Friday, February 28, 2014
my life an open book
A respite from Samuel Clemens, today. Because, while preparing to pay my income tax this year, I was sorting through old papers and found the original copy of my resale certificate for secondhand books and antiques, and I was amazed to find that the date on it was exactly twenty years ago. Seeing this madeleine, this hard evidence of my own age, got me thinking about the book business and how many permutations of it I've experienced in life so far. Many wonderful memories! A not-so-brief run-down:
Childhood: I grew up in houses full of books. My first hometown library was a palace for books, with a wonderful children's room, and a story hour. I remember visiting two used book shops when I was a young teenager. I volunteered briefly at my second hometown library. I read long and often.
School age: In college I worked in the art history slide library, which was run by the head librarian of the adjacent art and music library. I also worked at my first bookstore job, as a student worker, twenty or thirty hours a week, for a year. One of my friends worked at a different bookstore, in town. As an undergraduate, when I wasn't working or just taking refuge in the painting studio, I spent hours walking through the stacks in the main library, just looking for good books to read. I visited the special collections wing once and didn't understand what I was seeing there. Rare books? What...?
After college: The bookstore I worked at when I was a student hired me full-time and I spent nearly seven years there, as a clerk and buyer. I supported myself on pennies above minimum wage, but the store was at a university, so I was able to use staff tuition wavers to take classes and get a master's degree. My boss was a wonderful book lover, and we oversaw a trade book department of maybe twenty-five thousand titles. She sent me to the annual New England Booksellers' Association conference in Boston for several years in a row, and I heard John Updike speak, Donald Hall read poetry, and had books signed by Nick Bantock, Donna Tartt, Robert Olen Butler, and suchlike. This was when I really began to internalize the fact that BOOKS are written by REAL PEOPLE. A revelation of the obvious, I know, but important to me anyway. I got a great education at this bookstore, both in business and in book-lore. And most importantly of all, I met Ryan there, when he was beginning graduate school himself and had started working part-time in the stock room.
More twentysomething years: Ryan and I started hunting for secondhand books together, for fun, and I remember going into a real antiquarian bookshop for the first time, with him, one weekend afternoon. And thus I fell doubly in love. I started to gravitate toward secondhand books more and more, and yearned to have a shop of my own. I got the aforementioned resale number from the State of Maine, and started selling a few secondhand books at a local antiques mall. I was also making art out of old books that were already falling apart, and I took classes in bookbinding and letterpress printing. One year a tipping point came and I quit my full-time job (and I'm glad I did when I did, since our great store died a slow death after the coming of Borders, one town away), and went to work clerking part-time at the same antiques mall where I was selling my books. I stayed there for two or three years, then along came eBay, and since good library sales were everywhere, I had tons of inventory to sell both in my book booth and online. My eBay income quickly allowed me to leave the clerk job, and so I started selling my own books full-time.
Thirtysomething: Another tipping point occurred, and my income became such that I could afford to rent a little bookshop space. I sold books online so I could have an open shop (not the other way around). I spent seven happy years there, at Sarah's Books, with my retail shop out front and a tiny art studio in the back. I sold books at some antiquarian book fairs, too, for a few years. I bought and sold some really wonderful books! It was truly a dream come true, and a very happy time in my life. The last few years of the shop overlap with this blog.
Middle age (whaaat!?): As I approached middle age (where I am now, god willing?), I found to my surprise that art, specifically painting, had become an internal imperative. I was no longer content to fit it in around the edges of my shop life. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and all that. I knew I could have gone on to become a real antiquarian bookseller, for life, and a big part of me wanted to do that very thing. But I trusted my instincts, and I still do. And I suppose we must mention Amazon, and the flattening of nearly all secondhand book prices, but let's not dwell on it. I will say that I had some good years financially, and some years in which it was hard to pay the bills. I closed up the shop and went back to selling books in a different antiques mall, and that's where I still am today. Several thousand books for sale, with minimal overhead - this gives me just enough income and just enough pleasure in the buying and selling of books to continue to do it, like I always have, for love and money. I miss my shop sometimes, but see clearly how much I've gained - the time, buckets and buckets of priceless TIME - to paint, read, and be outside after years and years of working indoors.
Today: Books, still. We have a few thousand of our favorites here at home and I read constantly. I've tried to write my own books - I love them so much that I can't help but think What if... but for now at least - while I do keep filling blank journals, and I keep writing here - painting remains ascendant. And happily so, since my life with the printed word has been rich and full but sometimes frankly overwhelming. This must be one reason I love painting so much - it says everything I most want to say, with no words.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
found in the footnotes
I came to the end of the printed volumes of Mark Twain's Letters (University of California Press) with reluctance and gratitude in equal measure. Reluctance because I am not looking forward to being forced *forced I say* to continue reading his correspondence online (I have not yet embarked on a lengthy reading project using a device of any kind other than the traditional codex), and gratitude because the printed volumes are so rich in detail, description, and editorial whiz-bang that it was a rare treat to be able to read them at all. The footnotes are beyond copious, as are the appendices, photographs, and extra matter. Sometimes they even overwhelm the letters themselves. With this in mind I turned to the reviews of this massive set of books to see what literary critics had to say, and came across this description from Jonathan Raban in the Times Literary Supplement:
"Few things, as Pudd'nhead observed, are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example, and this building collection of the letters is horribly, excruciatingly good. It sets standards of diligence that will cause future editors of writers' letters to weep."
Isn't that lovely! Well, that level of mind-boggling care and thought is evident throughout the footnotes, and in general, too. Thanks to the editors, we readers can trace Clemens and his life almost day by day during the years these volumes cover. One wonderful aside that the footnotes offer us is the chance to hear what Clemens's contemporaries thought of him. I choose here only a few of the positive comments, which gave me particular pleasure to read. (Otherwise I could go on all day.)
William Dean Howells writes about his visit to the Clemens family in Hartford (Letters Volume 6 p.86):
"...I saw a great deal of Twain, and he's a thoroughly good fellow. His wife is a delicate little beauty, the very flower and perfume of ladylikeness, who simply adores him - but this leaves no word to describe his love for her."
Moncure D. Conway writes to Clemens (ibid p.600):
"I have had a charming little visit at the Howellses in Cambridge. Said I to them, says I, 'Do you know and adore the Clemenses?' Says they 'We do!!' Then, says I, let us embrace! We did."
Moncure D. Conway writes to his son about visiting the Clemenses (ibid p.601):
"I never realized what I kind-hearted first-rate fellow he is until I have had this thoroughly delightful visit in his house. As to his wife - she is an angel."
As we can see, what the footnotes contain is far from being as dry as dust. Letters totally aside for a moment, there is so much contained in just the footnotes that they very nearly make up a lively social and literary history of the time period, all on their own. I deeply appreciate their thoroughness - that level of attention to detail is so calming.
Friday, February 21, 2014
a leavening agent
One of the not-so-secret secrets to the success of the writing of Samuel Clemens must surely be his combination of humor and pathos. He knew he had it; he knew it was what he wanted to present to people; he knew it formed the bedrock of his popularity. In a letter to an editor wishing to include him in a forthcoming anthology of humorous prose, he writes (Mark Twain's Letters Volume 5 p.284):
"I have suggested both descriptive & humorous writing - that is to say the serious & the humorous, because humor cannot do credit to itself without a good background of gravity & of earnestness. Humor unsupported rather hurts its author in the estimation of the reader. Will you please present me in the two lights?"
Reviews and descriptions of his lecture style also tell us that the public was well aware that he addressed this apparent duality, and they approved of it wholeheartedly, in fact it was one of the keys to his success as a speaker. From a review of his 1873 lecture, in the New York Tribune (ibid p.295):
"Every sentence may be burlesque, but the result is fact. And what insures his success as a teacher is that his manner is so irresistibly droll that it conquers at the first moment the natural revolt of the human mind against instruction."
In words as in life - I won't go into a full-scale review of The Innocents Abroad just yet, but I will say I have never read a book quite like it. Long, with a sustained level of humor that never quite palls or sounds inappropriate, because it is perfectly interspersed with the most beautiful wide-eyed descriptions of the world. He seems to have trusted and paid very close attention to his first responses to whatever he encountered throughout the travels this book recounts. I will have to track down the quote again, because I can't lay hands on it at the moment, but at one point he himself says that the secret to good, authentic, fresh writing is paying attention to that first response, and putting it down. Not putting down what you think you should be writing instead. Not recounting someone else's view or opinion of a certain city, or a work of art, or a stretch of landscape. Not being ashamed or worried that your own response isn't an appropriate one. He manages to do this again and again, for hundreds of pages, and the results are wonderful to read. That authenticity of response, leavened with the gently wicked humor that proofs his words like baking powder, keeps me with him as a thankful reader. I could talk about him all day, I think, but I will leave it there for now. (I have a feeling his name will crop up here again.)
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
the benefits of sustained attention
As I continue on through Mark Twain's Letters (University of California Press, six volumes), I rediscover yet again what I rediscover every winter with these long reading projects I take on - the tangible benefits of paying close attention to something. Besides the obvious rewards gained from reading pages and pages of wonderful words, the act itself - of concentrating for hours on a worthy task - aids in the maintenance of equanimity to no end. I am well into Volume 6, however, and since the University of California decided, for many good reasons, not to continue printing the complete letters in book form, I will soon have to resort to reading as many of the others as I can online. They have a nice e-reader set-up, with all the footnotes right there, and facsimiles of many of the letters, and all sorts of bells and whistles, and it looks manageable. Lovely, even! But oh, how I tire of the click-clicking of keyboards, and the back-lit screen, and the need to scroll through words not printed on paper. Well, I have already read The Innocents Abroad and am halfway through Life on the Mississippi, and so I think I will take a break from the Letters to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, next. Then return to the Letters. Online. Click clickity click - not so helpful in maintaining equanimity, I find. Too fragmented. But if that's all I can get, of course I'll take it, to keep on reading his wonderful epistles for as long as I possibly can. How his friends must have cherished them! A sample, sent to William Dean Howells, in 1875 (Volume 6 p.357):
"I've been sick abed several days, for the first time in 21 years. How little confirmed invalids appreciate their advantages. I was able to read the English edition of the Greville Memoirs through without interruption, take my meals in bed, neglect all business without a pang, & smoke 18 cigars a day. I try not to look back upon these 21 years with a feeling of resentment, & yet..."
And (apologies, but he is so deliciously quotable), to David Gray, (ibid p.430):
"Yesterday I began a novel. I suppose I am a fool, but I simply couldn't help it. The characters & incidents have been galloping through my head for three months, & there seems to be no way to get them out but to write them out. My conscience is easy, for few people would have fought against this thing as long as I have done."
But back to the aforementioned equanimity for a minute - that calm state which is often the effect of lending sustained attention to something worthy or necessary. The Letters have helped me live there, this winter. Over the past year several people in my family experienced and are still experiencing dire health emergencies, and even though I've been on the sidelines most of the time, my anxiety is still running much higher than it usually does. What helps - sometimes the only thing that helps - is simply this sustained attention. I find it, gratefully, when reading wonderful long books. I also find it while practicing yoga, painting, walking outside, writing, doing physical work like lugging wood and shoveling snow, and helping others when I am able to do so. These simple things bring comfort, continuity, and peace. A lot happens in life, most of which I don't talk about here, and yet in discussing books the way we do, I always end up feeling like I've conveyed the essentials anyway. For me, reading books such as the Letters is akin to lighting candles in a dark room. They illuminate, even though shadows still exist. They give us enough light to see our own lives by.
Holy crackers that last paragraph was difficult to write. How to talk about what's on my mind, without talking about what's on my mind, I do not know. Let's finish up with more of Samuel Clemens, not me. In 1870 he signed a guestbook just underneath someone he disliked and thought was... well, read his words and see for yourself (Letters Volume 4 p.7):
"(She) had left them her autograph, with this boshy, clap-trap legend of humbuggery attached:
'Yours ever, for God & Woman.'
I followed it with my signature, & this travesty:
'Yours always, without regard to parties & without specifying individuals.'"
Monday, February 17, 2014
My winter reading project (Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain - I still can't decide how to refer to him) isn't the only thing going on, book-wise, right now. In early February our neck of the woods experienced one sunny almost-warm Saturday morning, and Ryan and I took advantage of it by traveling to a nearby town to participate in a familiar ritual. Half work and half pure fun. We used to plan almost every weekend around events like this, and you know, almost every weekend we could find one, somewhere. I speak, of course, of the venerable friends-of-the-library book sale:
This particular one happens on the first Saturday of every month. The library isn't huge but it does have a very supportive and bookish community surrounding it, and so donations to the friends-of-the-library group for the book sale are quite good on a regular basis. We go once every few months and always find something. Or rather, lots of somethings. This time around we waited for the doors to open for half an hour and it was such a pleasure to stand outside in the sun and not feel freezing. We spent part of the time talking about how different buying used books is today, compared to twenty years ago when we started seriously hunting for them, to buy, keep, read, and resell. Pre-internet, do I even need to say it? In "the old days" between five and ten local book dealers would have been waiting in line with us. We all chatted and caught up and gently (and sometimes not so gently) gossiped about doings in the book world. It was truly congenial, and I miss those times. Of course, things changed a bit when the doors opened, because we were all there for the same reasons. The books.
And, despite the promising "CLASSICS" sign above, the books being offered have changed, too. The friends group naturally wants to maximize profits for the library. This is right and good, and is as it should be. So their volunteers sell the better books online. They check book prices online too, and subsequently books are priced higher than they used to be, for those books that actually do make it out onto the shelves in the basement sale room pictured above (I did buy that book I was looking at, by the way). So, the days of finding truly great deals may be long gone, but it seems like something always turns up, somehow. At this sale, I bought three cartons of books for a hundred dollars. I put some books back which were priced at five dollars each, but I bought a few at that price, too. But most of the ones I bought were a dollar or two each - general stock for my book booth at the antiques mall and a pile of books to read. I did find two signed hardcovers - one by historian David McCullough and one by novelist Michael Chabon. The friends group had not noticed that either of these books were inscribed by their authors, and so I paid two dollars each for them. When I wrote my check I rounded the amount up, to compensate the library a bit and alleviate my vestigial guilt (which was faint but persistent). Overall it was a lovely morning, and we came away buoyed up at the fact that there are still books in the world, and lots of them.
Speaking of which, I guess I do have to talk about Samuel Clemens (there, that settles it) again for just a moment. May I mention some book-love, from his English Journals of 1872? In them, in an appendix in Mark Twain's Letters Volume 5, he describes his time at the British Museum's incredible Reading Room (p.598):
"Nobody comes bothering around me - nobody elbows me - all the room & all the light I want under this huge dome - no disturbing noises - & people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that was ever printed under the sun - & if I choose to go wandering about the long corridors & galleries of the great building, the secrets of all the Earth & all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum - it seems as if I do not know any but little words and weak ones."
There it is, in a nutshell, this book-love. Our little basement book sale certainly isn't the Reading Room, but it still contains multitudes.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
she didn't stand a chance
In the spirit of love and romance, this rather long post begins with a few rhetorical questions. What if someone began to woo you, what if that someone met you and fell head over heels in love and proposed immediately, and when you rejected him multiple times, you felt so sorry for him that you let him write to you, out of the depths of pity in your good Christian heart? And then what if, in those letters, the would-be lover inundated you with earnest, funny, slap-dash, over-the-top endearments, almost daily, for months? Who could hold out, against words such as these (culled from throughout Mark Twain's Letters Volume 2 and 3)? And furthermore, who would want to? For this is how Samuel Clemens addresses his future wife Olivia Langdon, in his peerless love letters to her, written first during a time of outright rejection, then over a trial period of several months, and continuing throughout their official year-long engagement:
you dear little paragon
you awful tyrant!
my little angel by brevet
O loved & honored liege
my matchless little princess
you fascinating rascal!
my own heart's love
my dear, dear little tormenter
you dear little concentration of gravity
O, my loved, my honored, my darling little Mentor!
you Koh-i-Noor! you Golconda! you rival of the sun!
you are a malicious little piece of furniture
you precious little philosopher
you funny little orthographer
you blessed little spitfire
you little marvel of creation
you idolized little tyrant
you worshipped darling, whom I so love and honor
an exquisite little concentration of loveliness
the concentrated sun, moon, & stars
my other self
you blessed dream & blessed reality
If that wasn't enough, he signs his letters to her thusly:
Most lovingly, Yours Forever -
Lovingly & devotedly,
Devotedly & sincerely & with imperishable affection
In honor & unfailing love, yrs always,
With loving devotion
For all time, devotedly,
He beseeches her (Letters Volume 3 p.10):
"...let me pay my due homage to your worth; let me honor you above all women; let me love you with a love that knows no doubt, no question - for you are my world, my life, my pride, my all of earth that is worth the having."
Again (ibid pp.233-234):
"I would override a hundred thousand edicts of banishment. I would go to you over stacks and stacks of such edicts as high as the moon. I would go to you through hunger & thirst, disease, insult, death - everything."
He refers to her in letters to his friends, this way (ibid p.421):
"THE young lady who occupies the most of the universe..."
An account even exists of his despairing visit to a friend, soon after his initial rejection(s). The friend's young daughter Margaret listened in, and later wrote down what she heard him say to her father, George (Letters Volume 2 p.279):
"'George - I want your advise I am DESPERATELY IN LOVE with the most exquisite girl - so beautiful, unfortunately very rich. She is quite an invalid - I have proposed & been refused a dozen times - what do you think?' Father said Sam you are crazy to think of such a thing - 'Thats what I was afraid you would say. I know I'm too rough - knocking around the world.' And the tears came. He took out his handkerchief and wiped them away. Father said: 'Sam, are you fooling? Is this one of your blank jokes?' He saw he was terribly serious and hurt. So father jumped up, ran over, took him by the shoulders, gave him a shake and said: "Sam you old Galoote, you. You're not rough; you're the most perfect gentleman - the cleanest, most decent man I know today. There is no girl in the world too good for you. Go for her, and get her, and God bless you, Sam.' Mr. Clemens said, 'Well, I will go see her again tomorrow, and I'll harass that girl and harass her till she'll have to say yes! For George, you know I never had wish or time to bother with women, and I can give that girl the purest, best love any man can ever give her. I can make her well and happy.' So he got her, and made her happy."
His onslaught reminds me of the classic board game Battleship. (Miss. Miss. Hit. Miss. Hit. Hit.)
Finally, writing to his family, about his epistolary and in-person courtship, victory (Letters Volume 3, p.85):
"My prophesy was correct. She said she never could or would love me - but she set herself the task of making a Christian of me. I said she would succeed, but that in the meantime she would unwittingly dig a matrimonial pit & end by tumbling into it- & lo! the prophesy is fulfilled."
She goes willingly, in the end. From Livy's only surviving courtship letter to Sam (ibid p.394):
"I am so happy, so perfectly at rest in you, so proud of the true nobility of your nature - it makes the whole world look so bright to me... I feel so that I have no burden, that I am so richly cared for..."
Even his future mother-in-law succumbs to his charm. She writes to a mutual friend, about him and her daughter (ibid p.93):
"Mr Clemens - of him what shall I say? I cannot express to you a description of the strange, new element that has entered into, and radiated our family circle. I cannot tell you what a wealth we feel has been added to us, I cannot tell you how precious that addition is to us, neither can I describe to you the restful, yea beautiful background his mind & heart have already made to my husband's & my future life.... Their love is very beautiful to look at, and may it grow more & more perfect as they shall travel together toward immortality."
And this is at the same time that his future father-in-law writes to several of Clemens's acquaintances, asking for character references, since he was at this time relatively unknown, and certainly un-famous. The acquaintances said the following (ibid p.57):
"'I would rather bury a daughter of mine than have her marry such a fellow.'"
"'Oh, Mark is rather erratic, but I consider him harmless.'"
And Langdon family friend Anna Dickinson considered him (ibid p.66) "...a vulgar boor."
And yet, in spite of those slings and arrows, love prevails. A few weeks after their marriage, Olivia Clemens writes (Letters Volume 4 p.80):
"...we are two as happy people as you ever saw. Our days seem to be made up of only bright sunlight, with no shadow in them."
Reading on, into Volume 4 and 5, I see they need this golden time to sustain them for what comes next. But let's leave all that for another day, because in books it is wonderful to be able to rest a while with them, in their perfect happiness, before moving on. And what a blissful state it is. I can only conclude that romance, fictional and especially otherwise, constitutes the perfect reading material for this rather unglamorous time of year. Happy Valentine's Day, a little early - I hope love finds you right where you live!