Monday, September 24, 2007


Escapism as a life strategy

I'm still half-heartedly sorting books from home. And just when I think I can part with something (I'll never read this, I tell myself, I know I'll never never never read this...) I encounter a snippet that makes me put the book back in the "keep" pile. Heap. Mountain, escarpment, avalanche, whatever. The book(s) in question today: The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, namely the first two volumes, They Were Counted and They Were Found Wanting (Arcadia Books, London 1998). What great titles for novels. I bought these for a buck each last year sometime, because I had no idea what they were but they had a blurb and foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose book blurbs are so few and far between that when I see one I sit up and pay attention. So I read those anew, and noted that Fermor called this book "remarkable," then I read the first sentence of the introduction by Patrick Thursfield, one of the translators:

"My acquaintance with the works of Miklós Bánffy started one day some years ago when I was motoring from my home in Tangier to Rabat."

Hooked. Line and sinker, when I haven't even read a word of the actual text yet. Because today a rather large part of me wishes I was motoring from my home in Tangier to Rabat. Speaking to someone about pre-war Hungarian novels. But I'm not, I'm just not, and I for reasons I won't get into I feel rather inconsolable about this point. Suffice it to say that some days books aren't enough to help me get away from the complicated tangle of my own life. And they usually are my life, and bring me much more than enough. Not that life in Tangier would be any easier than life here. I'm just overly romantic about ideas such as this. So in the spirit of escapism, pure and simple and much-needed, another book cover:

Four For a Fortune by Albert Lee (Harper's circa 1900 - the title page is missing in this copy). The story is a ripping yarn about a treasure-hunt on a remote island off Newfoundland, complete with an ancient and incomplete fire-singed treasure map, a dramatic shipwreck, and buckets of ducats. I like the decorative cloth cover enough to have kept the book for ten years now (I see from my code inside the back cover that I bought it for fifty cents back in 1997). I particularly like the ocean waves, the high horizon line, and the discreet little sack of moolah on the spine. Perhaps Albert Lee was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson with this novel, I don't know. All I know is that this was a get-away book, and I can look at it more than a hundred years later and still feel the wind in the sails.

I could not agree more. I recently picked up a copy of Melville's Redburn (going out of business sale at Books Unlimited in Denver -50% off!) and was struck by Melville's romantic prose in his reflective narrative, as young boy, to escape the drudgery of everyday life for parts unknown....

"As I grew older my thoughts took a larger flight, and I frequently fell into long reveries about distant voyages and travels, and thought how fine it would be, to be able to talk about remote and barbarous countries; with what reverence and wonder people would regard me, if I had just returned from the coast of Africa or New Zealand; how dark and romantic my sunburnt cheeks would look; how I would bring home with me foreign clothes of a rich fabric and princely make, and wear them up and down the streets, and how grocers' boys would turn back their heads to look at me, as I went by. For I very well remembered staring at a man myself, who was pointed out to me by my aunt one Sunday in Church, as the person who had been in Stony Arabia, and passed through strange adventures there, all of which with my own eyes I had read in the book which he wrote, an arid-looking book in a pale yellow cover."

That is so lovely I can hardly stand it. Thanks for taking the time to copy it out. I've never read "Redburn" but I do love Melville's poetry. (An aside: there's a terribly beautiful short story about Melville in Mark Helprin's recent book "The Pacific and Other Stories.")

This passage reminds me of Longfellow's famous poem about his boyhood in Portland, Maine: "My Lost Youth." It says many of the same things. Such a great poem. (Robert Frost loved it too...)
That's so ironic you would mention Longfellow, who next to Whitman, inspires me the most. (after which come Roethke, Stafford, Harrison, Dickey, etc.)
'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'

My connection to H. Longfellow goes farther. His daughter Anne married the son of the principal lumber barron and founder of my hometown in Wisconsin. A little trivia for you.

My virtual bookshelf, most of which has not been fully cataloged:
I've toyed with the idea of doing the LibraryThing thing, but I have noooo tiiiiime *no time* I tell you. I don't have time to organize my actual library, not to mention a virtual one. However, I salute your efforts!

Longfellow makes my skin prickle, at his best. He's 200 years old this year, and the Maine Historical Society planned an interesting series of events:

Longfellow's house in Portland is a museum now. It looks noble and humble at the same time, sandwiched between modern buildings. It looks right. The buildings around it look very very wrong.
Thanks or the Longfellow events. I will bet you have a 1882 copy of W. Sloane Kennedy's biography published by Moses King -dark green boards with gold inlay design? My copy has a little writing in pencil, (likely from some young person before I was born) noting the birthplace of Longfellow on the illustration of his house on pg. 17. (corner of Fore and Hancock) Good to see it still stands. I have not read my copy all the way through but consider it a safely stored treasure to pull out some snowy Colorado morning with a hot cup of coffee.

Thanks too for the mention of Mark Helprin. I have not previously checked his stuff out, but he looks to be a great writer.

Do you sell your books on-line? Abes perhaps? A little luck yesterday snagging a 1st edition of Sherwood Anderson's Dark Laughter on ebay for $3.99. No other bidders. The collection keeps growing!!

Long-time readers of this blog may chuckle and roll their eyes if they hear any more praise from me about Mark Helprin. My favorite living author? Possibly... I'd start with "Memoir from Antproof Case" and "Ellis Island" and branch out from there.

I do have a copy of the Longfellow biography here in the shop - I bought it from a bookseller who was kind of a mentor to me, who said that no decent antiquarian dealer should be without a copy. A classic.

Right now I do sell a bit on Amazon, and I used to sell on eBay quite a bit (sarahsbooks is my eBay name). Not lately, though, it's gotten so big, and it's deadly dull, all that listing, packing, shipping, etc. Taking a break until winter. Or until I am desperate for money, whichever comes first.
I guess I need to go back and start from beginning to end on your blog..if I ever find the time..which is likewise true for recreational reading. You somewhat quelled my notions of jumping in to list some of my collection on ebay. I'm sure I would share your same sentiments. This certainly is not the businss to be in if riches are your aim.

Good to hear your praise on Helprin. I may have to go back to Books Unlimited because I recall seeing A Winter's Tale and A Soldier's Story (may have the title wrong)-but a thick one at that of the likes of something Thomas Wolfe would have put out.

I'll check out Amazon. Keep up the nice work. ;-)

I used to sell a lot of books on eBay, in fact I raised enough money to open my bookshop that way, and eBay sales ensured I could pay my rent if sales lagged at the shop (which is why I still sell some batches of books on eBay from time to time, in the winter). But after five or six years of it, it got old! The money wasn't enough any more, and eBay got so much bigger that it seems harder now to sell your stuff unless it's something very unusual (signed, scarce, a collectible subject). Amazon - I sell some oddball items, some art books, academic titles, etc. It's a good way to clean out a bit, and it has a much easier listing process than eBay's (and a bigger market).

Mark Helprin - "Winter's Tale" is his second published novel, very lovely and rather odd, and "A Soldier of the Great War" is his masterpiece. What a tremendous book. I run out of superlatives. He's a writer's writer. Truth, beauty, and great metaphors in every chapter. A thick book that you never want to end. How's that for a recommendation...
Ok, on your esteemed and well respected advice, I ran over to Books Unlimited for lunch and both Helprin books are gone. Drats!! Of, course further browsing only softened my bent spirit. I found a war copy, 1942, of Cannery Row with a nice jacket, which I don't have in my collection, a thick book entitled The Saga of Arnold Burnett by Stewart Edward White, 1947, with a cool western pictorial jacket. Knowing nothing of the book, other than it contains 4 of White's novel's and is rather nostaligic Americana looking, I had to buy it. Finally, minutes after looking at my watch and thinking, it's time to go, I chanced upon A Time To Love And A Time To Die by Erich Maria Remarque, 1957 first edition (book club) with a nice jacket and Book-of-the-Month insert report. I never read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, so maybe I will find time to read this classic?

Don't hold your breath.

I pushed "Memoir from Antproof Case" on a good friend of mine, and he didn't finish it, said he couldn't stand the main character. Who I loved. Still love, will love again (I've re-read the book many times and will read it again sometime soon). So I am a bit wary of recommending in person. But on my blog, what the heck, I can be as effusive as I want, right?

Thanks for the shopping report, sounded like fun. Don't let the thought that you might never find time to read those books interfere with the actual buying of them. Once you have them in hand, or on shelf as the case may be, the ensuing sense of security and well-being is reward enough. Besides, then if you do want to read them, there they are, waiting for you...

p.s. some of those Book-of-the-Month Club reports are very nicely done. I have a few written by another favorite author of mine, from a different era than this, Christopher Morley.
Your not alone on recommendations. I have the same experiance. Just like movies, people can have strong individual preferences. I use to judge a review by my ex-sister-in-law. If she hated it, chances are it was a really good movie. :-)

Hey, over the weekend I found a super nice hard back copy (with purple blue dust jacket) of E.B.White's 'One Man's Meat'. Wonderful writing! Salt Water Farm will be read many more times.

I think that last comment was a bit of book-flavored spam, so it hit the trash. If it wasn't, apologies to the anonymous sender.

S - I too greatly admire E.B. White - he loved Maine, country life, literature. His old farm is about an hour and a half from here, though sad to say I've never known exactly which house it is. A good quest for some summer afternoon next year -
I just received a brand new copy of Helprin's Pacific Stories off ebay for $2.67 (now I see why this would be a winter activity). So which one of them did you say has references to Melville?

Melville is the main character in "Rain." The story also has a short yet wonderfully damning description of a used bookshop. In part: "Many stores manage somehow, day after day, to exist without customers, and so did this one."

By the way, you could have gotten a signed hardcover from Mark Helprin's website for a mere $20.95. Just sayin'.
Thanks Sarah! Yeah, I checked out Helprin's site and saw the signed editions. Perhaps after Pacific, I'll order Memoirs.. signed by him.

Today I discovered Anton Otto Fischer. All I can say is WOW! I feel like the day when I discovered Rockwell Kent.
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