Friday, January 05, 2018
a new leaf
A brand new year. How shall we make it count, make it matter? For my part, I am turning over a new leaf. In general, with a particular bad habit I am currently breaking and reforming, and specifically with some new books. I've always loved the word leaf as it pertains to books - a leaf meaning a book page. It carries an echo of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and hints at living things. At trees turning into book pages which are still alive, in more ways than one.
The mail is bringing me some lovely books, right now. The first is a veritable bouquet:
Such pretty books! I went a little crazy ordering reading material for myself last month - I received all these Ronald Blythe books from England around Christmastime and have already read them all! And I have a few more on the way as we speak. (Obviously buying books is not the bad habit to which I refer.) Each volume collects his back-page column Word from Wormingford from the Church Times. All are written in a stream of consciousness style that moves effortlessly from natural phenomena closely observed to his inner religious landscape to his literary doings, throughout each year. They are diaristic essays with so much to recommend them, even if you are not a member of the Anglican Church and do not use a lectionary through the year, as Blythe is and does. No matter. His inner and outer life are one, seamless. His prose carries us gladly along with him, whatever terrain he navigates, wherever he chooses to go. He could be describing himself, here, in Under a Broad Sky (Canterbury Press 2013):
"...I hear that the essay is making a comeback. Being a chronic essayist, I make more toast as a sign of approval.... All the best essayists give us a piece of their minds in brief, brilliant helpings." (pp.72-73)
I do love reading books that follow the course of the year - diaries, almanacs, books about rural life and the seasons. Blythe gives all that and more. He helps bring even frozen January to life, vividly. Again from Under a Broad Sky:
"Those of us who keep diaries will be keeping them with a vengeance at this moment. January is the most diarized month." (pp.14-15; he goes on to mention the diaries of Woolf, Boswell, Kilvert, and Pepys)
And from Stour Seasons (Canterbury Press 2016):
"Another year, and cause for meditation. What better to sit in the new armchair and to watch the seagulls circling. And to think. Although this is a grand term for what is going on in my head at 6 a.m. It is still dark, and it takes another hour before the bare fields and trees take shape. Not a resolution in sight. Instead, a kind of freedom. Another year in which to do what I like - which is to work hard and idle hard. You need to be gifted to do nothing." (p.1)
Not convinced yet? Back-cover review of an earlier volume, from the Daily Telegraph:
"...a wonderful meditation on our place in the landscape, the marks we leave on it and the different ways we relate to it, whether cultivating it, painting it, or merely walking across it."
And another from the Guardian:
"Blythe's observations of nature are as unforced as breathing, and his descriptions are precise, celebratory and unexpected."
Stour Seasons is my favorite of the bunch. I wanted to (and often did) take notes from nearly every page. In the Artist's Garden (Canterbury Press 2015) is a close second, not least for its lovely dust jacket. And fair warning, the last volume, Forever Wormingford (Canterbury Press 2017) is an anthology assembled from the previous collections. There might be one new essay in it, but all the rest are contained in earlier books. I didn't know this when I ordered it and while at first I was disappointed, I quickly came to realize that I didn't want to take leave of Ronald Blythe and his world. I didn't want to have to read any goodbyes from him or say them myself, in return. I want to have him continue on, indefinitely, and in this last book, he does. I am reminded of reading the final fragment of Patrick O'Brian's last book, 21 (Norton 2004). The characters sail on forever. There is no denouement. Fine with me.
One more thing about reading any these books - if you choose to do so, it may end up costing you more than their mere purchase price. It did me. Because as I read through them I found I had to keep a running list of books he's reading, and order some of those for myself, too. And now I have something like six of his recommendations on the way! Books both old and new! I am a total book glutton and do not plan on reforming any time soon!
And, another new leaf I must mention. Let us celebrate, because our long-time book-friend Antony is in print, and when the mail arrived yesterday, just before the blizzard did too, I was reminded of this:
"Letters from foreign countries arrive in the afternoon."
One of my favorite opening lines in all of literature. From The Station by Robert Byron, about his travels around Mount Athos (my copy Knopf 1949). And it leapt to mind when I received a package wrapped in brown paper, all the way from Greece, containing a lovely note in Antony's new book:
Alas, I read no Greek, as he well knows. However, I used to know some Russian, and can sound things out sometimes, in languages with a similarity to Cyrillic. This doesn't help me much here, but, scanning the text, I find it doesn't need to. Because there are still some familiar companions inside this book:
Our dear friend Christopher Morley. And another - see him there, in the text:
Henry David Thoreau! And, look, Anne Ridler! With a note of encouragement:
And also making an appearance, the beloved Hodge, a very fine cat indeed:
Oh, I want to read more! Looking into this book feels like standing on the edge of a glorious wide meadow, unable to identify all the flowers and insects and birds that call it home. Frustrated by my own lack of knowledge, but still able to gaze and appreciate what it took for each leaf of grass to grow and blossom, for each winged creature to fly. Congratulations, Antony!
All best wishes for this Happy New Year, besides. 2018, here we go, my goodness. I feel old but not too old. I am hard at work on various projects and the outgoing tide of the bad habit I am in the midst of leaving behind (No, I'm not telling) is lending me even more hope and energy than I can usually muster on my own, at this time of year. And, if all these books represent any kind of portent whatsoever, for the new year, brighter days are ahead for us all.