Friday, April 10, 2015


revisiting old friends

I remember back in the 1990s when I tumbled into love, doubly, with Ryan and with antiquarian books.  We started hunting for old books together, when we weren't working at our regular jobs.  I had the author-knowledge, from obsessive reading and from working in a library and then a bookstore, and he had the spooky sixth sense, so we were (and remain) a good team.  I would take my time going through every book on a table at a booksale, or along every shelf in a thrift shop, and he would case the whole place quickly and walk up to me with the one truly great book in the room.  This happened again and again, for years.  Not that I didn't find great things too, but I was the thorough plodding one while he had the quicksilver flashes of genius.  This still happens from time to time today, but without the frequency it once did, since we no longer ransack the state for books the way we needed to when I had my shop, and (I have to say it) before the internet wrecking ball swooped in and changed the book business in so many essential ways.

All that is on my mind simply because it's a rainy spring day and I am thinking fondly back to the book sales of the past, the ones where, at this time of year, we would be in line early on Saturday mornings in the chill and drizzle of April, standing and shivering and chatting with the other local booksellers, waiting for the privilege of paying a fee to be allowed into the book sale early, so we could put our picking skills to work.  A dollar a book, most often, and at a good sale I'd buy five or ten cartons.  Ryan and I were double trouble.  It was a great time in our lives and I'll never forget it.

Book sales and finds of the past are also on my mind because I've been revisiting some old bookish friends.  In the meandering way of my reading, one book leads to another and then to another, ad infinitum.  After putting away all my classics until next winter, when I might return to them, I wanted to continue reading in a post-Rose Macaulay kind of way (instead of reading the classics, reading about people who read the classics).  I scanned my shelves of British memoirs and stopped when I came to David Cecil.  I had several books by him and one about him, and read three in a row.  First, an anthology: David Cecil: A Portrait by His Friends (Dovecote Press 1990), then Some Dorset Country Houses: A Personal Selection by David Cecil (his last book, Dovecote Press 1985), with photographs by David Burnett, and finally Two Quiet Lives by David Cecil (Bobbs-Merrill 1948), which contains two biographies, the first of seventeenth-century letter-writer Dorothy Osborne and the second of eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray.  I could write much about these delightful books, but I really only bring them up to reiterate how, for me, one book leads to the next.  Because Cecil's highly sympathetic portrait of Thomas Gray led me back to some old friends, those authors I first came to love when I began to hunt for and buy secondhand books in the 1990s.  To start with, Gray is famous for his poetry and also for being the particular friend of Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century dilettante, author, publisher, collector, architect, busybody, socialite. And last but not least, letter-writer.

O the letters of Horace Walpole.  My holy grail of books used to be - I no longer yearn for it but I wouldn't pass up an inexpensive set if I ever came across such a thing - The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence.  Published by Yale University Press from 1937 through 1983, in massive lovely volumes, 48 of them all told, the last five being the index.  The research library at the University of Maine has the set, and in the 1990s when I worked nearby I would go to the stacks and visit it from time to time, and take individual volumes out just to have them in hand, although I don't remember if I ever actually read them.  The man behind the making of this giant set was the bibliophile Wilmarth "Lefty" Lewis, and after reading about Gray I revisited my stash of Lefty books.  His memoir Collector's Progress (Knopf 1951) is one of the best books-about-books ever written.  I thought so when I first read it in the 1990s, and I read it again last weekend and still think so.  Lefty was an obsessed collector with the means to form a world-class collection, and so he did.  Of all things Horace Walpole.  Thousands of original letters to and from Walpole, books by Walpole, books from Walpole's well-catalogued library, books from his private press at Strawberry Hill, manuscripts, and artefacts.  He spent his life in pursuit of Walpoliana, hand in hand with some of the greatest bookmen of the time, and while collecting it also wrote about it and funded publication about it.  He and his wife Annie Burr Lewis left the collection to Yale when they died, and it remains where they housed it, in Farmington, Connecticut, at what is now the Lewis Walpole Library.  It is on my bucket list to visit someday, but for now, in the modern way of things, I can peek at their doings on facebook instead.

After finishing Collector's Progress I started right in on one of  Lefty's earliest forays into print, A Selection of the Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by him, in two volumes (Harper 1926).  More delightful reading.  About which I will return to David Cecil for a moment to mention what he says, regarding the reading of eighteenth-century literature and why we do it (from Two Quiet Lives pp. 108-109):

"...England had settled down to an epoch of prosperous stability in which, undisturbed alike by bloodshed or by spiritual yearnings, those, who liked, had been able to concentrate on the development of the private life and the cultivation of its modes of expression.  Through the course of their long leisurely lifetimes, some people did little else but talk, write letters, pay visits, and keep journals.  They learnt to do it with a fullness and elaborate perfection unsurpassed in history.  The private papers of Gray and his friends compose a small library in themselves.  All are accomplished, and some - Gray's own letters and those written to him by Horace Walpole - are glittering masterpieces.... We listen, charmed, to the well-bred voices flowing on in never-ending delightful discourse, now serious, now sparkling, glancing from gossip to antiquities, from literature to the political news; but never stiff, never at a loss, never boring.  And then, when we shut the book, it strikes us that there is a great deal about these people we have not been allowed to know."

We do get tantalizing glimpses, though, and these keep us reading into the night.  At least around here.  Is anyone else reading Horace Walpole...?  I wonder.  Again from David Cecil (ibid p.123):

"Horace Walpole is not exactly lovable.  But he is wonderful."

Book collecting for me in the 1990s was all about the eighteenth century, for the very reasons Cecil states, alongside my personal and intuitive inclinations as well, and I still have many of the books we found and bought back then.  I'm glad to know that they still entice me.  This bodes well for the future, and, god willing, old age.  I will close for now with an apologia, since my blog posts seem to be much fewer and much longer, of late.  I just can't seem to write more frequently (painting! life! everything!), and by the time I do the books have piled up mightily.  So, I'm sorry for all this text, with no pictures even, to break it up a bit!  Well, I hope we still love lots of text.  I know I do.  My old friends, in books, are nothing but.  And yet, they still talk, and live, and so I hope we'll continue our visits together for years to come, both on the page and here.  Thanks for reading, friends.

Thanks for writing, Sarah.

Tomorrow it's Pascha, Easter here.

So this post was quite a small and precious gift, to read it with hot coffee and the first rays of spring.
A blessed Easter to you and your family, Antony. Thank you for being a constant reader, and for all your lovely comments over the years. Much appreciated, book-friend.
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