Thursday, January 31, 2013
still reading real books, are we?
I woke up this past Sunday with a strong yearning to visit a really good bookshop. I wanted that wonderful old safe feeling, a combination of happiness at being surrounded by quiet walls of secondhand books to the ceiling, pleasure at the near-infinite choice of what to read next, and the excitement of the possibility of discovering buried treasure. So when Ryan asked what we should do today, I told him my wish, and since we had other fish to fry in the same area, we set out for points south. The shop we chose did not disappoint; I immediately found one thing I was searching for, a Samuel Johnson collection that includes his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, which I have been wanting to read for two years and did not own. I also bought two art books, one of which I had read and sold and now want to read again, the other I did not know about and am very interested in. And then for fun, I added The Oxford Book of English Talk, which captures in print over five hundred years of conversations and manners of speech, from literature, court records, periodicals, even early radio. Such a great browsing book. Johnson and Boswell of course make an appearance with some table talk of their own. I think I would, if I put my mind to ever forming a real collection of anything, versus just a windrow, love to collect everything in The Oxford Book of... series. But that just doesn't seem to be the way my habits run, and so in my book booth for sale right now I have The Oxford Book of Food (which I love and did keep at home for many years before deciding to offer it for sale), and a particular old favorite, The Oxford Book of Oxford. Localized but delightful nonetheless, also kept a while and now, no longer. Windrows it is, collections, not so much.
But back to the bookshop visit. We spent over an hour carefully looking through our favorite sections. And then at the checkout counter, listened to the kind clerk's familiar tales of woe: The book business sure has changed (I gestured outside and said "Everything's changed out there," then gently patted my stack of books and said, "but these haven't changed..."); We don't get many dealers in here any more (...but here I am, I thought, as I wrote out a check); and finally, Young people have stopped reading real books. I informed my teenage niece of this a few hours later and she snorted and said, "Not in this family." She just finished decoupaging pages from a damaged copy of a Harry Potter book all over the lining of an old trunk. We say that she's read the Harry Potter series so many times she could teach a class on it. Oh, she reads, that young person, and not just HP. And so do lots of other young people. Real books. They may not be buying them in shops like the one we visited - so many book buyers are indigent and thus seek the best possible (perceived) deal - but I don't really know. I remember all the "kids" who bought books from me at my own shop. Lots of them. One girl came in every time she got paid and bought difficult Russian novels and edgy poetry. I still think of her fondly.
I'm sorry, but I do not think real books are over and done. I just flat-out don't. E-readers are pieces of plastic. But there, now I sound like the clerk at the bookshop, tearing something down, when all I really want to say is, happily and with great sincerity and gratitude: Long live the codex!
Thursday, January 24, 2013
a brush with greatness
Today I was looking back over some photographs from the past year, and I found a few that I meant to post here, but never did (I see I did put them on facebook, of which I was enamored for a while, now, not so much, since advertising has creeped in, but I digress). Anyway, the photos, here they are. Long story short, late last spring Ryan and I took a car ride and he told me we were going somewhere to see something special, but wouldn't tell me where we were going or what it was we were going to see. I sat back and enjoyed the scenery. I love a good mystery ride. Hey, it's Maine, there's always somewhere to go and something wonderful to see at the end of the trip. Anyway, as we got closer and closer to our destination, the options were narrowing, and I realized that a certain bookshop must be the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I fussed and whined, Noooo, I have noooo money, I can't buy any boooooks, whyyyy are we going there, don't make meeee... So attractive, I know. But Ryan wouldn't take no for an answer. He knew, you see, from stopping in there the week before on his own, that there was a book at this particular shop I needed to spend some time with. And, oh, there was. Such a book. One of the truly great books of all time.
Do you see, do you see what it is? Look at it, it's so huge! I had no idea it was physically this big a book (I mean, logically I knew it was big, and I do know what the measurements of a folio are, but it's so different and tactile when it's actually in your hands)!
I mean, just look at it! Wow! That, my friends, is a BOOK! And this is only volume one of two! Of course, a huge personality like Samuel Johnson's had to have found an equally huge format to pour his genius into, and this set is surely it. A beautiful first edition of A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755. What an occasion! And me in my weekend schlub clothes, feeling as if I should be in formal wear instead! Oh noble title page, printed in red and black ink:
Oh leatherbound folios. How elegantly simple and fine you are. I wish you could come and live with us at our house for a while. But no, they remain upright and happy in their glass case at Merrill's Bookshop in downtown Hallowell, Maine:
At least, they were there many months ago, waiting patiently for the right buyer. Sadly, at $20,000 for the set, even though the price is very reasonable for such a treasure, that buyer is not me (would Johnson say not I?). Perhaps by now it has sold. Frankly I have had neither the heart nor the opportunity to go back and find out. But I remain thankful that John allowed me to handle volume one gently, and dream, for a short time. Opening the front cover felt like clasping hands with one of my heroes. And that lovely soft paper - turning the pages became whispering about the past with an old sweetheart.
Monday, January 21, 2013
all the unwordable things
January is all about new beginnings, isn't it? And hopefulness? I am feeling particularly sanguine right now because I am so blissed out over the recent birth of my nephew Arlo. I mean, life is so freaking miraculous and such a stupendous mystery from beginning to end, and it never seems more so than when we first meet a brand new member of the human race, a soul brought to our family fresh from the arms of the angels.
Can you tell I've been baby-gazing? Such joy.
I'm also blissed out because I've been painting, which is my heart-of-hearts happy place, and when not painting, reading the diaries of artist and writer Emily Carr. I've been slowly working my way through all of her published works and this is the latest installment. It too is joy-making:
Hundreds and Thousands (Douglas & McIntyre reprint 2007), so fittingly named after the tiny British candies, a tumble of very colorful little words and diary entries, together forming a sweet life from the smallest of details. This book is full of its own nonpareils. I think I copied ten pages of notes from it into my own journal. She goes right to the heart of everything I most care about, sharply, like an arrow on a valentine. She spent her life searching for - and working for - what was real to her. Nature, animals, spirituality, art. Here is a taste:
"What's the good of trying to write? It's all the unwordable things one wants to write about, just as it's all the unformable things one wants to paint - essence." (p.165)
"It seems to me that a large part of painting is longing, a fluid movement ahead, a pouring forward towards the unknown, not a prying into things beyond but a steady pressing towards the barriers, an effort to be on hand when the barriers lift. A picture is just an on-the-way thing, not something caught and static, something frozen in its tracks, but a joyous going, towards what? We don't know. Music is full of longing and movement. Painting should be the same." (p.384)
Near the end of the diaries she has to spend months recuperating from heart trouble, and in her enforced invalidism, concentrates on her writing instead of painting. She is not bitter - quite the contrary - she says:
"...I find the earth lovely. Autumn does not dismay me any more than does the early winter of my body. Some can be active to a great age but enjoy little. I have lived." (p.407)
The Book of Small (Douglas & McIntyre reprint 2004) is next on my reading list. A collection of her early memories of childhood in Victoria, B.C., I can't wait:
Aren't these book covers great? There are more by her in this reprint series and the design makes me want to have them all. Well, the writing, too. God, she is so good. I can't even say how good she is, that's how good she is. Unwordable. The Book of Small will be perfect to read now, with my mind on childhood and its ways, after visiting little Arlo. What an amazing time this is. How grateful I am for my family, and for my other family too, the one I build from books.
Friday, January 11, 2013
found in a book
When I flipped through All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver (Vintage 2000) after picking it up at the library sale last weekend, a little note fell out. I read it, and it says three things, presumably about the book in question, but I suppose that is open to debate:
"Great images but really incomprehensible
Why mornings a disappointment
Great things going on & we do not notice."
Whew. Heartbreaking. These words are written on the cut-out corner of some stationery, so it also has the name and address of the previous owner of the book, printed neatly in small caps. His address also appears on a small label affixed inside the front cover of the book. Perhaps I should write to him to discuss these three points. I disagree with all three - gently but firmly - whether they are merely statements, or conclusions reached, or even just reactions to particular poems. No, of course I will not write to him. But don't think it didn't cross my mind (Mornings are glorious, or should be... we do notice great things, much of the time... Carver's images are not incomprehensible...). How differently we all react to the very same books! What we bring of ourselves to a given page, where we meet the author, and what we engage in while we read, all so different!
Speaking of really incomprehensible, I also bought a lovely old Selected Works of Laurence Sterne at the sale, and last night before bed I read the first fifty pages of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Thinking that, since I already read Byron as my big winter reading project, before winter even started, I need something substantial to keep my mind engaged now that winter is truly here. Well, this book is not it. I tried, valiantly. It is so rare that I begin a book and then decide not to finish it. SO RARE. I can't remember the last time I did that, that's how rare. I wanted to care, I wanted to read, I wanted to understand, but my mind kept breaking in on me and saying WHAT is this jumble, WHY are we still reading, WHEN can we go to sleep, WHY WHY WHY does this book make no sense whatsoever, WHERE is the plot, WHAT is with all these bizarre tangents, and so forth. Very hard to concentrate enough to follow sentence after sentence when one's mind is this busy. I couldn't do it, and after fifty pages, I'm sad to say I no longer wanted to. Does Tristram Shandy require a summer day, I wonder? When my Vitamin D levels are much higher and subsequently my brain function is too? Or will I find it equally frustrating no matter what the temperature?
Yes, "Great images but really incomprehensible." Perhaps my friend of the note loves this book. While I love the poems of Raymond Carver. As emotionally difficult as many of them are, most are redemptive in all the best ways. Well, in the end, both of these books were at the library sale, neither one kept as a beloved thing to revisit during winter evenings. Until now. You see, I also read a little bit of Sterne's Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy and was smitten. So for the time being I'll keep them both, and wait for that summer day.
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
a case of cabin fever
Oh January. Here you are again and all I want to do is curl up in a sunpatch with the cat and re-read Dorothy L. Sayers novels. Or travel far, far away, not just in books. But I have work to do here and lots of it. When you are self-employed, you see, you are always at work. We even work for fun, around here. The friends-of-the-library sale this weekend was a good example - a few towns away, a sunny Saturday morning and the first day above freezing in a week - we drove over and stayed for a few hours. Then came home with two cartons of books and $70 less in the checking account. This particular library sale isn't known for great deals, because the volunteers assiduously check the current selling price of each book, online, before pricing it and putting it out in the sale room. And the best books never even make it there, of course. Instead they are offered online or privately to dealers other than myself. Which is fine, it's all for a great cause, that of literacy. Besides, there is always enough interesting stuff to keep me coming back every few months to see what has been put out for sale. Although sometimes I admit that I feel a twinge of irritation at picking up a book and seeing a price of five or ten dollars, which I might pay if I saw said book in a used book shop somewhere, but don't necessarily expect to see on a book at a rural library sale in the dead of winter. But that is the exception, usually the books here are a dollar or two and I manage to find some inventory for my book booth and something new to read.
Speaking of which, this time around I did pass on a two-volume set of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets priced at ten dollars. Here was my thought process while the set was in hand: Well now, a miniature edition, print very tiny, I might get a headache trying to read it, should hold out for a better set, ugh ten bucks, back on the shelf with you, I do love you so but goodbye little books... But then I was rewarded with All of Us: The Collected Poems of Raymond Carver and Eric Partridge's massive Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English for a dollar each. No art books to speak of, though I did pass over one I really wanted, a copy of Frank O'Hara's book about painter Robert Motherwell, because of a giant mold bloom along its bottom edge. Ryan found two Maine archaeological reports (he's been volunteering on local archaeology digs this year and is in the throes of this obsession). I ended up with a few keepers myself, my favorite being one of The County Books - Suffolk by William Addison (Hale 1950, first edition in decent dust jacket). Of this series, the Observer said, "...not guide books of the merely topographical sort but, rather, talkative companions, engagingly informative about the life of the county, past and present." More about East Anglia, after reading Ronald Blythe, I'll take it. (And, I'd like the whole series, please.)
All in all, an enjoyable outing, and a business trip to boot. But, it is still January and I am still a little stir crazy. Back to that sunny window. Perhaps Dorothy L. Sayers can solve a case of cabin fever.
Friday, January 04, 2013
under the influence
Two recent events have me mulling over strong childhood influences and how they continue to echo long into and throughout our adult lives.
First, at Christmas, my mother - who has been sorting through old family stuff at her house - returned to me the book she tells me I learned to read with. Curious? I was. Here it is:
Peanuts. A little softcover Peanuts collection I carried around with me like a security blanket. Kind of beautiful, isn't it? Front and back covers completely gone, corners peeled back like fruit rinds. A first edition, published the year after I was born. Sometimes I identify with Charlie Brown, sometimes with Linus. I love Snoopy, and I understand Lucy.
I re-read it and you know, it really has it all - succinct story lines, great art, pathos and emotion, drollery, commentary on the human condition and the worlds of childhood - all in all a very satisfying book to revisit, containing many moments of self-recognition that left me sure I internalized a lot from it during my earliest years as a reader.
Second, last weekend I caught the Edward Gorey exhibit at the Portland Public Library (the exhibit has been touring the country for several years now and is entitled Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey). My stepfather gave me a copy of Amphigorey in 1977, when I was ten years old, and I still have that copy:
Deeply disturbing and bizarre and wonderful. Seeing Gorey's original pen drawings for many of his books, plus several sketchbooks, one-off drawings, decorated envelopes, and such, was a mind-blowing experience. They were so fabulous and reiterated to me (and the 30,000 other people who apparently visited the show during its stop here in Maine) the importance of truly being yourself, 100%, in life and in art. I mean, the worlds he created were completely him, and when seen en mass so overwhelmingly masterful, in such a unique way. Charles M. Schulz was not as explicit as Gorey in his pathos and the difficulties of childhood he portrays, but you know, after re-reading them both this week they are not as far apart as I might have thought. Schulz is a Zen master and Gorey, well, he made his own religion.
Why not continue in this vein for a moment or two. Other books from my childhood continue to bring me great pleasure today, and when I read them they reverberate with memories and feelings from my earliest days. Isn't it true that great books encountered early help shape us as people? Help furnish us with ideas of what beauty is (and isn't)? For example, I think this is a very beautiful little work of art:
One tiny panel from Tintin in Tibet by Hergé (Georges Remi). The adventures of Tintin and his dog Snowy enthralled me and this book remains my favorite of the lot. We had all the Tintin books in our house and like the copy of Peanuts above, they are falling to bits due to reading and re-reading. What else. I will go back a little earlier in time and mention The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle.
This copy belonged to my great-grandparents and was rebound maybe sixty years ago, and now that binding is finally coming loose too. Inside the front cover is an ancient gift inscription to my mother when she was a little girl, from her grandparents. The copyright date is 1888. The book contains twenty-four tales, one for each hour of the day. The tales and illustrations fascinated me as a child and I think some of them still offer excellent advice regarding moral behavior (which is one of the purposes of children's books, isn't it, to teach moral behavior by example). Such as:
Princess Goldenhair, do not follow the golden ball! Excellent metaphor for so many things in life! And yet, knowing it might not be a good idea, in one of my favorite books from childhood the young hero does just that, he follows the promise of adventure, gold, experience, all the way to Cathay and back. And we love him for it. Louise Andrews Kent's novel He Went With Marco Polo, from 1935:
This old copy is ex-library and was apparently read so much that the first signature of pages is missing:
I will find another copy someday with the beginning intact, I'm sure. The tale of a young gondolier in Venice who ships out to the Far East with the Polo family, and returns, most satisfyingly, twenty years later with riches galore and a kitten for his childhood sweetheart, never forgotten despite all. Even better, when asked what the finest thing he ever saw was, he first ponders: "He remembered the great cities in China with their scarlet bridges. He thought of the Tartar tents swaying over the plains with the white oxen stamping ahead of them. He could shut his eyes and see Pietro galloping under the golden apples and shooting over his shoulder and the apple falling. He thought of the Khan's great feasts where the sorcerers made the gold cups move and where the tiger came in and bowed at Kublai Khan's feet. His mind seemed to touch snowy mountains on the roof of the world, and green, steaming islands in hot seas." Then, after all that, he smiles and says that the finest sight in all the world is the sun shining over the rooftops of Venice, his own home. Love of home aside, this book may be largely responsible for my lifelong attachment to exotic (to me at least, here in rural Maine) travel books.
One last book from childhood, how could I not mention it even though I know I have before, it is one of my very favorites. The only copy I now own is a tiny paperback reprint. The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.
An exquisite story with perfect artwork about the strengths and gifts of the very small. So necessary for children to know, and, I find, for adults to look back and remember. And then, carry forward.