Tuesday, January 27, 2015


in the bleak midwinter

The opening lines from Christina Rossetti's beautiful carol are cascading through my mind this morning as I look out at the wildness of the blizzard.

"In the bleak mid-winter
  Frosty wind made moan,
  Earth stood hard as iron,
  Water like a stone;
  Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
  Snow on snow,
  In the bleak mid-winter
  Long ago."

So beautiful it makes me want to cry.  Both the song and the storm.  Oh winter, here we all are, in it together.  Let's think about warmer weather for a moment.  Or at least a reminder of it - I took this photograph a few weeks ago but the view from here is very similar today - snow, apple tree, curtain.  I saw these lace curtains in the island summer house of a dear friend, on a breezy, sunshiny day, and they were gently blowing around.  The birds looked like they were flying.  Now, I am not much of a lace-curtain kind of person.  But.  These.  She told me where she found them, and I went out and bought three for our dining room windows, and now whenever I look up I see the birds, and in my mind's eye, the island, the breeze, the warm summer wind.   

Speaking of which, the other song that's been stuck in my head lately is something I played while packing away our Christmas ornaments.  Last fall I bought a turntable at a yardsale down the street, and I've started playing my vinyl records again, not least among them several Frank Sinatra albums I've owned forever.  One has an old favorite, Summer Wind.  Loooove it.

But none of that is really what I want to talk about.  Not songs, not lace curtains, not the weather.  Books, right?  After some weeks of diligence, I am falling off the ancient literature wagon.  Backsliding.  Thanks to one book in particular.  Ryan and I visited a bookseller friend last weekend, and he sold me a very nice first edition of Mark Twain's Notebook, edited and prepared for publication by Albert Bigelow Paine (Harper 1935).  I thought of setting it aside but it was insistent, and as soon as I read the opening entries (loooove reading diaries) I was lost.  400 pages later all I want to read now is more Mark Twain.  So. Good. 

But that is also not what I really want to talk about.  Which is the history of this book. That is, its known physical perambulations within the immediate vicinity.  I bought it from my dear bookseller friend, who has himself owned it for 23 years.  He bought it from the estate of a collector friend of his.  This person was an avid buyer of books old and new, and used to be a regular customer of mine, at the first bookstore job I ever had, over 25 years ago.  He'd call me up and ask me to tell him all about any new books we'd received in his areas of interest, before he'd make the trip to the store to see them in person.  When I knew him he was elderly and rather frail, and usually traveled with an attendant.  But back to the Mark Twain book.  This collector bought it from another local bookseller, whose secret code is penciled inside the back cover.  I wish I could crack this code and find out how long he owned it before selling it to the collector.  Not to mention where he bought it in the first place.  When I bought it, last Sunday, I brought it home and made careful pencil notes inside the front cover about all this, with names and dates.  I wonder how long I'll own it, before it finds another home?  I can't think about that for very long (memento mori and all that - too sad to contemplate, at least during a January blizzard, with old songs playing in my head).  Well, I always wonder how books get from one place to another, and how long they linger with their keepers, and for once it is nice to actually know.  And, sadness aside for a moment, I like to imagine this book's future, with other booksellers and collectors, as a valued, beloved object, one that brings the voice of this author so richly to life.  It was such a pleasure to travel with him again, through these pages.  What a writer.

Back to old songs for a moment.  Mark Twain writes in his notebook that one of the most moving and pathetic things in the English language was, to him, (p. 319):

"...the refrain of a long-ago forgotten song, familiar to me in my earliest childhood: 'In the days when we went gypsying, a long time ago.'"

The pathos...!  He also says, about his own fame (p.190):

"My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine.  Everybody drinks water."

He knew his own worth, during his lifetime, and yet he still undervalued himself.  Well, some of us no longer care for wine.  And we are made of water - we need water to live.  Blizzard notwithstanding...         

"...It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road..."

Ah, snow seems desirable now and then.

And those aethereal birds are so playful upon the place where
"It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain".

Hope your books are not shivering.
"A Summer’s empty Room - "

So lovely, her imagery. No one else like her. (Had to look it up, though, to be sure who it was.)

Persevering with the weather, here. Another storm on approach for tomorrow, but we have firewood and pie and books, so all is well. The book room is north-facing, and I always think that the books make a most excellent extra insulation, lining the walls of that room the way they do. They also insulate against any spiritual chill that might set in, this time of year.

Hope you are weathering the season yourself, Antony - thanks so much for checking in.
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