Thursday, May 23, 2013
book lovers have more fun
Reading about reading, books about books. Whenever I don't know what to read next (not like this is a common problem, ahem), I circle back to books on this beloved subject. One such, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt by Nick Hornby (Believer Books 2006), lingered on my bedside table for a long time this winter. Essays about books purchased and read, or not read as the case may be. I see from paging back through my journal that I did read it again a few months ago, and meant to share a few bits of it with you, here. So, forthwith:
"I would like my personal reading map to resemble a map of the British Empire circa 1900; I'd like people to look at it and think, How the hell did he end up right over there? As it is, I make only tiny little incursions into the territory of my own ignorance - every year, another classic novel conquered here, a couple of new literary biographies beaten down there. To be honest, I'm not sure that I can spare the troops for conquests further afield: they're needed to quell all the rebellions and escape attempts at home." (p.51)
I love that, although in reading as in life I tend to think in terms of peaceful resolution, if not out-and-out white-flag-waving surrender, rather than conquest.
But back to the book - besides being wry and entertaining, Hornby is also very quotable:
"...the great thing about books is that you'll read anything that a good writer wants you to read." (p.78)
And just one more:
"There comes a point in life, it seems to me, where you have to decide whether you're a Person of Letters or merely someone who loves books, and I'm beginning to see that the book lovers have more fun. Persons of Letters have to read things like Candide or they're a few letters short of the whole alphabet; book lovers, meanwhile, can read whatever they fancy." (p.88)
I don't mind being a few letters short. When I had my bookshop, I remember many many people assuming that I was an English major, simply because they saw me surrounded by books. But no, I was not. And there are so many classics I have never read and never intend to read. I remain free to read what I want, not what I should - I remain endlessly curious about the places and things and people that I myself am endlessly curious about - with no apologies. Speaking of which, Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin are still fraternizing on my bedside table - volumes of their Letters are half read and patiently sitting back-to-back and have been for months now, and recent arrivals have covered them over like the rising tide. Yet they endure. Anchors, or even better, ballast. I know I'll return to them at some point. Right now I'm too busy being a mere book lover.
Monday, May 20, 2013
... all ye who enter here. That was what I came away with, after my weekend reading. And contemporary reading at that, what a change for me these days. Two nearly-current books read back to back, almost at random (although is anything ever really random), while Ryan has been at home, sick. Thus I've been puttering around making cups of tea and bringing him glasses of watered-down ginger ale. And thus I've been seeking gentle distraction. I planted onion sets and seed potatoes out in the garden, then curled up with books.
Firstly, I picked this memoir up secondhand last week, and read it over the weekend in two sittings. The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers by Josh Kilmer-Purcell (HarperCollins 2010):
Charming and funny with non-ironic life lessons amidst some glam of city life, the financial crash, and "stylish agrarian subsistence" (p.38) on an old farm they fell in love with. Augusten Burroughs lite (i.e. less traumatic, less fraught, which, while I love Augusten Burroughs's writing, is sometimes a real plus). Loved this story of two successful professionals who sought the good life, then found it, had it all, I mean they had a lot, and then got even more, and then almost lost everything, including each other. Loved how both of them struggle against the demon of perfectionism, even while knowing that the show must go on, and concluding if so, then why shouldn't it go on beatifully. Great Martha Stewart factoids are peppered throughout, since one of the main characters worked for her during most of the time period this memoir covers. Loved the book, and now I see - a little late for the party, as usual - that the memoir is also a television series and of course they have a website and gorgeous farm products and a store and a new cookbook and blogs and twitter and facebook and their llama has a facebook account too and the guys even won The Amazing Race and and and and... Well. It all sounds exhausting and they might agree with me, but it still appears that they are having the times of their lives, and actually living the dream, not just dreaming the dream. Which is the point of the book (remember the book?). Loved the book, I'll say it again.
Secondly, a novel also bought secondhand, a few months ago, and read yesterday afternoon from cover to cover, straight through, while Ryan slept - Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Riverhead 2009):
He writes so well about middle-aged People In Trouble and I admire him so much for it. Quick synopsis - unsatisfied woman and her music-geek boyfriend (who is totally obsessed with short but brilliant career of supposedly reclusive once-famous musician) unravel their tired relationship, while the life and motivations of the musician himself come into clearer and clearer focus. Classic Hornby, hearkening back to his first novel High Fidelity - hapless cultural obsessives wondering about their dubious choices and not-always-honorable motivations. I don't normally have a whole lot of patience to spare for wishy-washy fictional protagonists in contemporary fiction, which is why I don't read a lot of it, and you know, now that I think about it, I'm not sure that there even are any in this novel. I guess I just really like the characters Hornby creates, consistently, in novel after novel. They are so far from perfect, perfectionism isn't even on their radar as the possibility of a blip. Even characters who make terrible choices and exhibit difficult and unlikable behavior somehow become endearing, under his pen (or keyboard, or whatever). Perhaps because they all doubt themselves so much, about so many things. And they still usually contain kernels of decency. Life is messy and fraught (again that word, but really, isn't life just fraught?), but good in spite of that. His people care, even when they act badly, which is almost all the time. But they mean well, usually, and they say so.
For example, the female main character in Juliet, Naked writes at one point, after parsing a comment on a blog, written in response to a post of hers (how meta, here I am writing a post about a post and a comment in a novel, while wondering if anyone will comment on my post, ugh, Strunk and White must be cringing somewhere) (p.72):
"She wondered why someone would bother to write that; but then, 'Why bother' was never a question you could ask about more or less anything on the Internet, otherwise the whole bunch of them shriveled to a cotton-candy nothing. Why had she bothered? Why does anybody? She was for bothering, on the whole; in which case thank you... for your contribution, and thank you, everybody else, on every other website."
So, from both books: yes, bother, do what you do and do it well, but perfectionism is for the birds.
A quick aside - weirdly, these books - chosen from a giant windrow of to-be-read stuff - both contain important secondary characters named Farmer John. I mean, what are the chances?
Monday, May 13, 2013
a red letter day
Yesterday was one such. A day when I almost didn't even leave the house, except, we needed groceries, and after coming back home and doing some house chores, Ryan and I looked at each other and said, Let's take a drive. We headed east, to browse in a few antiques shops and noodle around on a rainy Sunday afternoon. In one of those shops we went our separate ways for a time, then I looked up to see Ryan approaching me with a book in his hands. A small fat old book, bound in calf. Before I could even see what it was, he said, We're going to get this. I said, worriedly, Well, what IS it?
Here, here it is, now safe at home with us, such a darling book, one to be carefully read and treasured:
The 1773 abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary, Fifth Edition, printed in London by Strahan et al, "Abstracted from the Folio Edition, by the Author." A marketing attempt to appeal to those who may have been intimidated by the size (see my blog post from January 24, 2013) and price of the earlier folio editions. This copy has a few condition problems, for example the top right corner of the title page has had a name ripped away from it:
And a name once printed in gilt has been scratched away from the leather covering the front board, which is also cracked along its hinge, but still attached. Also, some foxing throughout. Minor concerns. The reason we could afford to buy this book at all: the seller priced the book as if only volume one of a two-volume set was present, writing volume one only inside the front cover next to the price. Well, I could plainly see that this was, as I said, a very fat little book, eight inches high and about three inches thick, unpaginated, but I would guess 800 pages. And, flipping through the book, I quickly saw that the complete text was there - the dictionary ends with the letter Z, after all, and yes, there it was. Another look through confirmed that what would have been volume two begins with the letter L (a nice printer's ornament appears at the end of the letter K, then L begins with a half-title). In other words, this edition was made from the printed sheets of two volumes perhaps trimmed down a bit and bound as one. Shall I tell you what we paid for it? I'll just say, significantly less than the groceries we bought earlier in the day, and leave it at that. I never thought I would be able to purchase a copy of the Dictionary published within Johnson's own lifetime. But here it is. I carefully polished up the calf last night with some leather-binding dressing, and read a little of it. Here is a sample. In his brief preface, Samuel Johnson explains, in his purling eighteenth-century prose, the need for this abridged edition of his famous work:
"...a small dictionary appeared yet to be wanting to common readers; and, as I may without arrogance claim to myself a longer acquaintance with the lexicography of our language than any other writer has had, I shall hope to be considered as having more experience at least than most of my predecessors, and as likely to accomodate the nation with a vocabulary of daily use. I therefore offer to the public an abstract or epitome of my former work.... The words of this dictionary, as opposed to others, are more diligently collected, more accurately spelled, more faithfully explained, and more authentically ascertained. Of an abstract it is not necessary to say more; and I hope, it will not be found that truth requires me to say less."
I was raised to fervently believe that no home was complete without a good dictionary, or better, several good dictionaries. And here is the grandfather of them all, come to stay.
Monday, May 06, 2013
from snow to... ice cream
What a difference a few months makes. Spring was a long time coming, this year, and between February:
and early May, here in Maine, there is a world of difference. It's still sweater weather on or near the ocean, but oh the warm sun, and bare feet on the beach, finally, I am not too proud to say it again FINALLY:
Ryan had blueberry, in a waffle cone. Dorman's is justly famous for its flavors, and also for declining to sell its Route 1 piece of land (which includes the take-out and the owners' home directly behind it) to Walmart. Walmart is building anyway, a few acres behind them, and thus we ate our cones to the sound of giant machines clearing the land. Brief editorial comment: I will never shop there. But oh the ice cream, I plan on stopping for it over many summers to come, god willing. Lots of Walmarts around, only one Dorman's. I love their little building and am going to make a painting of it one of these days, now that it's warm enough to stand around in one place outside for more than a few minutes. The little take-out that could. Happy spring, dear friends.