectured to. I enjoy conversation, give and take, dialogue - although I actually prefer being left in peace... I don't want to whine or rant, because I dislike that form of communication, and that's what these folks presented to me this morning and I don't want to pass it on to any stray blog-readers, so please consider this an anti-rant. In any form of retail there exists the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ex-clerks the world over know this. It helps dispel the idealism that people who haven't worked in retail seem to retain about the glories of running a bookshop. Most days, glory. Some days, not.

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