Thursday, January 31, 2008


Change is good

Big doings in our household today. The company Ryan works for is holding a staff meeting this afternoon to announce that they are closing the big building he works in. This means several things - some layoffs, some available space in the adjacent building, some relocations to the other offices down state - and to us it may mean that Ryan will telecommute most days. We're not afraid he'll lose his job, he's a database adminstrator and someone's got to keep the darn thing functioning, but it's a bit anxiety-making nonetheless. I mean, has anyone ever trusted upper management to make decisions that protect their good, decent, hardworking employees? In recent memory, not so much. So we'll see.

I'm reading Montaigne this morning and trying not to worry, not to think about the mortgage and the cost of heating the house, not to create paper tigers to fight before we know what's really happening. Montaigne is a good reminder that everything changes, all the time, that life is a wonderful spectacle, and change is natural and not to be feared. I'm nearly mid-book at this point, well into the long Apology for Raymond Sebond, which is downright terrific and seems to be nothing less than a complete argument for Nature and God being overarchingly more important than the affairs of us confused and puny humans - and a lovely argument it is, presented in great detail and at length, with many specific examples that would surely make people like Bill McKibben and Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry smile. Montaigne essentially says, Look at the heavens, the night sky and the sun, look at the animals of the earth, their complexity. Who do we think we are?? More important than all this, or any of this? Ha! This essay is a portrait of one mind applying its logic, in depth, to the staggeringly complex universe around him: "Shall we say that we have seen in no other creature than man the exercise of a rational soul? Well, have we ever seen anything like the sun?" (p.330)

He also has a lot to say about why he's writing these essays at all, the first of their kind in literature, and some of his reasons resonate deeply with this particular writer, as she struggles to find appropriate words for her own wildly meandering thoughts:

"It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immoblize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.... There is no description equal in difficulty, or certainly in usefulness, to the description of oneself. Even so one must spruce up, even so one must present oneself in an orderly arrangement, if one would go out in public." (p.273)

One must have some coherence, indeed. He continues:

"My trade and my art is living.... What I chiefly portray is my cogitations, a shapeless subject that does not lend itself to expression in actions. It is all I can do to couch my thoughts in this airy medium of words.... It is not my deeds I write down; it is myself, it is my essence." (p.274)

Montaigne examines himself from all possible angles, and is at his most endearing when he admits some failing or openly states a simple habit or trait. His prose is thick with such things and they serve to bring him fully alive, which must be why he's still widely read over four hundred years after having written. Here's a small sample, from On books, of what I mean:

"If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there, after making one or two attacks on them." (p.298)

Little snippets like this frank admission awaken such empathy - I'm doing the same thing in this very book, for god's sake - attempting and sometimes failing to read through all the classical references he provides - while not feeling like a dolt, because I'm not (too much), instead just taking it in stride and moving on. Which is what I'm trying to do, today, in general. Where's The Little Book of Calm when you really need a copy, I ask you. I guess Montaigne's my big book of calm, if I can so trivialize it. Which I can. This being my blog.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Wanderlust strikes again

Post number 400 today - seems like an awful lot to me, but for some blogs it's a drop in the bucket. Here, though, another small milestone. Or should I say millstone (ha). Feeling caustic this morning because I'm suffering from a bad case of restlessness, fueled no doubt by reading all these travelers' tales of late. Leigh Fermor, Chatwin, even Montaigne - not a traveler except in his exploration of self - but I'd love to visit his ivory tower someday - and here I am firmly entrenched in rural Maine. A decidedly beautiful place which I deeply love, but I wonder if I'll ever see Greece, Italy, and England, much less Tibet, Patagonia, or Australia. I'm beginning to suspect not. I was looking recently at a little hardcover book entited Metropolis Found (the New York is Book Country 25th Anniversary Collection 2003), and stumbled upon a quote from someone I'd never heard of, aphorist Mason Cooley (p.69):

"Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are."

Ouch, that hurts. But isn't it the truth. The fact is, even if I were to travel to all these places, my experience would not be that of the authors I admire, partly because the places and times have changed, but also because the worlds and circles they themselves moved in were unique and particular, thus not possible to replicate. So I'm hopelessly homesick and nostalgic and envious and sentimental and romantic, all at the same time, knowing all I've got are their books (admittedly, that's a lot, but still). A sad story indeed. As I've said before, I've been an armchair traveler for nearly my whole life, so why stop now.

Speaking of which, I'm about to finally pounce on a copy of volume two of Tim Mackintosh-Smith's travel trilogy, in which he follows in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah. Volume two has been out for a while, and I've been putting off buying it, but it's finally time, and Powell's has it cheap: The Hall of a Thousand Columns (volume one is Travels with a Tangerine, volume three is due out in 2009). I suspect that while this book will be terrific, as volume one was, it will not ease my current state of mind. So I'll take my cue from Montaigne - and assume that winter should be all about indulging in one's inner journeys, when outer journeys are not possible.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Ivory towers and turnips

The day got away from me yesterday - I thought I had all the time in the world and then suddenly it was five o'clock and getting dark outside. So I'm posting early this morning, before opening the shop, before I get caught up in money-making concerns (the end of the month approaches... must... pay... rent...). I've been reading books about monks for the past few days - various books by and about the Dalai Lama, and then also Patrick Leigh Fermor's little book about staying in monasteries, A Time to Keep Silence (Akadine reprint 1999). All these books discuss altruism as a way of living, both to benefit oneself and to ultimately benefit all beings (through devotion, meditation, prayer, good works, doing no harm, etc), though their take on deism is obviously different. I wasn't expecting these similarities, though, because I usually read Leigh Fermor simply for his beautiful descriptive language, such as this, about his stay with the Benedictines at St Wandrille de Fontanelle (p.46):

"It was a wonderful room to wake up in. Dreamless nights came to an end with no harder shock than that of a boat's keel grounding on a lake shore. Sunlight streamed in through the three tall windows and, as I lay in bed, all I could see was layer on ascending layer of chestnut leaves, like millions of spatulate superimposed green hands, and the crystalline sky of October framed by the thin reflected blue-white, or thick milk-white, or, where the sun struck, white-gold surfaces of the walls and window-arches and embrasures."

And this, in my opinion a nearly perfect bit of prose, about the very beginning of his stay with the Cistercians at la Grande Trappe (p.67):

"In the daylight that followed my arrival, the pale grey Trappe resembled not so much an abbey as a hospital, an asylum or a reformatory. It dwindled off into farm buildings, and came to an end in the fields where thousands of turnips led their secret lives and reared into the air their little frostbitten banners."

Of course one of my favorite parts of the book is a very long description of the massive library at St Wandrille, which readers will have to seek out for themselves (pp.30-31). Leigh Fermor concludes, about the life there and his own sojourn, "...I was inhabiting at last a tower of solid ivory, and I, not the monks, was the escapist." (p.35)

Now I'm in the middle of Leigh Fermor's book Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (Harper 1966), and am about to come to a section about visiting Greek Orthodox monasteries. I picked up Leigh Fermor again after all that talk in the comments a few weeks ago about Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin admired him and sought him out in Greece, befriended him, visited Mount Athos with him, and then apparently experienced some kind of spiritual awakening and in fact aligned himself with Orthodoxy before he died.

Back to the Dalai Lama for a moment - I've got shelves full of Buddhist books, and they stem, among other things, from the first one I ever bought, the Dalai Lama's book Kindness, Clarity and Insight (Snow Lion 1984). I bought it in the lobby of an academic building in Massachusetts, immediately after having heard the Dalai Lama speak. I think it was 1984, and I was seventeen years old. Coming from the bleakness of a Maine winter, seeing him and his monks radiant in saffron and maroon, was shocking and fascinating and though I've forgotten the substance of the lecture (which must have been translated), I'll never forget the atmosphere, the knowing that something very important and real is happening here, with this group of people, these believers, this religion. I considered myself a Buddhist for much of the 1990s before finally coming up against a few bits of dogma I couldn't reconcile myself to, or accept. But I'm still searching! Patrick Leigh Fermor was too, and Bruce Chatwin, and I find it hopeful and reassuring to come across evidence of this throughout their writing.

This is longer than I intended, as usual. Feeling particularly introspective today, with all the reading about monks. Back to the books, to keep looking.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Vanitas, vanitas

Another what's-it-all-for day, made to order. I painted this morning, in the resounding silence of a nearly customerless shop, and the results were lackluster at best. So naturally, I ask myself what, exactly, do I think I'm doing here. January is always struggle-month, at the shop and otherwise, and this year seems to be no different, thus far. Does Montaigne have any answers or consolation, or is he merely reinforcing my sense of the futility of the struggle? Let's see (p.249):

"To how much vanity are we driven by the high opinion we have of ourselves! The best-regulated soul in the world has only too much to do to stay on its feet and keep itself from collapsing to the ground through its own weakness. Out of a thousand souls, there is not one that is straight and composed for a single moment in a lifetime; and it may be questioned, given the soul's natural condition, whether it can ever be so."

Well, not exactly good news, but at least I know it's not just me! We're all more or less adrift! My powers of deduction and reasoning are muddled today because I seem to be coming down with a cold, but I still find this passage funny (cosmic-funny, not funny ha-ha) and rather heartening, and therefore shall continue to keep my chin up and not take things too seriously. That, and some more chicken soup, should do the trick.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


What to say when there's nothing to say

For several reasons, I seem to be having a day sent straight from hell. However, I'd be shooting myself in the foot in a monumental way if I got into particulars, so this will be a short blog post about not much. I did write it all down in my journal, so someone might read about it after I'm dead and gone. Then this day will seem like tiny blip in a wide river of life experiences. No big deal, right? Hm.

I do have some forward progress to report: I read another hundred pages of Montaigne over the weekend. And I loved it. I even laughed out loud once, at one of his blips. His writing makes me want to throw everything else out the window and spend the next few years reading the authors of antiquity. Pliny! Xenophon! Seneca! I need a few more lives, so I can really read everything I want to read. All of it. One or two of me could just sit and read all day, every day. I suppose I'd have to get up and stretch once in a while. Perhaps eat.

Speaking of which, I'm going to go now, and remove the roof of my mouth with the scalding hot chicken soup from the eatery across the street (so good I can't possibly wait until it cools off). It has potatoes and peas and chunks of turnip and carrot and it's delicious and very very comforting. Much needed.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Yes, it's still January

Zero this morning, sunny and zero. I have never been to the Caribbean, yet today I yearn for the Caribbean. Such is life. A few notes before I head out for a long weekend at home and a few visits with friends (who do not live in the Caribbean, unfortunately):

My distant cousin Tom DeWolf will be on BookTV (on C-Span2) this weekend; the program info is here. I haven't read his new book yet, but it's on my short list! Also, a reminder about, and all good wishes to, another distant cousin, Katrina Browne, whose documentary Traces of the Trade premieres at Sundance this coming Monday.

My post-Helprin reading void has been filled, by returning to Montaigne's Essays. I am determined to become engrossed once more, until I finish the thing. For no other reason than my own enjoyment and pleasure and self-education. I may write about it here, but I may not. After all, as Montaigne says (p.109):

"I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow, if I learn something new which changes me. I have no authority to be believed, nor do I want it, feeling myself too ill-instructed to instruct others."

Well, despite that sentiment, which I share, I'll be back next week with something to say - about books, I'm sure. Have a good weekend, and best of luck to the Patriots (knock on wood). Speaking of whom, I heard the sports news this morning, and let's hope Randy Moss is not a woman-beater. It's bad enough that there are any woman-beaters out there at all, but to have one on your very own outrageously successful winning team is NOT ACCEPTABLE. So I really hope he's not. Anyway. Go Pats.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Cold, snowy, overwhelmed

I'm wearing a tank top, turtleneck, wool sweater, Carhartt vest and I'm still feeling the cold, today. It's clear and sunny but there's no warmth. I finished Winter's Tale this morning and must conclude that yesterday I didn't know what I was talking about. Because the story unfolds wonderfully well, if slowly, over the course of the book's 673 pages. It was I who was lacking, wanting it to be something other than what it was. I'd forgotten, you see, how everything came back around in the end. The book is about faith in undying love, throughout, and it's beautiful. One of Helprin's characters says this, near the novel's resolution (p.638):

"'...I will show you who you are, not in words, but in beautiful images that could not ever be counterfeited or forged. And you will know exactly who you are, forever, by knowing what it is that you love.'"

Great writers always seem to be directly addressing us: the careful readers, the lovers of the words, the lovers of beauty. The book slays me with its loveliness. There are ugly bits, too, don't get me wrong, but they all lead to glory. Now, after finishing, I'm feeling like What's next, what's next? January is such a month for wanting, why is that? To cover up the cold, to insulate, protect, gather in, store up? Today, instead of wanting, I'll think about what I'm lucky enough to already have. Back to the first editions - another question - which fine books in your collections are the ones you are happiest to possess, or rather caretake? (Because, after all, they will be moving on to other book rooms someday, so we are merely temporary good stewards.)

In my book room at home, I'm caretaking a lovely first edition of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, and a signed Easton Press first edition of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines (I have the first trade edition, too). I didn't have to pay much for either of these books, and I treasure both of them, inordinately. Chatwin's tiny dark henscratch scrawl is extremely moving. Then there's the signed Siegfried Sassoon book we bought on our honeymoon, The Heart's Journey. Oh, there are others (my Christopher Morley books, for example). But like yesterday, I'd better stop there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


First editions of our dreams

Another foot of snow fell yesterday, so I spent another day at home, reading. Actually re-reading - my first edition of Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, appropriately enough. It's a terribly beautiful book, though the unfolding of the story is not perhaps as masterful as in his novels from the 1990s. I spent some time in my book room yesterday, during the blizzard, looking at my books and finally deciding upon this one, then I roared through three hundred pages in five hours or so, with breaks to shovel snow. (I also made blueberry muffins.)

I do read all my books, eventually, even the fine first editions, because I'm a careful reader (physically - I don't damage my books while I read), and I firmly believe that even collectible books should be read. Otherwise, why own them. Truly. Besides, I don't consider myself a collector per se, rather I amass books. I don't really work at collecting or completing, but there are several authors - Helprin being one - whose works I want in fine first editions if I can possibly ever find them or afford them. I think this has to do with honoring an author's work by keeping lovely copies on hand, and being careful with them, reading them, loving them. Luckily many of the books I'm interested in are still affordable, in some cases even cheap, because they are largely forgotten. Still, sometimes when I read about big-ticket book auctions, or see fine books at a bookfair or in a bookseller's catalogue, I feel myself wanting.

So here's a question: if you could have any first edition in the world, if price were no object, what would it be? (Feel free to list several, if you can't decide on just one.)

A few of mine, off the top of my head: Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence. I have the first trade edition (British, two copies). And In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I have a second U.S. printing, and a first trade paperback, and the Easton Press leatherbound edition, but a true first edition, I'd love. Which naturally leads to Robert Byron's classic, The Road to Oxiana. (If you don't know why, I don't think I'll tell you. Go find out for yourself.) I have a reprint. I could also stand to own a first of Persuasion by Jane Austen, my favorite of her books. And a first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And Johnson's Dictionary. I'll stop there. Though I could continue. And I may continue as the week progresses and more books occur to me. Anyone else?

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Picking over sale books

We stopped by the local bulk salvage store (Marden's, famous in Maine for heaps of great junk) this week because they were advertising books for sale by the pound. A dollar a pound. With this place, you never know what you'll get - upscale merchandise that used to be in a store which is now flattened by a hurricane, or everyday five-and-dime stuff and heaps of it - all housed in an old woolen mill that resembles an airplane hangar. I've gotten some deeply great books there before. So we went with high hopes. But out of five eight-foot tables full of books, I came away with only two titles in hand, a Peter Matthiessen softcover reprint and a lovely hardcover first edition of Penelope Lively's memoir of her childhood, Oleander, Jacaranda (HarperCollins 1994). The rest of the books were beyond bad. Strange, ugly, damaged, hideous topics, old remainder stickers fused to them, black grease pencil scrawls on their covers, I felt so bad for them. A sad, sad sight. We paid our $1.56 and left in a hurry.

While reading the Penelope Lively book today (no customers to interrupt, yet), I came across this great description of her early life in books - after being raised in Egypt, she'd been sent to a girls' boarding school in England, and at 12 years old was "a fervent reader, with a capacity for application and an assumption that learning on the whole was enjoyable." At school for the first time in her life, however, she found that reading was socially unacceptable, both among her peers and oddly enough, among the staff (pp.83-84). But it was too late:

"I was by then too deeply steeped in heresy to recant. I accepted, grimly, that I was cherishing a perversion and went underground. I read under the bedclothes at night and on the rare occasions when I could find a secluded corner and thought that no one was looking. I got found out, of course. Pious dormitory prefects reported me. My copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse was confiscated from my locker by an assiduous matron and returned to me in a reproving private interview with the headmistress. She pushed the book across the desk towards me - assertive red-tipped talons lay on the dark blue binding: 'There is no need for you to read this sort of thing in your spare time, Penelope. You will be taught all that.' She went on to point out that my lacrosse skills were abysmally below par.

I grew up, after what seemed like several centuries, and found my way at last into the sunlight of a university, where I discovered to my surprise that lots of other eighteen-year-olds had been reading quite openly for years."

(I read this and thanked god and my parents that I grew up in a house full of books.) I've never read Moon Tiger, Lively's Booker-winning novel from the '80s, but I've had so many people tell me to that I'm beginning to think I absolutely must. Odd, but whenever I decide I really have to read a certain book, a copy suddenly appears out of the ether. Of course it helps if you're out there book-hunting all the time. You never know what'll turn up.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Rara avis

Trying not to watch Jonathan Lethem browse at the little library sale this past Saturday was like seeing an indigo bunting sitting for an hour in the forsythia outside your window: looking, but trying not to look too much or make any startling moves, not quite believing your eyes. I mean, you know they're out there somewhere, these famous and talented authors, living their lives and writing these fantastic books, but seeing one is a rare occurrence around here. That said, I saw JL at this particular library sale before, once, when I actually got up the nerve to tell him I enjoyed his writing, and bythewayIhaveabookshop (Doh - see this blog, early June 2006). This time, no. Too few people there, I was too shy, I didn't want to bother him. Anyway, what else could I have said. Besides that, he looked too good. Well-dressed, hip but not too hip. Great hair. Not what we usually spot in the wild here in Maine, in January. Natives have to wear all L.L. Bean, all the time. It's the law. (Kidding. But not by much.)

On to the books - besides the memory of my glimpse of the bookish Mr. Lethem, I came away from the sale with two cartons of books for thirty-six bucks. A light catch, but it included an Edith Wharton first editon in fine condition, a first U.S. edition of Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin's (the book Burnett later expanded into The Little Princess), a first edition of Nelson Algren's book A Walk on the Wild Side (decent condition but no dust jacket, arg...), and a first U.S. of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. I also picked up books by Michael Pollan, Maugham, Elspeth Huxley, Dashiell Hammett, Rabelais, Joyce, and Evelyn Waugh. And a pile of other stuff. I'm cleaning it up and getting it all out on the shelves on this customer-less morning.

Last January I spent the entire month with The Reader's Encyclopedia. This year, what. I have no plan, so I'm suffering from this vague malaise. And the shop remains too quiet for comfort. I clearly need a project. It's already been a long winter.

Friday, January 04, 2008


This isn't a library

My shop cd player just bit the dust (cheap piece of shiny junk that it is - and no, not even the radio will play, now) and all of a sudden I have one of those bookshops which people enter and immediately ask in a hushed whisper if it's all right if they look around. Then they tiptoe toward the bookshelves, and is it just me, or do they flinch slightly when the old floorboards creak?

I hate overly-quiet shops. I don't want mine to be one. I like to have some music playing, something going on somewhere, so browsers feel comfortable, feel like I'm not Watching and Listening to THEM. I must take action. But I have no money (storm windows and storm doors for the house, that's where all the Christmas money went - oh, and sending in the sales tax) for superfluous gadgets. So I sit here wondering why it broke, instead of going shopping. I've tried all the obvious things - plugging and unplugging, using a different outlet, dead battery in the remote?, even what my friend Adam calls "the drop test" - which usually works on small machinery, by the way - but no go. Is it possible to wear out a year-old cd player? Must be the million times I played the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant cd last month.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Chop wood, read books

Well, we're in the thick of it, here in Maine. Four below zero this morning when I arrived at the shop for the first time since last Friday, after being kept home by a combination of three snowstorms, the New Year's holiday, and a hefty dash of sloth. Bitter cold and three feet of snow on the ground in back of our house. So the snow piles, where we've shoveled and shoveled, are up over my head in places. Everyone around here's saying it, and I will too, "I haven't seen a winter like this since I was a kid." Remember? Massive snowstorms, and afterwards sledding all day with the neighbors' kids, digging tunnels and forts in snowbanks, coming home at dark exhausted and red-faced and wind-burnt but supremely happy? When I was a kid we heated our house with two big woodstoves and cords of wood we split and lugged ourselves. (We also had no running water. Hence an outhouse. Have I mentioned this before? Character-building!) To this day I still love radiant heat, something you can put your wet boots and mittens under and they actually dry, something you can cozy up to and feel instantly warmed.

I didn't go sledding this time around, but I did some snowshoeing, and took several long walks during the brief sunny breaks between storms. The town we moved to is small, with several streets that loop around each other, and we can usually walk right down the middle of the plowed road for two miles without seeing another car. I spent my time off indoors, too, reading - Santa brought me some good books, and I also had a few lying around the house. (Just a few...) One was the elegy for Molly Malone Cook, long-time partner of poet Mary Oliver, entitled Our World (Beacon Press 2007). The book combines photos by Cook and entries from Cook's journals with some prose by Oliver about their life together. It's a lovely book, both from a physical standpoint - how wonderful to see a good book bound completely in cloth, as a good book should be! - and regarding the carefulness and respect of the chosen content. It comes across as a token of deepest affection, of highest regard, and it somehow retains privacy for the both of them while still allowing a view in.

One of the other books I read this week was Wendell Berry's collected agrarian essays, The Art of the Commonplace (Counterpoint 2002). Editor Norman Wirzba says of Berry, and it could apply to Mary Oliver just as well:

"Authentic and responsible thought, while not restricted to the local or regional, depends on the clarity and precision that comes from sustained attention to the particular."

Both of these authors closely observe and report on, lovingly, the particular. In doing so, with their gifts, they transcend the particular. To bring this back around to the joy of lugging wood, in a way, I will quote Berry, when he says (p.80):

"I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts."

And I will quote Mary Oliver, as she chose this from Molly Malone Cook's journals (p.81), just because I love it so much:

"People travel to keep from crying in place."

I read Wendell Berry's Collected Poems 1957-1982, too (North Point Press). Both authors give their readers everything, even while choosing carefully what to say. Both are vulnerable in the best sense. Without self-righteousness, they state their beliefs - all of them - if we care to read the lines and then between the lines. This is why I love poetry, and poets who write essays, and these two poet-essayists in particular. I could go on. But I've got a shop to run...

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