Wednesday, March 23, 2016


pursuits of happiness

I'm SO EXCITED, I can't even say (since it's a quiet, internal, brainy kind of excitement - I mean, I'm not shouting from any rooftops, but I am nevertheless VERY EXCITED).  Because earlier this week I made the decision to continue my quest to read more of the books I've always wanted to read.  Ars longa, vita brevis and all that.  Time's a'wastin', get to it!  We just paid our income tax and the amount we owed this year was much less than expected, so, feeling financially expansive, I spent a bit of cash on a set of books I've wanted to get my hands on for years, and I do mean years.  They were never published in the U.S., and thus rarely turn up in used book shops, at least none within striking range of me.  In fact during all my years of looking I've only ever come across one stray paperback of one of the later volumes.  I pounced on it and read it out of sequence since it was all I had.  But that was long ago and I've forgotten its contents completely.  Thus I am free to begin at the beginning and read the set in sequence. 

What is this set?  Well, with my love of reading other people's diaries, and with his reputation for being one of the great diarists (if not the great diarist) of the twentieth century, I feel I can no longer postpone reading the diaries of James Lees-Milne:  architectural historian, writer, intellectual, bisexual... diarist.  Twelve volumes in all.  Twelve!  I spent a long time toggling back and forth between Biblio, eBay, and Amazon attempting to cobble together a vaguely affordable set of the John Murray U.K. hardcovers, and I've come up with almost all of them, in decent shape, with dust jackets.  When they arrive they will closely resemble a matching set.

Underwhelmed?  Not I!  I think his diaries will be the perfect long-term reading project to follow all the Horace Walpole letters I read over the last year.  Frankly I've been yearning for another such author to keep me company for months and help me believe in life.  With the terror attacks around the world, and the fear about the political scene here and elsewhere (I'm having awful anxiety dreams about politicians, and then I wake up and remember that the reality is even worse than my terrible dreams), it feels more important than ever to double down with a personal commitment to civilization and its aspects - beauty, art, literature, even frivolity - the pursuits of happiness.  Which sounds so high-faultin', not to mention akin to fiddling while Rome burns (and near-pointless to boot), but oh my ever-loving god, we must stand with joy, whenever and however we can!  The peaceful, happy life is one to be cherished and tended, if you are lucky enough to have such a thing for any amount of time!  I see and read the news and I almost cannot bear it - in many instances I can't bear it - so what are we to do, to be (much less remain) cheerful, peaceful, loving people, in the face of everything?  How to expand our humanity instead of contracting with fear?  The usual answers are all I have:  tend to our gardens, libraries, and neighborhoods, be extra kind to everyone - chin up, heart high.  Props help - books, art - as do the meaningful, loving tasks and work of everyday life.  The spring crocuses in our garden are showing me the way, too.  They were just covered by six inches of killing snow, but today they are melting right through, shining with all their brave and vivid colors.  Let's do the same.  Even though it feels utterly beside the point to buy books or commit to long-term plans of any kind, let alone self-centered reading, let's do it anyway.

Viz. the books I ordered will start arriving in the mail soon.  Within days, perhaps.  I feel a little dizzy with anticipation, and yes, happy.  That sounds ridiculous, oh well!  Small pleasures, they feel more than small to me.  They feel like the building blocks of life, without which nothing will stand, or withstand.  I was skimming my own diary today and came across a pertinent quote to this end, from Andy Miller, in The Year of Reading Dangerously (see last post for more about this terrific book):

"Families and art, paintings and crowds, books and their troublesome readers:  composition, balance, tension, harmony.  It is our duty and our privilege to try to resolve these things here and now, with the help of a song or a decent book.  Because they will not wait for later."  (p.136)

He also writes, about attempting books often regarded as daunting:

"...why should I read War and Peace?  It is such a long book and my time is so precious.  Why should I ever do anything difficult ever?"  (p.269)

Read the book to find out his answer.  I already have (and I've given my own answers above, I hope), so I'll be here.  Watching the crocuses, and the mailbox.

I can totally understand that kind of excitement, and I hope they are everything you want them to be. Enjoy!
Even if they're not, it's truly okay. I abandoned a famous diary this winter - never wrote about it here, just let it quietly sink into oblivion - because I read 300+ pages and realized I simply wasn't having ANY FUN WHATSOEVER as a reader. Times were bleak, the writer became more and more repulsive to me, and peeking into the remaining pages, he didn't seem likely to become any less offensive. (I didn't have that problem with the huge set of Lord Byron's journals and letters, a few years ago - loved him, hated him, then loved him again. Redemptive.) So, off with its head! Usually when I commit to a book I am all in, but not lately it seems. This may indicate a sea change, for me.

I do have high hopes for James Lees-Milne, though. I loved his bildungsroman "Another Self" and have a few of his other books on hand too, including an inscribed one, about country houses. Well, we'll soon see... thanks for your comment!
There is still an old-fashioned pleasure in getting a book in the mail that should not be underestimated. Brown paper packages....yes!
The first arrived today, yippee! Now I must decide if I will wait until all the volumes arrive, so I can gaze and gloat (and finish up the projects and books I'm currently in the middle of, ahem) or abandon all else and start at once. A lovely dilemma to have. Am leaning toward the g-and-g option.

p.s. I was peeking at your blog yesterday - love your secret garden and round gate/doorway, just beautiful.
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