Tuesday, October 30, 2012


owned by my books

Oh, books about books.  I sorted through them and packed up a few more cartons over the weekend.  Do I really need half a shelf of old reports from the Pierpont Morgan Library?  No, I do not.  Do I need duplicate copies of books about books in hardcover and softcover?  No, I do not  Do I need to keep most of my books about books?  Apparently, yes.  Yes, I do.  For when I sifted through them all, so many tugged at my heartstrings in no uncertain terms, and demanded attention and care.  And re-reading.  Thus, after cleaning out, I am still faced with a seven-foot-high bookcase full of books about books.  From top to bottom, it contains books about typography, printing history, and fine presses, then on to publishers' memoirs, booksellers' memoirs, books about running bookshops, books about reading, books about libraries and librarians, and books about collecting and collectors. And some books about book-related ephemera, primarily bookplates and booksellers' tickets.  Also a few books about fine or historic bindings.  And some bibliographies.  Of course these do not all fit into this one big bookcase, most do, but they necessarily spill over into adjoining ones.  Maybe 300 books in total, not a huge collection on this topic, for a bookseller.  Right...?

After facing the wall of books about books, I took a second look at everything else and managed to make a rough count of books in the book room and those remaining in other locations around the house, to see if  I could come up with a number.  Estimating how many books per shelf, how many shelves per bookcase, I arrived at 2500, give or take (again, umm, not an outrageous number, for a booklover...?).  Since I have already packed up and taken away over 500 books, this means I've cut my library by a sixth.  Not exactly the half I was hoping for, or even the third I optimistically anticipated.  C'est la vie.  I see that I still do not own my books.  They own me.

But, these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things.  Which is to say, glancingly, that I feel profoundly grateful and lucky to be able to contemplate and engage in these gentle life preoccupations (books and reading, bookselling, also painting) while so much tumult swirls around, both literally via Hurricane Sandy, and figuratively via the upcoming election (I am searching for a pertinent metaphor and can only come up with the hackneyed but apt hot air).  I hope we all weathered the storm safely, and I also hope that we will all get out and vote next week, to change this turbulent climate, political and otherwise.  

Monday, October 29, 2012


more confectionery

One more, by request, for a long-time reader of this blog.  A bit of my Christopher Morley collection.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


eye candy

One reason I'm having such trouble sorting down my books: they are all loveable, in one way or another.

Some for sentimental reasons, some for their subject matter, some for all that and the clothes they wear.

A few groupings mark significant milestones in my reading life (here are Johnson and Boswell, and now Byron), how can I jettison what has meant so much?  Or, more to the point, why would I?

Many represent my other self, the more adventurous one, that shadow who takes chances I do not take.

We travel, my books and I.  We climb the Himalayas and traverse the Sahara together  We learn Persian.

Who needs Halloween candy, when we have eye candy like this, made just for booklovers.  (Though I must confess, tonight I opened the bag containing all those little boxes of Junior Mints.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012


progress report

My determination to cut the number of books in my home library in half is, in a word, wavering.  This week I sorted through literature, poetry, memoirs, religion, travel, art, children's books, family books (inherited, with family names written inside), history, books about Maine or by Maine authors, house and home, cats!, gardening, cookery, art, reference books, and leatherbounds/fine bindings.  I have yet to approach the motherlode, books about books.  I have hauled nineteen cartons of books out of the book room thus far.  The boxes I use average 25 books per box, which comes to 475 books.  Some of these books I've been hauling around since college (some read, some still unread), some since my very first job at a new bookstore, through seven moves to and from various apartments, some to my own bookshop, then here to our house, then again when I closed the bookshop.  Enough already, right?  I look at the book room today, after removing all those boxes of outgoing loot, and it seems as if I have hardly made a dent.  When I finish, or when I decide to call it a day, I think I will count the books remaining and see what the size of my library actually is (something I don't think I've ever done before).  I am hoping for a third less than when I started. 

Travel books were the hardest to winnow.  Except for a few notable trips, I have otherwise been an armchair traveler, ever since I was ten years old and started sending away for travel brochures about remote places.  In most other subjects I haven't felt that I was giving anything up, really.  Except in this one, in which I feel as if I am letting go of some long-held dreams about who I thought I was going to be.  Compared with who I actually am.  I'm sure I will face a similar dilemma when I start wading through the books about books, except in that arena I actually did accomplish what I dreamed of as a child - I had my own bookshop.  In going through two immense bookcases full of travel narratives and travel memoirs, though, I experienced such a difficult nameless emotion, I can't even put it into words.  It felt something like regret, but add romance, and nostalgia, and perhaps fortitude.  A sad letting go of who I meant to be and what my best self might have done in life.  I did manage to cut the travel books in half.  But I kept a lot of unusual things, and many of my old favorites. 

Keeping books as emblems of some possible future self that has yet to materialize - that feels like a lot of pressure.  Do I need those reminders around?  This might fall under the category of Clutter Recovery 101 - when an object takes on a symbolic meaning that has nothing to do with the object itself.  Hey, maybe if I sold some of these rare and wonderful travel books, I could actually afford to take a trip...    

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


"...essentially it's a love song to my family."

Okay, I set Byron aside long enough to read the new Mark Helprin novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow, this past Friday and Saturday.  I love my beautiful signed first edition, ordered from the author's website, and it was worth waiting for.  I will start by saying that I am ridiculously pleased that Helprin mentions Childe Harold (I mean, who mentions Childe Harold, like, ever) and not only does he mention him, but he mentions him on page one, along with Henry V and Harry Truman, to explicate his main character's name, Harry.  So right away we know we are on a quest of sorts, a deeply romantic and possibly doomed quest.  There is so much I could quote upon this theme, in fact I copied four pages of quotes into my commonplace book, but I will keep this relatively short and settle for one sample sentence (pp.400-401):

"Though he had never stated it, he had felt from early childhood that life was magnificently intense, in splendor overwhelming, in sight demanding, and in time very short.  And that therefore the only worthwhile thing other than a noble showing in the face of its dangers was the ravishing connection of one heart to another."

Examine the describers within that passage, because the entire novel is indicated within them:  magnificent, intense, a thing of overwhelming splendor, demanding, noble, dangerous, worthwhile, ravishing.  Not short (over 700 pages)! but I gladly give him all else, and would add authentic, and sincere (the opposite of ironic).  Almost all of his fiction feels like elegy and this is no exception, although this novel cuts an even wider swath over his particular terrain than he usually does.  I mean, the book can barely contain its own cinematic sweep.  It would make an incredible movie, but it is already so close to being one that I think it is better to have it unfold within the mind and heart.  We don't need the big screen to attempt to make the ineffable real.  Because the words and what they evoke become more than real.  In short, I cried, I laughed, I loved it, I'm glad I read it, and I will read it again.  

I waited to finish the novel itself and form my own opinions before I read any of the reviews, including what turned out to be one of the most painful book reviews I have ever read.  This novel is so not her thing, as we can all tell.  I mean, holy God, did we read the same book?  Another review in the same paper of record was not harsh, but still not exactly good.  Interestingly, being panned by newspaper critics happens to be a key plot device in the novel, so I took it with a grain of salt and moved on.  But still.  In my mind I am sending hothouse flowers to Helprin preceded with multiple telegrams saying Don't listen to her!  Keep writing whatever you most want to write! 

But, I won't defend him because Mark Helprin doesn't need defending.  He can and does defend himself ably, not least through the obvious strengths of his fiction-writing abilities.  But speaking as a reader, for other readers I know are out there, I must just say that some of us do want to view the world through "the author's romance-colored glasses" (which, since we are talking of movies, made me think of nothing so much as an overblown, wonderful song, glorious technicolor, breathtaking cinemascope, and stereophonic sound - thank you, Cole Porter), especially in, um, our romantic fiction, to illuminate our inner worlds, and bring to life redolent evocations of the past.  And by romantic I mean ROMANTIC in all senses of the word.  As in that formerly-mentioned old-fashioned romantic quest, with a real hero, as in a specific romance between two achingly worthy people, as in sublime and terrible and beautiful and... and... but certainly not romantic as if it were an insult to be so.  Some of us want to feel deeply and cry during novels and have our hearts broken over things that should break our hearts.  This novel is full of such things - angels, heroic deeds, trials by water, beautiful descriptions of what souls might be like and might be capable of, classic representations of good and evil.  Even a passionate defense of courtly love in case we harbor any doubts about what side of the fence this novel sits on.

I remember recommending his novel Memoir from Antproof Case to a good friend who was looking for something to get lost in.  I love this novel.  My friend hated this novel!  So I do understand that different tastes exist, of course.  But I myself love grandiloquence when it is tempered by humor and recognition of and deference to what really matters in life, namely love.     

Enough.  I am picking up Byron again, and continuing with Don Juan, and his Letters and Journals.  He only has a few years left to live, and the romance and pathos contained therein will surely hold more than enough heartbreak to keep me in that emotional state I love, a cross between melancholy and happiness.

One last note about Mark Helprin.  The NPR interview is so lovely (and ends with the quote that comprises the title of this post), and their review is very fine.  Thank you, NPR. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


low-hanging fruit

The big book-sorting project has barely begun and already I discover that I own multiple copies of my favorite books, shelved in different places.  A few copies of The Country of the Pointed Firs.  Many copies of Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel books, in hardcover and softcover, both upstairs and down.  I Capture the Castle in hardcover and softcover.  Several fine press editions of Shakespeare's Sonnets, none of which are frankly that attractive, and besides, I have the Sonnets in other formats.  Go they must!  This is the easy part of deciding what to cull.  I can get rid of one copy, because I have another copy right here!

I really thought I had rooted all these duplicates out when we moved here, and then again when I closed my bookshop.  But no, apparently not.  To the point:  in the living room, shelved in two different places in the very same bookcase, mind you not a large bookcase, two copies of The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


coping with collections

Well, look at that, here is blog post number 600.  Mercy.  How time flies when you're reading.

On my mind this week: how to care for collections.  Or, how to keep things you love, without having them keep you.  I am confronting this topic head on at the moment, because we experienced an extraordinarily humid summer this year.  Not wet, in fact not enough rain at all.  Instead, week after week of high humidity.  Living by the ocean as we do, in a circa 1850 house with a fieldstone-walled dirt-floor basement, we therefore suffered from a prolonged case of the rising damps.  Fall rolled around and drier air came with it.  But much to my dismay, as I started some fall clean-up projects, I discovered mildew on some of my beloved books.  Specifically the ones on the first floor - mold, blooming underneath their dust jackets - only on certain kinds of clothbound hardcovers, and on a few leatherbounds as well.  Thankfully we keep most of our books upstairs.  One of the spare bedrooms has no bed in it, rather it is filled with books, and thus we call it the book room.  It contains the core of our library.  All the other books around the house are merely satellites.  The books in the book room seem to be unaffected.

The upshot of this situation is that I am cleaning and sorting like a recovering hoarder.  In fact I am reading articles on the internet about how to let go of possessions which carry emotional attachment, vis-vis hoarding.  I do not live in a clutter-filled house, but I am aware of certain areas in which I tend to hang on to things too long, regarding the main preoccupations of my life (art, books).  The hoarding articles recommend taking it slow.  One room at a time.  One bookshelf at a time.  Clean, sort.  Decide.  Discard, keep.  Then reward yourself.  Not with more of the same, but rather with the satisfaction of empty clean living space around you.  Less to have to tend, take care of, cope with.  Imagine that, and having extra bookshelf space too!  Thus I am practicing creative visualization to help me attain such a goal.  And my goal is specific:  keep the books I love most, the ones I will read (for the first time or again), the ones that are irreplaceable; sell or donate the others; cut my book collection in half so all of my books will fit on the shelves in the book room.  Where, when high humidity strikes again for weeks on end, we can close the door and turn on a dehumidifier for a while, if we need to.  Problem solved.  The rest of the year our house is just fine.  With wood heat and a hot-air furnace it is dry and warm(ish - this is the Maine coast, after all).

Long story short, letting go is sooo hard.  But if Byron can do it - before he left England for good he sold his entire library for payment of debts - he let go, even though he dearly loved - surely, surely, I can voluntarily downsize my book collection.  For our health and peace of mind.  I want to be able to adequately care for the things I decide to keep, without being enslaved to them.  Sound reasonable?  Bonne chance.

I am starting Byron's Don Juan, by the way, but must set it aside since my signed copy of Mark Helprin's new novel just arrived in the mail.  It is sitting here next to me, right now, glowing faintly.  I know I shouldn't be buying another book, just when I am attempting to relinquish such things.  But.          

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


fires for the cold

Over time I have come to recognize that I am one of those readers who wishes to identify with what I am reading.  Not one of those readers who wishes to be surprised and shocked by what I am reading.  Warmth and happiness drift through my being when I read a passage and feel connected to the writer, and the world, by what I have just read.  Truly great writers put into words what we all feel wordlessly, in my opinion.  That's why they are great (how's that for oversimplification). 

Byron is no exception and though he does write about the full range of human experience, from repulsive to exquisite and back again, Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is full of imagery to identify with, for this romantic nature lover, at least.  I read it in one sitting a few nights ago, and kept having to stop to take notes.  Here is stanza CLXXVIII:

"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal."

This begs to be read aloud, the Spenserian stanza rhyme pattern is so addictive and satisfying in its musical repetition (ababbcbcc).  For more reasons to read old-dead-white-person-poetry-which-rhymes, I recommend looking into A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (Mariner 1994) to see how it all works.  The book is filled with her evocative prose (p.122):

"...poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry."

And she explains poetical forms and the traditions and writers they spring from in a way that makes me want to read, READ.

But not today, I am closing the books and heading outside myself, into the pathless woods, down to the lonely shore, to enjoy the warmth of this mild fall afternoon.  I hope the same for you, even if you can only travel to these places for a moment, in your mind.  Perhaps through the alchemy of a poem.

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