Thursday, February 28, 2008
Books that were never written
After finishing Montaigne's Essays, I got to wondering if I could read anything else that he'd written. And yes, I find that North Point Press reprinted his Travel Journal in 1983, so I'll track that down, but it looks like that's about it, for more Montaigne. It doesn't seem right somehow. Which got me thinking about books I wish I could read, if only the books had been written... like:
The Collected Letters of Bruce Chatwin. Or collected postcards? And more selections from his journals, while we're at it - there are around 80 (80!!) moleskine journals of his in storage in the Bodleian Library, due to become available to the public in 2010. I understand there's nothing scandalous in there (and that's not what I care about anyway), but would merely like a book of the quotations he collected, lists of the books he read, or some such thing.
More? How about The Collected Letters of Christopher Morley. And the books that Laurie Colwin would have written if she hadn't died too young. Ditto Jack London. How about the poems Frank O'Hara would have written if he hadn't died too young. Or The Diaries of Fairfield Porter (out of all the artists whose work I love, I wish the most that he had kept diaries - his Collected Letters have been published and are very fine, as is his art criticism, but I'd love something more informal - his thoughts about his own painting). Anyone else? The Lost Novels of...?
Monday, February 25, 2008
A meddlesome and restless instrument
I hardly know how to begin talking about the experience of reading this book. How about by mentioning that twelve or fourteen years ago I read selections from the Essays for a graduate school seminar, and thus my preconceived notions about what the book was all about were set firmly in place. Namely, that the Essays were largely humanistic and all concerned with a humanist's various worldly pleasures and displeasures. This is due to that selection, I now think, which focused on some of the earthier and revealing aspects of Montaigne's writing, i.e. sex, other bodily functions, his day-to-day realities of living, etc. But in reading the entire series, I come away with a much broader sense of Montaigne as a man concerned with all the questions of life, large and small, profane and sacred - he says we are neither angels nor beasts - and the questions that speak to me the most as a thinking reader are the ones that delve into what, exactly, is a human being, and what is our purpose on earth, what is our proper relationship to Nature, what is God, what is the soul, how is the soul attached to the body, what is the importance of and use of the body and the soul and the mind, what is death and how can we prepare for it, what did the ancient philosophers think of all these things, and what does Montaigne think of them now, in modern times, as it were.
It's a lot; it's everything; it's too much to talk about here, so I'll just mention a few things. Some of my very favorite passages in the Essays are those in which Montaigne specifically talks about writing his essays - particularly regarding his intent:
"I am not building here a statue to erect at a town crossroads, or in a church or a public square:
'I do not aim to swell my page full-blown
With windy trifles....
We two talk alone.'
This is for a nook in a library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who may take pleasure in associating and conversing with me again in this image. Others have taken courage to speak of themselves because they found the subject worthy and rich; I, on the contrary, because I have found mine so barren and so meager that no suspicion of ostentation can fall upon my plan." (p.503)
"This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas.... If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.... I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter. You can tie up all the moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff." (p.611)
One person's life can illustrate all aspects of the range of emotions and thoughts available in human existence. Montaigne knew it - and lived by the motto Know thyself:
"I do not care so much what I am to others as I care what I am to myself. I want to be rich by myself, not by borrowing." (p.474)
"Who does not see that I have taken a road along which I shall go, without stopping and without effort, as long as there is ink and paper in the world? I cannot keep a record of my life by my actions; fortune places them too low. I keep it by my thoughts." (p.721)
Holy mackerel, Montaigne is endlessly quotable. I stopped reading so many times, to take note of sentence after sentence that leaped off the page at me:
"In a time when it is so common to do evil, it is practically praiseworthy to do what is merely useless." (p.722)
"Amusing notion: many things that I would not want to tell anyone, I tell the public; and for my most secret knowledge and thoughts I send my most faithful friends to a bookseller's shop." (p.750)
"...I am somewhat tenderly distrustful of the things I wish for." (p.775)
He considers the mind "...a meddlesome and restless instrument." (p.794)
Some of the essays are convoluted and wandering, to this twenty-first century mind at least, but when I lost the thread of Montaigne's reasoning, his story line so to speak, he himself brought me gently back with a laugh:
"It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I.... My style and my mind alike go roaming." (p.761)
Even though the book strained my mental capacity and facility, I was sad to finish. But I did come away filled with a overwhelming sense that one does not need fame or fortune to live well, to live with integrity and moral choice and happiness (and in fact fame and fortune are highly suspect). To those who say their lives have amounted to a hill of beans, Montaigne replies:
"What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations.... Have you been able to think out and manage your own life? You have done the greatest task of all.... To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles or provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately." (pp.850-851)
I also come away with the idea that Montaigne was a very lonely man who set himself apart from others by choice, even though he was extremely social and worldly. He lost his best friend early on in life, and I imagine that he then spent his remaining decades telling us, his future readers (not that he had any faith that he would have future readers), everything he would have told this close friend if he could have. He knew what true friendship was, and lost it, and mourned it for the rest of his life. And we remain the beneficiaries.
Favorite essays: Of solitude, Of practice, Of Books, the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Of the disadvantage of greatness, Of vanity, and finally, Of experience. As I said, I approached the end and was sad to finish - sad to leave such fine company. Of course after a decent interval I started reading another book, but the language seems all wrong and the ideas and activities so simple. After the heights and depths and sheer intellectual rigor of Montaigne.
Now it's taken me a good part of the afternoon to write this mini-essay about the very first Essays, and I feel like I've barely said anything at all. Well, it's slow here at the bookshop, and to be honest, my mind is still living in the sixteenth century.
Friday, February 22, 2008
But I'll pull myself together long enough to add another book to the Christopher Morley series. Morley edited Bartlett's Quotations twice, you know, and this little bitty book came out just prior to his first Bartlett, the 11th edition in 1937, which he co-edited with Louella D. Everett. Preface to "Bartlett" (Little, Brown 1937):
The book contains a charming essay printed as a teaser for the big book itself. Morley says about editing Bartlett, "This is in no sense a collection of personal choices. It is foremost a salvage of those words which users of the English tongue have shown evidence not willingly to let die.... The Public must love bad verse, it reads so much of it."
A bit later he adds, "One of the pleasures of this re-editing has been that one collaborator, by long experience with inquiries for the affable familiar ghosts of print, knows acutely what readers want; and the other believes himself to know what they ought to want."
A nice distinction. We know who is the latter. He later calls Bartlett "a diary of the race" and a collection of "the Now It's Got To Be Tolds of a good many generations." He also, finally, urges that "there is need of a companion and quite different kind of volume, which might be called Not in Bartlett." My own copy of the 11th edition of Bartlett is at home, otherwise I'd be quoting one of the spurious listings Morley inserted, as an in-joke. When I first bought the big Bartlett, years ago, I spent a lot of time browsing in it, and it seemed to me that whatever Morley might have said about the matter, his fingerprints were all over every page. Blake, Hazlitt, Dickinson, Melville...
I bought this copy of the Preface to "Bartlett" for a few dollars. Even while knowing that the eight illustrations the table of contents calls for had all been neatly sliced out by some unknown vandal. (Curses!) I couldn't not get the book - the text was fine, the cover was lovely, it was cheap. I felt sorry for it. Story of my life.
Have a good weekend, folks. I'm going to go home soon to supper and the final two essays of Montaigne. I hate endings - I'm going to miss him dreadfully when it's all said and done. Though I won't miss carrying around this three-pound paperback everywhere I go.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
A fiery particle
It doesn't take much to make me happy. A two-inch by two-inch fragment of dust jacket will do the trick, from Christopher Morley's book of essays Off the Deep End (Doubleday 1928). I picked up the book years ago in a local bookshop, thinking it was a shame that part of the spine of the dust jacket was missing. Then I opened the book to check the price (ten dollars), and saw that the missing fragment was neatly tucked inside. Now I consider this little bit of ragged-edged ephemera one of the highlights of my Morley collection:
The jacket was designed by John Alan Maxwell and has his sketches of people all over it - twenties girls in cloche hats sitting in cafes drinking martinis, authors hard at work over their mss, guys browsing in the sale bin outside a bookshop, a bar packed full of revelers. And on the top of the spine, on this surviving bit - is that Morley? - striding along the edge of a high city street, with something - a book? a manuscript? - tucked under his arm, jacket blowing in the breeze, hat on straight, streetlight beside him, his name in writing over his head, and a title that really says it all, about the life of an author and journalist. It seems almost unbearably poignant to me, all these decades later. I'd mat and frame this little piece, if I didn't mind separating it from its book. But I do.
The book itself contains essays on all kinds of topics, among them some bookish pieces entitled Notes on Rosy (A.S.W. Rosenbach), Bookseller's Progress, and Grub Street Runners. One is merely a collection of essayish fragments, Letters from a Fortress, but it illustrates Morley's frame of mind as it begins (p.280):
"A fortress, I suppose, is exactly the opposite of a jail. A jail, theoretically, is a place any one can get into but no one gets out of. A fortress is a stronghold you can leave when you choose, but no one can enter without your permission. People break out of jail, but break into fortresses.
It is well to have some kind of fortress, however impalpable, if you want to talk about things that seem important."
That's near the end of the book; at the very beginning, opposite the table of contents, Morley chose an epigram from C.E. Montague's The Morning's War:
"Words must have been made by man for telling about quite small delights only, and lighting the dim spaces between people who did not know how to be friends."
This is getting too maudlin. Time to go sell some books. Or - only fifty pages to go in the other Essays I've been reading.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Provisions for the human journey
The title page is another example of the kind of typography I admire - spacious, with room for a few ornaments, utilizing two colors, and a nice mix of small caps and italic. Morley dedicated the book to William McFee, another author whose work he championed at Doubleday. The title page has a quote from Twelfth Night: ""What country, friends, is this?' / "This is Illyria, lady.'"
This copy is not signed, but I show the book here anyway because I love its title, form, and presentation. I wish I could say the same for its content, but sadly, this is a prime example of Morley's more dilettantish efforts. Definitely a minor novel, about the political doings in the fictional but vaugely Austrian/Swiss country of Illyria, and the beautiful young daughter of the country's new president. Morley Lite. (Sorry.) Read Kathleen instead, then Kitty Foyle, for heroines of his that you can really believe in and even love. And admire this book simply for its twenties style.
I've almost finished straightening up the shop - got the boxes of junk out and gone early this morning - cleaned up some of the winter grime - and big news: if no customers interrupt me I am about to begin the final hundred pages of Montaigne's Essays. The end is nigh! I've even been virtuously postponing a few other books to ensure completion. When I finish, I'll post at length about him, but for now, here's just a bit - what Montaigne says about his books (p.628), and I couldn't agree more:
"...I cannot tell you what ease and repose I find when I reflect that they are at my side to give me pleasure at my own time, and when I recognize how much assistance they bring to my life. It is the best provision I have found for this human journey..."
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Notes to self
A second plaque could read: Thou shalt not accept donations. Though this is more problematic - because some of the books are always decent and saleable and of course we always want those and in fact deeply appreciate them, but the rub is that most donated books are desperately wretched and must be immediately put in a box out of sight and then stored somewhere until I can make a Salvation Army run. It's been a while, so I have ten such boxes sitting around. Tomorrow morning, they're finally outta here - I'm ruthless. I'm also frustrated, because I'm notorious for being fussy about condition, and yet I find I've still ended up with heaps of junky books taking up already-narrow passageway space and valuable linear feet of bookshelves.
On the up side, I also found a lot of genuinely great books I forgot I had. Good signed books, some things I meant to put on eBay sometime, a few things I'd set aside for any possible future bookfairs. Books with no issues whatsoever. That part made up for handling all the junky books for what seems like the tenth time (This again? I bought this ten years ago, and I still haven't had it rebound?? Will I ever?).
Had enough Morley for now? If not, I have more. My collection isn't boundless, but it is deep. My affection for it might be boundless -
Monday, February 18, 2008
Signature vs. inscription?
What was the difficult question? What is the tentative answer the book provides?? Morley signed this in Honolulu, of all places. And wrote Ex Libris to boot. I'd so much rather have this copy than a copy that was merely signed on the endpaper or title page.
The other Morley inscription, in a first edition of Seacoast of Bohemia (Doubleday 1929):
The subject of this book is Morley's account of managing the Rialto Theatre in Hoboken, New Jersey, with a few friends of literary bent. This inscription was obviously written quickly with an open hand, and we can assume from the phrasing that he was signing copies at the Rialto during the run of the play After Dark. Again, wouldn't we rather have this copy than one that was merely signed? (This question is rhetorical, but I welcome comments on this issue nonetheless.)
By the by, I was interviewed recently by writer Marty Weil about another of my collecting obsessions - booksellers' tickets, this time - over at his Ephemera blog. The interview went up on his blog this morning. Thanks, Marty - I enjoyed revisiting the whys and wherefores of collecting tickets while I ruminated over your questions.
Friday, February 15, 2008
Our tree of knowledge is here a grapevine, with a kindly putto dispensing the juice into our cup. The dedication page reads "To Mitchell Kennerley." The title page is preceded by the half-title, then by this short announcement:
"And now it's late, the telephone won't ring,
I was googling around to see if I could apprehend more about the meaning of the word Toulemonde, other than as just a name, and I saw a tantalizing bit of information: Lot 144 at the 1995 Swann auction of "The Abromson Collection of Christopher Morley" contained a Morley mss "written primarily in ink with extensive corrections, crossouts, etc. Np, nd The Dope on Toulemonde. 7 pages." (Along with a few other handwritten pages, four of which were entitled Visit to a Second-Hand Bookshop - wouldn't we like to read that - but that's another story!) I wonder where the lot ended up? Austin, Texas? Herman Abromson had one of the finest Morley collections of all time, that's for sure. I bet he knew what Toulemonde meant. Anyway, the poems just might break your heart, if you read them closely enough.
Elsewhere: I'm making huge strides through the pages of Montaigne; I'm also reading more Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Enough to keep me busy for a few more days. Brief bookshop report: yesterday a woman bought a stack of art books, and someone else bought books too, and I sold four books on Amazon - a banner day for mid-February! How I love selling books... Back on Monday.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Oh, how dear. I deeply love that ampersand, too, with its brave little flourish. This copy is a first edition inscribed and signed on the front free endpaper, to Olive L. Booth ("Aunt Olive" - I'm not sure if she was really his aunt, or an old family friend - perhaps someone who has actually read the 1976 biography of Morley will enlighten me), with Morley's name written in a way I've not seen elsewhere - and I have a lot of signed books - with his childhood nickname, Kit:
I see from my pencil code inside the back cover that I paid the princely sum of twelve dollars for this book, eight years ago. I think I bought it at a used bookshop in Boston, but I can't remember which one. This copy has no dust jacket - there's just one lone jacket flap tucked in the back of the book. Enough about the external form of the book; here's a brief taste of the bildungsroman-memoir inside (p.441):
"I am glad it was raining, cold steady downpour, sweet to taste. It washes a Long Island dogwood tree, it washes the stone walls of Stratford church. It would soon sodden to pulp the pages of all these books. Wash out cheap ink and glue and leave bare feeling. I never knew about rain until that night. I saw the blowing storms of the world sweep into the dusty rooms of literature, whirling aside our little notes and memoranda, stripping us down to laughter, pity, and need."
Nothing else to say, after that. Except that now I want to re-read the whole book. And, wouldn't FRUCTUS QUAM FOLIA be a good name for a bookshop, full of wonderful obscure stuff... I'd say call it ETAOIN SHRDLU, but that would only confuse people.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
An excursion among my books
Fifth Avenue Bus (Doubleday 1934). A doorstop of a book sweetly subtitled: An Excursion Among the Books of Christopher Morley / With a Note by the Conductor. This copy is a little worn around the edges, and the green spine cloth has faded a bit. But the good news is that the book is signed, twice. Once on the front free endpaper, and again on the title page, shown here:
Morley's signature has such dash - I particularly admire the trailing descender on the y. I've seen his signature so many times, and he almost always wrote this way. But in this case his signature really fills the page nicely. Now, about that attention to detail - it's hard to read in this image, but the little open book device has some Latin printed on the banner beneath it:
FRUCTUS QUAM FOLIA
Fruit of the leaves - Doubleday used this same emblem on at least one of the books of a writer Morley championed while working at Doubleday himself, Joseph Conrad. Folia reminds us, of course, of folio leaves, i.e. pages of a book. A fine motto, very neat.
More Morley later this week. And before I go a quick cat report: Hodge is settling in nicely at our house, he was (mostly) asleep on my lap last night while I read Montaigne. Every time I reached over him to turn the page, he'd Mrreeow quietly. We kept this up for nearly an hour. Not bad, considering a mere week ago he was hiding in the back of the closet, hissing if we got too close.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
The dilemma of creation
"Reluctantly, dreading lest the reader, daunted by pages of italics, should skip them, I have lifted most of the Boliaric glossary to the end of book. It would be a shame if this curious secret language should vanish unrecorded. So there it is, in Appendix II. I long for the reader to turn to it at once but I am in no position to insist."
Yes, of course I turned to it! I felt like he was asking me to! Boliaric is a kind of beggars' cant, originating in the Krevara region of northern Greece. Leigh Fermor was fascinated by the place, and now so am I, thanks to his book. He'll use a sentence with five place names and three ethnicities and perhaps two other nouns I've never even heard of. But in spite of the obvious erudition he comes across as the perpetual wondering curious traveler, and he includes us, the readers, in his journeys. He's not exclusive or elitist; he's got a sense of humor and humility. More, more please! I've read somewhere that the third volume of his European walking journey trilogy is going to be published someday (because the journals do actually exist in space and time). But when?
Today, I'm cleaning up the shop - working on this particular creation with a life of its own. I like to rearrange sections, clean shelves, pare away some of the deadwood, take a good hard look at my small stock. Anything I don't want to have on the shelf any more? Anything that, given I've had it priced at four dollars for six years and it hasn't sold yet, I think will never sell? Get rid of it! So far I've weeded out a big pile of odd stuff, most of which I've had since I opened the shop. Or before. Time for these to go! I've got a fairly small inventory, and now it's getting even smaller. I've always wanted a little jewel box of a bookshop, and as I keep paring, and keep getting more and more selective about what and when I buy, that seems to be finally happening. I just have to be careful not to end up with no inventory. Some days I miss working in a new bookstore - being able to order the good stuff (if it's still in print) and always have it on hand. The next best thing is to be able to find the good old stuff. Trouble is, all my good old Patrick Leigh Fermor books are at home in my book room. Not for sale at my shop. Does this keep me up at night? No.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
A moment to pause and reflect
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
No, thanks, I have enough books
Business is generally slowish, but I have been steadily selling a few books here and there each day, what with a few in-person customers and some Amazon sales online. Today's comment of the day, from the banker/lawyer/architect/university professional (those being the nearest offices) couple out for their lunch break: "Must be nice, to be able to sit and read all day, listen to music, not have to wear 'work' clothes..." (They didn't buy any books.) Why do people think that bookshop proprietors sit around and read all day? After all, we only do that some days. Days in February when only five people come in over the course of eight hours, and the checkbooks are balanced and the bills paid up, the back room is more (or less) tidy, and no new stock is waltzing in and clamoring to be dealt with. Sure, I'll put my feet up and read The Golden Age, because I can. Have fun back at the office!
Monday, February 04, 2008
Finishing what I've started
Weekend news: our team lost the Superbowl. Outplayed. Nothing else to be said, except that I'm feeling sick about it this morning. The heartbreak was assuaged somewhat by the fact that our new cat finally decided we were okay (after two days of apparent uncertainty) and ended up sleeping at the foot of the bed all night long. He's awfully good, that Hodge.
And some news from the bookshop, since in recent posts I seem to have been talking about everything but the bookshop. I've been getting quotes for printing up a bookseller ticket. If I get a die-cut, it's quite expensive. If not, not so much. I'm torn. Although it's a moot point, because of course I want the book-shaped die-cut, and business is too slow right now to warrant the expense. Speaking of expenses, it's February again, and every year at this time I seem to have a crisis of faith about the bookselling business. Can I afford to stay in business? Not really. Shall I continue anyway? This year, for the second year in a row, I just don't know. I've been selling books in one way or another for TWENTY YEARS now, and at this point books are so intertwined with my sense of self that I don't even know what I'd do if I wasn't working with them somehow. What to do. I am so not a quitter - in fact, I usually hang on to everything far too long - so I'll have to think about it for a while. And by then, it should be spring again...
Friday, February 01, 2008
Our new friend Hodge
Of course we wanted to take all the cats home - if you have a heart to break, it will surely break several times over at an animal shelter - but at least we can give this one a good home. He's two years old, beautiful whiskers, and tawny gold and silver mackerel markings. I hope he likes books. And oysters...?