Thursday, May 31, 2007

 

Am I really a capitalist?

I do love selling books. I looooove buying and selling. However, some days I think I'd prefer to simply give them away, if there was some way to make that actually work (meaning I could still pay the bills). Sadly, no. There's something oddly embarrassing about standing on the other side of a table from someone with money in hand, and I take it and give the person books in exchange. I've never quite gotten comfortable with it, in all my years of shop-sitting. This wasn't a problem when I worked for someone else. But a sole-proprietor shop is just that - your book-dollars support me and my little endeavours, and not much else, unless we want to orate to the ether and posit that dollars spent at a little shop like mine support the general and larger worthy cause of quirky used bookshops everywhere, and even support the wide dissemination of ideas by keeping great books circulating throughout a more-or-less free society. Noble causes, in other words. Why not believe such a thing, on your side of the counter, because that's part of what keeps me going, on this side.

The flip side of taking people's money is of course doling out my own. All week the phone has been ringing off the hook with people trying to sell me stuff. Spring cleaning time all over the place. Frustratingly, the books offered have either been far too good (can't afford 'em), or, the more usual case, common to the point of saturation (don't want 'em). Where are all the mid-range decent antiquarian books? One answer: among the hundred million books languishing for sale on ABE. Well, as my friend Paul said, in his bookshop last Saturday when I was visiting at the end of the day (forgive me as I paraphrase somewhat - Hi Paul and Agnes!), "We're in a dying business, but at least we're in it." We all find creative ways to keep going, and I thank god for it.

That's what's on my mind at the shop, and as far as this week's reading goes, it's been poetry all the way. Among other things, I read the Collected Poems of James Wright. I also received a few packages from my pal Don in California (Hi Don!). He included a batch of clippings and articles he knew I'd like, and as I looked at them I thought it was like he had read my mind, then I realized that he had, essentially, because he reads my blog. To bring this meander back to poetry, a stanza in one of James Wright's poems made me aware of how truly odd it is to share one's brain (and heart) with others, in a blog, or in any form (from the poem "Inscription for the Tank" on p.142):

"Of all my lives, the one most secret to me,
Folded deep in a book never written,
Locked up in a dream of a still place,
I have blurted out."

The best poems always seem to the reader to be about the reader and the reader's perception (the old specific-becoming-universal idea, which makes me think of Keats), as if the author had stepped aside and the reader could have spoken the poem, and this one really got me where I live. I always think and hope that I am sharing my best self here, my bookish self, or some of it at least. Even though melancholy and even some bitterness creeps in from the sides, do what I can to beat it back. I do think that this is who I really am, and once again, it's oddly embarrassing to stand on the other side of the table, as it were. But what else can one do, when one has something to offer? This is of course a rhetorical question, but I welcome answers to it anyway.

Advice for this week: get out and put your face in the lilacs, it's lilac week in Maine (Hi Vicky!) and this time is all too fleeting (there's some of that melancholy). Ryan and I visited the ornamental gardens at the University of Maine two nights ago, and their long row of old heirloom lilacs is just tremendous - all different, all fragrant, all huge and beautiful. Time to put the books aside and get out into the beginnings of summer.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

 

Portrait of a Book collector

Mercy, it's been busy at the shop this week, how I love it. I forget every year that tourists return with the good weather, and they love to browse (they are on vacation, after all) and they often buy books indiscriminately. At one point mid-week, I even had three people lined up at the same time waiting to pay for their books. Sold: Kerouac's Heaven & Other Poems, Chatwin's In Patagonia (reprint, still, I love to handsell this book), some Stephen King books (he lives up the street so lots of folks come here to Bangor for that reason alone), a few Lama Surya Das hardcovers, a fat dictionary of metaphors, two Eric Newby hardcovers, a beautiful little facsimile edition of a medieval book of hours, a Latin-English dictionary, Blueberries for Sal, yet another copy of The Practical Cogitator (the woman who bought it carried it over to my desk and asked, "Do you know anything about this book? Is it any good?" And I grinned and said, "Oh, yes..."), three books on garden flowers, Clavell's King Rat, Pascal's Pensées, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Householder, Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen, Gibbon's complete Decline & Fall in the Modern Library set, etc. All this has made me realize that I really need to get out and buy some new books for the shop. I skipped a small library sale this morning because I had a few other errands and I didn't want to open the shop late today (hoping for more holiday weekend customers). But really, what was I thinking, I should have gone to the sale. Hindsight is often oppressive.

Enough about the shop. Books, books, books. I can't stop myself from sharing yet another item I picked up in Boston (again at Commonwealth Books, for a measly $3.50), a sewn pamphlet entitled Peiresc & His Books by Pierre Gassendi, published by David Godine, Boston 1970. The pamplet was hiding in the books-about-books section - and serves to remind us that often the best items are the plainest-looking little things, so check every book, check particularly those that have no lettering on the spine or no spine at all, in this case. Here's the title page, sans its wide borders, which my temperamental scanner doesn't wish to reproduce (so please imagine them, those pleasingly spacious and necessary areas of white space):

Really, look at that. Understated elegance. The colophon states that this booklet is "the seventh in the series of poems, tracts & broadsides to be published & printed at the press of David Godine." So, a nice early letterpress (monotype) item of his. Perhaps I will collect them all. But who is Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc, you ask? A book collector, of course, and this booklet contains a very brief excerpt from Gassendi's biography of him. The introduction says he was a French humanist who was born in 1580, and when he died in 1637 in Aix he left 5400 volumes behind (though he had already given many books away before his death). Gassendi was a contemporary of his, and Peiresc willed him 100 books of his choice. The English translation presented here is from the 1657 London edition of the complete book. The main section of this booklet is only six pages long, but it is so charming and so lovingly printed that I had to have it. Much as I'd like the complete book, but that's another story. For beauty's sake, here's the last page of the main text:
More lovely typography from this fine press, which is still going strong today and still publishing great bookish books. The page obviously quotes the typography of the famous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (scroll down to the bottom to see some of its text forms). This sure must be tricky to pull off when one is setting type! I don't know if Peiresc cared about type per se, but he was obviously a bibliophile of the highest order:

"...his care was exceeding great, to procure plenty and variety of Books.... he bought up printed books at Rome, Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, London, Lions, and other places.... Also, where ever any Libraries were to be sold by out-cry, he took order to have the rarer Books bought up, especially such as were of some neat Edition which he had not. And truly 'tis incredible to tell how great a number of Books he gathered together."

He apparently was well-known for both lending books and giving them away if asked or if he felt they were needed, particularly "such Books as were commonly to be had at the Book-sellers, of them he was wonderfully profuse and lavish." Good man! I like the way the word Book is capitalized throughout. Gives it its proper importance, don't you know. Perhaps we should revive this practice. Back to work - hoping for profuse and lavish buyers. Though one would suffice.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

 

Richer Reading

This little item is one of the books I bought in Boston (at Commonwealth Books, $8, nice dust jacket), The Nature Writers: A Guide to Richer Reading by Herbert Faulkner West (Stephen Daye Press 1939), who we already know from his wonderful Modern Book Collecting for the Impecunious Amateur. Well, I'd never seen The Nature Writers before, and this copy has interesting pencil notes and check marks throughout its text - someone obviously took it seriously a few decades ago - so it came home with me. I just got around to looking at it yesterday, and I'm pleased to discover that what he thinks of as nature writing cuts a fairly broad swath through the genres of travel, adventure, history, and whatever else can qualify as furthering an awareness of the natural world and its workings. The book really is no more than a well-annotated reading list, but the short foreword by Henry Beston, whose The Outermost House appears on the list, and West's own introduction put some meat on its bones. The introduction mentions that West based this book on a literature class he taught at Dartmouth. The purpose of this class was "to bring before as many students as possible great books on the out-of-doors, which they may read and collect not only through their four years of college, but as long as they live.... Most of us cannot, in the nature of things, be great travellers and explorers, but with the use of our imagination, and with these books as a guide we can travel to all corners of the earth; we can learn, even though in a desultory fashion, some of the mysteries and marvels of nature." (pp.28-29) I wish I'd been able to sit in on his class! Come to think of it, though, I can - sort of - because of his book.

The book list ranges around through the best of John James Audubon, John Burroughs, Charles Darwin, W.H. Hudson, John Muir, Thoreau, and Gilbert White, but also includes more unusual suspects such as Gertrude Bell, Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence (West includes his Seven Pillars of Wisdom "for its amazing and penetrating revelation of an amazing people and country.... Surely one of the greatest books of the twentieth century." p.93 - I completely agree, one of my favorite books, simply incredible, a classic, it's in my top 20 of all time!), Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Freya Stark. I particularly like the previous owner's check marks all through the book, next to titles read. They cover nearly half the book - not bad for a lifetime's worth of reading suggestions. West lists around 250 titles. Though I'd heard of many of them, I came across only a handful I'd actually read. Well, 10 down, only 240 left to go!

Friday, May 18, 2007

 

Nitpicky Friday, or, I Attempt to Clean Off My Desk

Shades of Eats, Shoots and Leaves? I see more and more typos across the board - more in my mail, in magazines and newspapers, email, online, on produce signs at the market (I can't help pointing these out to Ryan), even on an explanatory tag at a museum recently - and as I was griping about this ongoing phenomenon with friends, one confided that while he didn't care particularly about political correctness (perhaps because it's become so ingrained in our speech and writing by this point?), he was very concerned with grammatical correctness, and in fact he wished we could replace p.c. with g.c. G.C. Nice, I like it! Another pal of mine came by the shop last week and told me that one of his nicknames is Conan the Grammarian. He gets a bit testy about misplaced apostrophes and suchlike. I'm not annoyed, I just notice them. But I think fussy details are on my mind today because I've spent much of it dealing with the paper pile on my desk. Where does it all come from, and how can I get rid of it? Yes, I called the phone numbers to have my junk mail reduced. It's those little bits of paper I write notes on - important notes! - and then have to deal with later. And catalogues, bookish magazines, other ephemeral detritus. And, I must admit, it's the books. Take home? Price? Read? Browse in before shelving? I've had a few of these books here for weeks. Oh yeah, I haven't been here for weeks. Or so it seems. I'm still blowing my nose a lot (charming, I know), but I'm feeling better, more or less.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

 

Return to the land of the living

I'm finally back in the bookshop. What a week. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has gotten done this week. No books sold, no books read. I've been sick sick sick and decided yesterday that I'd better start taking an interest in life again, otherwise I could well find myself on an unstoppable downward slide. So I did some gentle yoga, ate something good, engaged my brain again with a few New York Times crossword puzzles, and did a little watercolor of the tulips Ryan brought home. And today, I feel well enough to be out in the world without being Typhoid Mary. The shop is still here. I find I am interested in books again, and art. I am upright, but a little tippy. I am seven pounds lighter than I was last Friday (and no, I'm not dehydrated - in fact all I've been able to do is drink water and tea all day long). Fascinating as I'm sure this is, that's enough of that. Except to say thanks for the get-well wishes.

My trip to Cambridge/Boston last week: it seems like a decade ago already, but here are a few highlights anyway. The Edward Hopper show at the MFA: RUN, do not walk! In a word, incredible. I'd seen his paintings in books for years, and always thought Well, ok, but my lord, in real life they just leap off the walls. The colors, the certainty of the forms, the solidity of the structures, and above all the light. Terrific! I spent over three hours in the exhibit and found myself returning again and again to five or six oils that had me shaking my head. I couldn't decide whether to cry or sing. I absolutely LOVE being in a space filled with great art, especially the work of one person over the course of a long life. The show is up until mid-August, and I'm going to have to go back before then. All I could think about was how much I wanted to come back to Maine and get painting myself. The show was very motivating. Here's what Hopper said about his art, and art in general, in a bit from Lloyd Goodrich's book from the 1980s, Edward Hopper (p.153):

" 'Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist.... The inner life of a human being is is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design.' "

I also visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (to revisit some favorites) and the Fogg at Harvard (to see a great little show of watercolors by John Ruskin and nature-inspired friends of Ruskin, and to see the permanent collection). Then there were the bookshops. I bought books at Commonwealth Books again (this time at their Commonwealth Ave location), and also at the Harvard Book Store and the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. I bought Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems (which I didn't yet have in the City Lights edition - though I now see I could own a first edition if I could somehow justify it - there's a lovely copy for sale in Brian Cassidy's very fine inaugural book catalog) at the Harvard, and some Wendell Berry and James Wright at the Grolier, and took them around the corner to read over a great bowl of gazpacho at the Cafe Pamplona on Bow Street, recommended by Daniel at the Grolier. I silently cursed as I realized I'd forgotten to bring the address of Frank O'Hara's room in Cambridge, I wanted to make a little pilgrimage while I was in the neighborhood. Something for next time. Anyway, lunch was great. And the woman at the table next to me at lunch was reading Aristotle. In Greek. Well, we were in the center of Harvard University. Here are a few souvenirs from my trip - some of the paper trail, so to speak:


The postcard in the center of the leatherbound book is from the Boston Athenaeum - it depicts one of George Washington's books. The same book is also conveniently on display on the main floor at the moment, as part of the Athenaeum's exhibit of highlights of 200 years of collecting. I took the free art and architecture tour (call ahead to reserve a spot) and got to see the rest of the Washington collection upstairs - it's in a huge curved built-in glass-front bookcase in the Trustees' Room. If anyone in the Boston area is very bookish and hasn't yet been to the Athenaeum, all I can ask is why not. It's a cathedral for books. Over 600,000 books. It's a fever dream of a library (and I should know, having just had many fever dreams, myself). It is private, but the tours are open to the public.

What else, what else. Most of the books I bought are still at home, so I can't describe them in great detail, that will have to wait for another day. I did get several good books-about-books at Commonwealth. But really most of this trip was about walking and looking - looking at the arrival of summer, looking at art and shop windows and students everywhere preparing for final exams, looking at city life and people reading on the train and thinking This is great, I could live here, I really could. I realized when I came back to scruffy, still-early-spring, countrified Maine that I only thought I could live there because I'd seen the city at its best.

Monday, May 14, 2007

 

Endpaper inscriptions

One more quick note, before I head home: I recently heard from the good folks at The Book Inscriptions Project. Now I'm on the lookout for better-than run-of-the-mill marginalia. You should be, too - this is cool.

 

Spring? Is it spring?

There's something especially demoralizing about being sick in bed when the weather is grand and everything outside is burgeoning with health and beauty. The short version, for now: I had a terrific time in Cambridge and Boston last week, came home, and immediately came down with the flu. I spent the weekend in bed and on the couch (yesterday I watched golf on tv all day - it was the most calming, neutral thing available, and there's something so comforting about Phil Mickelson). I've surfaced this morning to check on things at the shop, get my mail, and water the poor plants before I grumpily totter back home in the heartless brilliant sunshine. Man, I hate being sick. My head hurts too much to read.

Friday, May 04, 2007

 

Lost in The Lymond Chronicles

The last ten days have been something of a blur, because I spent most of them living in the sixteenth century, courtesy of Dorothy Dunnett. A few years ago I read her six-book series The Lymond Chronicles (reprinted in trade paperback by Vintage), and since Ryan was away for work most of last week, I ended up moping around the house until I picked them up again and found I'd forgotten enough of them to re-read the whole thing. They are seriously time-consuming, and I ended up staying up until midnight on several evenings, absolutely riveted to the pages. Each volume is five hundred pages or so, and the prose is dense, encrusted with gems, rich with allusions and wordplay, obscure classical and medieval and renaissance literary references, untranslated quotations in Latin, French, Italian, etc. The books have a plot that just won't quit, with action in Scotland, France, Malta, Istanbul, Moscow, England, and all points between. I mean, talk about page-turners, wow. These are books to wallow in, to luxuriate in. I wish I really could read them again for the first time, especially the final volume, because the suspense lasts literally until the final few pages. I won't give anything away, plot-wise, except to say that Lymond really has to be one of the great fictional heroes in literature - a real swashbuckling everyman, a proto-Elizabethan scholar-warrior-scalawag you quickly come to love. Dunnett brings that era alive through him and his satellites and family, and shows readers it's a dangerous, glittering world worth living in. The only thing comparable to this series for sheer complexity might be The Name of the Rose, but Lymond in my mind is much better, because it's more action/romance/intrigue/history. More MORE. So, it took me ten days to read the whole series, and that's reading a good five or six hours a day, at least. Basically I went on a bender, a book bender. Now I'm in recovery. I don't know what to pick up next. Dunnett is a hard act to follow. I might need some real renaissance literature, like the Decameron or something, I don't know. Luckily, this break in the reading program comes just in time for another little trip south - Ryan goes to Cambridge, Massachusetts on Sunday, again for work, but this time I'm going, too, for a mini-vacation.

Plans include: a visit to the Edward Hopper exhibit opening this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, visits to the Gardner Museum, the Athenaeum, possibly the Fogg at Harvard, a glance in at the Houghton and Widener Libraries, and for bookshops, let's see... the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the Harvard Book Store, Raven Used Books, Rodney's, maybe the Bryn Mawr Book Store, maybe McIntyre and Moore. I also may go visit my grandmother's grave - she's buried at Mount Auburn. Whew. That sounds like a lot to do in four days, we'll see how it goes. I've got good walking shoes, so I should survive. I may have to ask the bookshops to ship my books home, though, because we'll be driving a company car, or should I say Ryan will be driving a company car. No driving for me, not in Boston, not with someone else's car. I'll be on the T and on foot and in a cab if I get stuck somewhere and it's getting late. The only things I'll be carrying will be my wallet and a tiny Moleskine notebook and my fountain pen. Possibly a chapstick (nonpetroleum, organic) and a handkerchief. But no way will be I lugging bags of books all over town. This time (the voice of experience talking - it's happened before, I assure you). I'll be away until Thursday and will report back at the end of next week.

Next time I read the Dorothy Dunnett books, by the way, I will have bought the two available companions to read alongside the novels. The companions have maps, translations, footnotes, and explanations of all the obscure references. But I think the third reading will be a few years from now. The books need to cure for a while, until then. In the meantime, there's always her House of Niccolo series set in fifteenth-century Venice. Eight books long. Haven't read any of it yet. Am simultaneously in a state of anticipation and dread. Dear oh dear. What's a booklover to do.

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