Friday, December 31, 2010

Nothing Novel, Nothing Strange

My Samuel Johnson is not handsome. I might say my Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., to be clearer. Six homely little volumes, rescued from the oblivion to which they were well on their way when I found them, I bought them for myself and decided to see if I couldn't repair them just enough to be read. I'd meant to read the book again anyway, thinking that what I'd read before had either been incomplete or an abridgment, anyway something I'd never got through, for all that. Couldn't say why. I owned some monstrous Modern Library thing, the print so small and the book so big as to make reading it anywhere but in bed under a strong light impractical. When I met with this set, I was working in a different bookstore, a rather quiet used shop, and these sad little books came across the desk, scattered through a few boxes from some dear old soul's estate. I put them aside as I found them, each little book looking worse than the last, thinking the set might be worth something, even in such disgraceful shape, if complete. (It's not, by the way, even in good condition.) Eventually, I found all six. Four of the six were cracked and at least two were completely gone at the hinges. All six were filthy with dust and damage. The owner, at some point, looking I like to think to save an old favorite, had wrapped each one in a hard cellophane that had gone tacky with age, so that the stray volumes were stuck either to each other or to some other unfortunate book. Having paid just a few dollars for the set, I made a project of restoring the books as best I could.

The edition appealed to me because of it's editor, Augustine Birrell, an Edwardian essayist I like, and because of the perfect proportions of the books; neither too small to be read, nor too big to be put in a coat pocket. Took me a few hours, working on them in just my spare time at the store, to see what I had. The tops of the books were black with soot, though this came away easily enough with a thorough dusting. The worst of the work was when I had to carefully disengaged each book from it's sticky homemade wrapper, first by slitting the cellophane along the spine with a knife, and then peeling away the dry bits down to the pasted edges folded inside the books. Here and there the cellophane had stuck to the covers and had to be shaved off using a razor and some lighter-fluid. Only when the last bits of ancient amber tape and primitive plastic came away, could I assess the real damage. The labels on the spines were all more or less intact, but had faded to a near nullity, and the spines themselves had all gone brown with age. The green cloth covers were all discolored and dimpled to varying degrees, the worst this way being the third volume, which had bowed from the moisture slowly collecting under the wrapper. One of two had flecks of white paint, and at least one volume had a circle of candle-wax on the back cover. I took off whatever dirt would come away. I glued the hinges with plain white glue. I stacked all six under some heavy dictionaries and let them heal for a day or two. The glue made the hinges stiff, but, as I'd already observed, the stitching inside the spines was sound, so if I open each book quite carefully, I'm alright after the first few pages. Well worth doing, as I've found in the years, and readings, since. The result of my twenty dollar investment, and my entirely amateur efforts at restoration could ultimately not have better pleased me. This, I now think, is my favorite book, just as it is, ugly as it is, and all six, precious volumes, more mine in a way, than any others I own.

I am tonight reading this best of books, in this, my favorite edition, yet again. As the old year dies, and the New Year rises, I find myself unusually restless, and in need of good, boisterous company. I know no better among my books. I can fall into good company in any of the six volumes, at almost any page. Even in the first number, so often criticized, and justly no doubt, for what James Boswell did not know of his friend's life before they met, there is Boswell himself, and him I like. Not everyone does, but I do. I like his nervousness, and his rush, I like his chattering recitation of fact, his sympathy and his antiquated tact. For a man much criticized first for his indiscretion and intrusiveness, and then by later scholars for his prudish recasting of quotation and events, I still like his charming belief in every anecdote of the infant, intellectual Hercules, and his sincere devotion to the reputation of his mentor and friend. Some of Boswell's contemporaries, and rivals for his subject's affections, found him annoying and obsequious, and not a few considered him unworthy of the task he undertook well before his great friend died, to preserve Johnson's conversation and character for future generations, yet none proved Boswell's equal in this, just as no one since, scholar or not, has written a better book about Johnson, or a book better kept next to those that Johnson wrote. The Victorians, and none more influential than Macaulay, dismissed Boswell as a species of idiot savant, lucky in the company he kept, but no kind of writer and of a character no gentleman might like. (I love Macaulay, even in his essay on Boswell and Johnson, as Macaulay was great critic, and in his way a stylist near the equal of any critic after Johnson, excepting Hazlitt. I'm not really bothered then that Macaulay was wrong about Boswell, or anything else, much.) Later still, when Boswell's journals finally saw the light, his reputation seemed to triumph, even at the expense of the person who made his name. In the past few decades, Johnson has come up again, the Yale Edition, and the tercentenary of his birth restoring much of the luster that might otherwise have dimmed in the modern era, with scholars like Donald Greene correcting long-standing misinterpretations of his politics, and biographers like Peter Martin writing excellent and well informed new books.

But it's Boswell I go back to.

This New Year's Eve, the husband has a head-cold. I gave it him, no doubt, and have kept some symptoms for myself, by way of keeping him company. We don't go out to parties anyway, but this year we saw the New Year in watching the celebrations in New York. One of the great advantages of living on the West Coast of the United States, we've discovered, is that we may have a kiss at midnight, by EST, watch the fireworks go off nearly everywhere but here, and then be about our business for the night. In the case of dear A., just tonight, this meant taking his dose of cough-syrup like a good man by nine-thirty and then settling into his pillows without a murmur, and for me, yet another night curled in the guest-room with my books. I'd vowed, most solemnly, to read the night and the year away in quiet contentment; reading something new, and edifying, for the New Year. But what I read in this way did not satisfy. I did not need new ideas, or gentle music. What I wanted was a bit of excitement it seemed, though even the murders I had waiting for me seemed surprisingly dull. I tried book after book, each, it seemed, further and further from my original intention. I could not settle, even with so many good options already at my elbow, until I was up and standing on a foot-stool to fetch my Boswell down from the top of the case. I was not really happy then until I'd stepped into a conversation and heard the familiar roar:

"JOHNSON (much agitated) : 'What! a vow? -- O no, sir, a vow is a horrible thing, it is a snare for sin. The man who cannot go to heaven without a vow, may go --'"

And Boswell aside right after, "Here standing erect, in the middle of his library, and rolling grand, his pause was a truly curious compound of the solemn with the ludicrous; he half whistled in his usual way, when pleasant, and he paused as if checked by religious awe. Methought he would have added -- to Hell -- but was restrained. I humoured the dilemma."

That was what was wanted; "nothing novel, nothing strange," but good old friends, conversation, and company, after all. And so, another year begun in the same old way, and all the better for that.

These old friends of mine, all six ugly little books of them, will simply have to last me another year.

Daily Dose

From The Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot


"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice."

From Little Gidding, II

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Choice Assortment

My prize committee days are done, or near enough. The PNBA Awards will be announced in the New Year. The bookstore where I work will, of course, be promoting the winners in the usual way: with mention made on the store's website, a display on the sales-floor, shelf-talkers for the respective winners in the sections, etc. Hopefully, we will also have the opportunity to celebrate with at least one of the winners. Every year the sponsoring organization, our very own association of independent booksellers, makes available all kinds of handsome materials with which to bring these books to the attention of our very own, independent customers. It can be quite gratifying, all unsuspected at my desk on the sales-floor, to see new readers find these books, readers who might not have done so otherwise, especially. Makes a nice resolution to my three years service.

In so large a bookstore as the one in which I work, local and regional authors do not necessarily stand out from the mass, unless they do a reading, or they or their relatives live up the street, or they can claim a champion on staff and have a "Staff Favorite" card written up, at which point the book may have a chance at finding new readers in the permanent, and quite popular display of the same name. Books can last -- and sell -- in such a display for a very long time indeed, even without being widely reviewed elsewhere, even with new titles being added regularly to the selection. In the trade, we call this sort of thing "hand-selling," something publishers, major and minor, are always encouraging those of us still in the independent bookselling business to do, with all manner of unlikely objects, and even a few good books. The fact remains though, whatever the enthusiasm of publishers' reps, however many recognizable names are quoted on the jacket of the advanced reading copies we are sent, however high-flown the rhetoric in an editor's accompanying letter with each ARC we get, booksellers only promote the books in this way that they actually want to sell to their customers. True, we would like to sell all our books, but that ain't going to happen, so meanwhile, we let most books sell themselves as best they can, and then we try very hard to sell our favorites. (If, for instance, you think Mark Twain made it onto the bestsellers list this year exclusively because of the noble efforts of the University of California, or with much help at all from or Barnes & Noble, -- to say nothing of Garrison Keillor in the New York Times Book Review -- think again. We still have stock, by the way.) That being why our customers trust us; we may have or can get the books a customer wants, but we are also prepared to ballyhoo the books we like best ourselves. Unless we're idiots or snobs, we won't discourage anyone from buying anything they may want from us -- please do (seriously, please) -- but if we may make a suggestion? Even an author with a national reputation can benefit from such individual attentions, so then imagine what might be done for a new, or lesser known local novelist, or poet, for a new book of regional history, etc. But, again, for any book to be promoted in this way, to actually be hand-sold in an independent bookstore, that book must be read and liked well enough to be recommended by some independent bookseller. That is the one thing we do that has yet to be bettered by the advertising and promotions departments of the corporately funded chains, or more efficiently replicated by a computer program at an international commercial website. Such monstrously powerful and productive institutions can resurrect reputations, reprint classics, discover and elevate new authors and titles onto or at least in the range of the bestsellers lists if they choose to do so, but only an individual bookseller can still have an actual, as opposed to a virtual, conversation, reader to reader, with our customer. Well, that is what being listed for a regional book award can do, to begin with, is find readers for good books, first among independent booksellers, and then within the actual, and yes, even virtual, communities still best served by the bookseller of similar interests and tastes.

This is very much the season of the book awards, of course: top-ten-lists, critics' prizes, popularity polls, high sales, etc., and these tend to pop up everywhere; newspapers, magazines, the web, et al. But, had you noticed? These lists also tend to have a remarkably predictable sameness to them. True, there are occasional surprises, specially among the foreign prizes, or, as happens with even greater irregularity, the rare small press title that breaks through, like Paul Harding's Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer this year. What a regional award can do, does do, and what a national or international award, however prestigious, may not do, is recognize worthy titles that may, as yet, have no purchase on The New York Times Book Review, the prestigious committees of the National Book Award, and the whole critical apparatus that puts a novelist, every ten years or so, onto the cover of a national news magazine. The regional award is an extension of the hand-selling about which I've just been rattling on; it is an opportunity for the surviving independent booksellers in a given place, to not just talk among ourselves -- which we actually do too little of otherwise anyway, most of us, more's the pity -- but to speak to our neighbors and loyal customers with something like the authority otherwise only available to more influential reviewers, the major publishers themselves, and the national media who seem most often nowadays to only take note of independent bookstores when they hold wakes.

There was some discussion in this last year's deliberations as to the definition and purpose of making and promoting what's called the short-list. This is not a new idea, or original to us. We started announcing our short-list, I believe, right around the time I started on the committee, and while I had nothing directly to do with adopting this practice, I endorse it whole-heartedly. I thought it a grand idea. Still do. The fact is that each year there are at least a couple of hundred titles that are submitted for review by the awards committee. The list grows throughout the year. Traditionally, there was no more mention made by the committee of the majority of these books thereafter. The winners were announced, the rest, like most books, as I've already mentioned, were left to sell themselves. The secret at the very heart of such deliberations as those undertaken each year at the annual meeting of the awards committee in Portland, -- and just here I run the risk of being shunned by the lodge for life, if not something worse, by revealing this fact to even the quaintly small public ever likely to read what I write -- the secret I nevertheless share with you now for the very first time, is the genuine sense of accomplishment and relief with which we all agree to eliminate as many books as possible from further consideration before we move on to the books that each member of the committee hopes to encourage everyone else on the committee to read, or read again. Shocking, but true. On a much more modest scale, what we do at that meeting is actually not all that different from what the buyers at our bookstores do every day, or at least every season; we make discriminations as to how best to spend the limited time and resources available to us, and just as important, how not. If every committee member felt an obligation to read every book submitted straight through, from picture books to academic history, and to then report all the points in favor or against awarding said title the recognition of an award, well... not only would we have been unable to get anything actually done, but I for one would have walked calmly to the roof of the Airport Holiday Inn -- after the free lunch -- and thrown myself down to the parking lot below. You can not conceive some of the books submitted. Honestly, I still stand amazed. Yet, interestingly enough, it is not the truly eccentric or unthinking submissions that weighed most heavily on our earliest deliberations. The laughably impossible books are actually few enough and far enough between that they earn an inevitable affection and always are made mention of earlier on even than those we may have already decided to champion for a prize. (How bland would the mix be without the occasional hard nut, odd odor, or indigestible fragment of inert matter? Makes one pay good attention to what's on one's plate.) No book is ever dismissed simply for being exotic. The committee will, and does, read anything: any subject, any format, any opinion, any genre. The heavy work is clearing off what's been tasted and found disagreeably bland, warmed-over once too often, ill-prepared or too dry to swallow. What's left on the table is always surprisingly much, believe me, but nowhere near the unhealthy pile that awaits the committee at that first sitting.

By adopting and promoting a flexible shortlist, the awards committee allows for the best of what's been submitted to be recognized as such, without insisting that every book we specially admired deserves an award. This is not the pee wee league and not every author gets a plaque for attendance. Nothing like that. The short-list allows for a looser consensus, and uses a wider determination than the final awards. Unique and worthy additions to the booksellers' stock, every title on the shortlist is there because the book is important enough, sufficiently innovative or addressed to an issue or readership otherwise too little served by just the actual awards. When the final awards are selected from the short-list, something which is never an easy or less than mildly contentious process, the selected books and authors receive recognition as the very best of what I would have to say is almost without exception an impressive list.

Which isn't to say that in my three years on the committee, (note how often here I've continued to refer to same as "we," even as I happily bid my responsibilities therein a grateful goodbye,) I thought every book that made it onto the short-list wonderful. These are independent booksellers making these decisions, mind, a notoriously polite, but individual crew, to say the least. I like to think, in my time, I earned my place as among the most consistent of the Cassandras at our annual lunch meeting; know to bemoan not just the sorry state of things, and predict the coming ruin of polite letters, but also to meet many a more cheerful smile with many a doleful frown. While I'm proud to say I never suggested any of my fellow committee members go and have their heads examined by a professional, I was not shy at any time of expressing my displeasure at even some of the books that made it all the way. Win some, lose some, and wish some had never made it out of the committee alive (books, I mean, not my colleagues. I'm not a violent person.) Another function of selecting and publishing the short-list has been to allow a greater diversity of opinion than would be altogether seemly in the final awards.

Some members in good standing of the committee other than myself were heard to express -- within the privacy of our locked cell -- a not altogether supportive opinion of books ultimately destined by majority vote for the short-list. Some of these nominations, suggested invariably with the best, and most noble motives, were found to be ludicrous by at least one other member. I know because I both championed books others hated and hated books others championed. As with any such collective endeavor, I don't doubt feelings were now and then bruised. (I'm rubbing one or two old sore spots as I write.) As I will answer to the committee no more, let me just say finally without fear of contradiction, that in every instance of dispute, history will bear me out and the rest of you -- and you know who you are -- can go straight to Hell. (That was a joke, by the way. You were wrong, and I was right, but I'm actually quite fond of you all and I don't believe in Hell, or rather, I do, but only in the sense of indoor smoking-bans, public cell-phone conversations, and reading the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List.) Actually, what necessitates and justifies a short-list is exactly the kind of minor controversy generated by at least some of the titles invariably included therein. That, my dears, is the point of championing diversity, as well as excellence.

So now I'm done, and once again free to pursue my own thoroughly eccentric reading habits, free from outside responsibilities and obligations, I have naturally reverted to the kind of quirky, highly personal reading-projects that will keep this effort of mine from ever reaching a wider audience. I can, with a clear conscience, read my way through all four volumes of Edward Fitzgerald's complete correspondence. (Do come with. Frightfully good, don't you know.) I can now take a day or two, and thanks to a miserable head-cold shared with the long-suffering husband, thus canceling our traditional Christmas dinner, spend days in bed feeling very sorry for myself indeed and reading nothing but golden age mysteries end to end by the likes of Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. I can, and did finish a Zola novel I started I know not when. I can start a second Balzac before I've finished another, and I've done just that. I am giddy with free choice.

I am also genuinely grateful, let me say yet again, for the opportunity and privilege of having served. I won't say I'll miss it, but it was awful nice to have been thought of at all. It really was fun.

My parents, among this year's Christmas package, sent us a two pound box from my favorite hometown chocolatier. Dad told me on the phone that when they went into the shop to get it, he picked up one of the standard two pound boxes off the shelf, (the husband and I, even with head-colds, are hearty eaters,) and my Mum made him put it back. She then had a box composed according to my well-known preference for butter-creams, chocolate melt-aways, etc. It is not yet New Year's, and I am somewhat ashamed to say that we are already near the bottom of the box. Now, a two pound box of chocolates is always a welcome addition to the pantry of this house -- potential gift-givers, and regular readers, take note -- but a two pound box of carefully selected favorites? Well, now, that is just better. It is. It is.

(If you look closely at the photograph reproduced above, you will see that there is still a butter-cream or two to see me through New Year's Eve. We'll be staying in. Can do as we please. Don't even have to put on pants. I'll be reading Balzac until the ball drops. Enjoy whatever it is you're planning.)

Daily Dose

From With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward Fitzgerald, by Robert Bernard Martin


"'He smokes indignantly,' Fitzgerald complained."

From Chapter VII Euphranor

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clerihew of Six Sisters


I'm never a bit bored
By the sisters Mitford;
Just screamingly funny -- red Decca the brashest --
(Though, Pam? Rather dull, and at least two were Fascist.)

Daily Dose

From How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell


"As it is reborn differently in each mind, it also brings those minds together."

From 18. Q. How to live? A. Give up control

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Henish Clerihew


If one happens to get to Heaven before
The dear dowager Duchess of Devonshire,
Before the good woman's soul re-quickens,
Do make sure there are plenty of chickens.

Daily Dose

From In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley


"You might think the history of the Cav family is dim in the extreme but the funny thing is it isn't. Every generation produced one or two amazing people, i.e. Henry Cavendish of laboratory fame couldn't order a suit except when the moon was in a certain state, & some of the dukes were extremely rum & noteworthy."

From a letter Deborah (Mitford) Devonshire to Patrick Leigh Fermor, dated Chatsworth, Bakewell, 17 March 1979

Monday, December 27, 2010

Clerihew from Under the Closet Door


Girls with deep voices,
May say they have choices,
Though not when so harsh as
Big Dame Ngaio Marsh's.

Daily Dose

From The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, by Robert Morrison


"(Lamb) lived now with Mary at No. 20 Great Russell Street, not far from De Quincey's York Street door, and on many evenings De Quincey went over to dine, for brother and sister 'absolutely persecuted' him 'with hospitalities.'"

From Chapter Eight: Famous

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Another Backpack Doodle

Backpack Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Samuel Johnson, Volume II, 1773 - 1776, edited by Bruce Redford


"When we meet we talk , and I know not whether I always recollect what I thought I had to say."

From a letter to William Strahan, dated Thursday, 22 December 1774

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Few Words on Christmas, by Charles Lamb (Holiday Guest Blogger)

Close the shutters, and draw the curtains together, and pile fresh wood upon the hearth! Let us have, for once, an innocent auto de fé. Let the hoarded corks be brought forth, and branches of crackling laurel. Place the wine and fruit and the hot chestnuts upon the table. And now, good folks and children, bring your chairs round to the blazing fire. Put some of those rosy apples upon your plates. We'll drink one glass of bright sherry "to our absent friends and readers," and then let us talk a little about Christmas.

And what is Christmas?

Why, it is the happiest time of the year. It is the season of mirth and cold weather. It is the time when Christmas-boxes and jokes are given; when mistletoe, and red-berried laurel, and soups, and sliding, and school-boys, prevail; when the country is illuminated by fires and bright faces; and the town is radiant with laughing children. Oranges, as rich as the fruit of the Hesperides, shine out in huge golden heaps. Cakes, frosted over (as if to rival the glittering snow) come forth by thousands from their summer (caves) ovens: and on every stall at every corner of every street are the roasted apples, like incense fuming on Pagan altars.

And this night is Christmas Eve. Formerly it was a serious and holy vigil. Our forefathers observed it strictly till a certain hour, and then requited their own forbearance with cups of ale and Christmas candles, with placing the yule log on the fire, and roaring themselves thirsty till morning. Time has altered this. We are neither so good as our forefathers were—nor so bad. We go to bed sober; but we have forgotten their old devotions. Our conduct looks like a sort of compromise; so that we are not worse than our ancestors, we are satisfied not to be better: but let that pass. What we now call Christmas Eve--(there is something very delightful in old terms: they had always their birth in reason or sentiment) was formerly Maedrenack, or The Night of Mothers! How beautifully does this recall to one's heart that holy tale--that wonderful nativity, which the Eastern shepherds went by night to gaze at and adore--

(It was the winter wild,
When the heaven-born child
All meanly wrapp'd in the rude manger lay;)

a prodigy, which, had it been invention only, would have contained much that was immaculate and sublime; but, twined as it is with man's hopes and fears, is invested with a grand and overwhelming interest.
But to-night is Christmas Eve, and so we will be merry. Instead of toast and ale, we will content ourselves with our sherry and chestnuts; and we must put up with coffee or fragrant tea, instead of having the old Wassail-bowl which formed part of the inspiration of our elder poets. We were once admitted to the mysteries of that fine invention, and we respect it accordingly. Does any one wish to know its merits? Let him try what he can produce, on our hint, and be grateful to us for ever. The "Wassail-bowl" is, indeed, a great composition. It is not carved by Benvenuto Cellini (the outside may--but it is not material), nor shaped by Michael Angelo from the marble quarries of Carrara; but it is a liquor fit for the lips of the Indian Bacchus, and worthy to celebrate his return from conquest. It is made--for, after all, we must descend to particulars--it is made of wine, with some water (but parce, precor, precor!) with spices of various sorts, and roasted apples, which float in triumph upon its top. The proportions of each are not important--in fact, they should be adapted to the taste of the drinkers. The only caution that seems necessary is to "spare the water." If the Compositor should live in the neighbourhood of Aldgate, this hint may be deemed advisable; though we mean no affront to either him or the pump.

One mark and sign of Christmas is the music; rude enough, indeed, but generally gay, and speaking eloquently of the season. Music, at festival times, is common to most countries. In Spain, the serenader twangs his guitar; in Italy, the musician allures rich notes from his Cremona; in Scotland, the bagpipe drones out its miserable noise; in Germany, there is the horn, and the pipe in Arcady. We too, in our turn, have our Christmas "Waits," who witch us at early morning, before cock-crow, with strains and welcomings which belong to night. They wake us so gently that the music seems to have commenced in our dreams, and we listen to it till we sleep again. Besides this, we have our songs, from the young and the old, jocose and fit for the time. What old gentleman of sixty has not his stock--his one, or two, or three frolicksome verses. He sings them for the young folks, and is secure of their applause and his own private satisfaction. His wife, indeed, perhaps says "Really, my dear Mr Williams, you should now give over these, &c."; but he is more resolute from opposition, and gambols through his "Flowery Meads of May," or "Beneath a shady bower," while the children hang on his thin, trembling, untuneable notes in delighted and delightful amaze.

Many years ago (some forty-one--or two--or three) when we were at home "for the Christmas holidays," we occasionally heard these things. What a budget of songs we had! None of them were good for much; but they were sung by joyful spirits, amidst fun and laughter, loud and in defiance of tune, and we were enchanted. There was "Bright Chanticleer proclaims the dawn," and "'Twas in the good ship Rover," and "Buy my matches" (oh! what an accompaniment there was with the flat hand and the elbow), "The lobster claw," and others. We should be sorry to strip them, like "Majesty" in the riddle, of their merit first and last (our recollection) and reduce them to "a jest." Yet they were indeed a jest, and a very pleasant one. Of all the songs, however, which become a time of feasting, there is none comparable to one written by Beaumont and Fletcher. It is racy, and rich, and sparkling. It has the strength and regal taste of Burgundy, and the ethereal spirit of champagne. Does the reader wish to see it? Here it is: the words seem floating in wine.

God Lycaeus—ever young,
Ever honour'd, ever sung;
Stain'd with blood of lusty grapes,
In a thousand lusty shapes,
Dance upon the mazer's brim,
In the crimson liquor swim;
From thy plenteous hand divine
Let a river run with wine!

What a rioter was he that wrote this! His drink was not water from Hippocrene. His fountain flowed with wine. His goddess was a girl with purple lips; and his dreams were rich, like the autumn; but prodigal, wild, and Bacchanalian!

Leaving now our eve of Christmas, its jokes, and songs, and warm hearths, we will indulge ourselves in a few words upon CHRISTMAS DAY. It is like a day of victory. Every house and church is as green as spring. The laurel, that never dies--the holly, with its armed leaves and scarlet berries--the mistletoe, under which one sweet ceremonial is (we hope still) performed, are seen. Every brave shrub that has life and verdure seems to come forward to shame the reproaches of men, and to shew them that the earth is never dead, never parsimonious. Then, what gay dresses are intermixed--Art rivalling Nature! Woe to the rabbits and the hares, and the nut-cracking squirrels, the foxes, and all children of the woods, for furriers shall spoil them of their coats, to keep woman (the wonder of creation) warm! And woe to those damsels (fair anachronisms) who will not fence out the sharp winter; for rheumatisms and agues shall be theirs, and catarrhs shall be their portion in spring. But, look! what thing is this, awful and coloured like the rainbow--blue, and red, and glistening yellow? Its vest is sky-tinctured! The edges of its garments are like the sun! Is it

--A faery vision
Of some gay creature of the element,
That in the colours of the rainbow lives,
And plays i' the plighted clouds?
No--it is the Beadle of St ---'s! How Christmas and consolatory he looks! How redolent of good cheer is he! He is a cornucopia--an abundance! What pudding-sleeves! What a collar, red and like a beaf-steak, is his! He is a walking refreshment! He looks like a whole parish--full, important--but untaxed. The children of charity gaze at him with a modest smile, the straggling boys look on him with confidence. They do not pocket their marbles. They do not fly from the familiar gutter. This is a red-letter day; and the cane is reserved for to-morrow.

London is not too populous at Christmas. But what there is of population looks more alive than at other times. Quick walking and heaps of invitations keep the blood warm. Every one seems hurrying to a dinner. The breath curls upward like smoke through the frosty air; the eyes glisten; the teeth are shown; the muscles of the face are rigid, and the colour of the cheek has a fixed look, like a stain. Hunger is no longer an enemy. We feed him, like the ravenous tiger, till he pants and sleeps, or is quiet. Every body eats at Christmas. The rich feast as usual; but the tradesman leaves his moderate fare for dainties. The apprentice abjures his chop, and plunges at once into the luxuries of joints and puddings. The school-boy is no longer at school. He dreams no more of the coming lesson or the lifted rod; but mountains of jelly rise beside him, and blanc-mange, with its treacherous foundations, threatens to overwhelm his fancy; roods of mince pies spread out their chequered riches before him; and figures (only real on the 6th of January) pass by him, one by one, like ghosts before the vision of the King of Scotland. Even the servant has his "once a year" bottle of port; and the beggar his "alderman in chains."

Oh! merry piping time of Christmas! Never let us permit thee to degenerate into distant courtesies and formal salutations. But let us shake our friends and familiars by the hand, as our fathers and their fathers did. Let them all come around us, and let us count how many the year has added to our circle. Let us enjoy the present, and laugh at the past. Let us tell old stories and invent new ones--innocent always, and ingenious if we can. Let us not meet to abuse the world, but to make it better by our individual example. Let us be patriots, but not men of party. Let us look of the time--cheerful and generous, and endeavour to make others as generous and cheerful as ourselves.

This was written by Lamb for the London Magazine, published in 1822, and reprinted in Volume IV, Essays & Sketches in The Works of Charles Lamb, edited by William MacDonald. The illustration, copied from that edition, dated 1906, is by Charles E. Brock.

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, Volume II, edited by E. V. Lucas


"We are to stay at home and work, as I forget it is Christmas, but we sincerely wish you a merry happy Christmas and many many happy healthy new years."

From a letter from Mary Lamb to Mrs. Thomas Clarkson, dated Tuesday, December 23, 1806

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Caricature

I'm not in the habit of reviewing reviewers and can frankly think of few things more pointless. However, just this once, let me just say that while none of the criticism Garrison Keillor leveled at the new edition of Mark Twain's Autobiography in the New York Times Book Review seemed to me to be less than honest, and much of it true, I was more than a little amused to see this cranky old man being quite so vociferously unpleasant about another, and better cranky old fellow's last salvos from the grave. Unlike Mr. Keillor, I've enjoyed the book, and am glad of it, whatever it's demerits. So, it would seem, have a lot of other people been. Now, he may well be right in describing the book as likely to be among the much purchased and unread books this Christmas, but then, that would seem to be a market to which Mr. Keillor has been catering for more Christmases now than I am prepared to number, or at which, as a bookseller, I should like to scoff.

"Here is a powerful argument for writers burning their papers..." says Keillor. I can't agree, but then I doubt I'd be among the few mourners should Keillor decide to burn his. Though I will say, professionally, I'd hate to not have the reliably mild, all but annual wheel of Wobegon cheese he produces to recommend to the more unadventurous customer in the bookstore, as a gift for their duller relatives in the remoter parts of the Republic.

Roll on, Wobegon!

Daily Dose

From Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor smith, et al.


"I like criticism, but it must be my way."

From Monday, March 26, 1906

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yours, EFG

There aren't actually that many books or authors from which I was warned away as a kid. Not really the kind of thing most people would have thought to do at the time. Oh, there were busybodies aplenty following their vocation even then; saving the children, policing the libraries, writing letters to the local newspaper about Playboy, wrapped in paper, being kept behind the counter at the only magazine store in town, right where kids could see the title, if they craned their necks and knew just where to look. Imagine. As a critical part of keeping my hometown dry, clean and Christian, I don't doubt there were committees of the busy, policing what was shelved where, sold at gas stations, purchased, subscribed. As a kid, all I felt of this was a vague but sure sense, learned mostly by means of the television, but reinforced by the local librarians, editorials, and preachers, that there was more to the written world outside than was dreamt of, or suspected, in the fenced yard of the local library. But there were few instances of direct intervention to preserve my individual innocence, or to form my education, taste or preference. Nobody much talked to me about books, except as an abstract good, and or an unspecified danger.

The few times anybody noticed what I was reading as a child, that I can remember now, would include being "caught" reading a history of the movies in the new Waldenbooks, at my first mall, in Sharon, PA. The blushing clerk reached over my shoulder to close that book on a picture of Brigitte Bardot in a sheer shift, over which he mistakenly assumed I was lingering. "You're too young for... girls and that," he said primly. He reshelved the book and shooed me away. Actually, my curiosity, on that occasion, was perfectly innocent. Honest. It wasn't Bardot I'd been staring at, it was Jean Marais, on the facing page, that had caught my eye. I would later discover that Marias was strikingly beautiful, but it was a photograph of his Beast in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, which I had never seen, that had held my attention at age eight or nine. I wanted to look at the monster in the ruff. I was baffled at what harm there could be in a fairy tale, even a French one. Who cared about Brigitte Bardot's tits?

At an even earlier age, a Sunday school teacher once noticed that I was carrying one of the OZ books under my arm and told my grandmother confidentially that Baum's books were not religiously sound. My grandmother, highly offended, told this person that if she ever saw any of that lady's children reading such a book, or any book, she'd be sure to let her know, as unlikely as that possibility may have been. That was the end of that.

Then there was the public librarian who wouldn't let me have Don Quixote out as I was too young for that as well. My mother, when she heard of this, fixed that problem, for good and all. "Is it a bad book?" my mother asked her, "Is there anything wrong with it? Don't know why you'd keep it is there is." Then Mum settled the matter, "He's my kid, not yours," she told the self-righteous old party, "and he can read any goddamned book he wants to, you understand?" Bless her, she was as good as her word.

My folks are not bookish people. They saw no harm in it that I was and no reason to discourage me. "Take that outside, will you" was something my mother said regularly in summer when she would find me underfoot, yet again lost in a book. "At least get the dust off of you," she'd say, and push me out the door. I would go out, and read under a tree. My people worried I was "too much to" myself, in another phrase I remember all too well from childhood, and that I might "spoil" my eyes, but not that anything I might read could do injure me in any other way.

"To each his own," may be as near to a motto as my family ever came. It is as good as any other, I should think.

When I was a little older, and encountered people more widely read, I eagerly sought recommendations, and was sorely disappointed to find that few adults, even teachers, expressed much enthusiasm for the books I'd assumed every literate person would have read. I knew from watching Dick Cavett that there were books everybody seemed to know, books I ought to read if I wasn't to embarrass myself at my first cocktail party in New York. I could probably fake liking the cocktails, but not the books, I felt sure. I hoped there might be someone, a teacher maybe, to help me navigate the reading lists I was compiling from talk shows, and the "classics" rack at the bookstore in the mall. My teachers, as it turned out, for the most part, weren't much help. Tolstoy, Melville, Poe, even Dickens, more often than not, were shrugged off as being "difficult," or too "remote" from contemporary life -- as if the value and relevance of literature was determined primarily, at least for children, by its reflection of exclusively childish experience, and as if this was not a feature, for example, of David Copperfield! or books were assumed in general to be best understood by children only when written about in language that a child might himself use, for want of any better. I was encouraged -- to the extent I was -- instead to read books "more appropriate" to a boy my age; meaning books about boys playing baseball, fixing cars, or solving harmless mysteries like the Hardy Boys, or boys inventing harmless things, like lightbulbs, as that boy Edison had. I had no interest in baseball, then or ever. And I had no more interest in doing any of these things that boys were evidently meant to be interested in doing, or in reading about them, after about the age of seven or eight, than I had in, well, Brigitte Bardot. It did not at first occur to me that any of my teachers might not have read the books I wanted to. I could not then conceive of a person with a teacher's certificate and a degree in English admitting to such ignorance, and they seldom did, preferring to suggest that what I was up to in reading War and Peace at twelve, with whatever little guidance or comprehension that I did, was simply "getting ahead" of myself, if not just "showing off." I heard that sort of thing often enough, by the time I was in high school, to learn a very valuable lesson as to the relative value of sheepskin as compared to a paperback book.

I've been hearing quite a bit lately about some character called "the reluctant reader." This would be a boy, as I understand it, roughly pubescent, for whom reading is a struggle and a library an unknown country. (We called these kids "boys" in my day, just "boys." The assumption being that most boys were more interested in gigging frogs, setting fires, fighting, and, for most I suppose, Brigitte Bardot's tits, than in literature. It was assumed, safely then, that most boys would grow up to work where their fathers did, on dairy farms, in manufacture, or fixing cars. Didn't have to worry much about them. I certainly didn't. Still don't.) Now, the efforts to reach this poor boy, this "reluctant reader," and to lure him into literacy sound all too familiar to me: maybe books about boys his age, written in simple language he might use himself, books about things he might be expected to like, like baseball, fixing cars, solving harmless mysteries, or inventing useful things, like the Internet, and as the nation has grown more sexually liberated, maybe even books about boys who fantasize about whatever the contemporary equal of Brigitte Bardot's -- or Jean Marias' -- chest... The poor child has my sympathy.

What I wanted, as a youth, was taste. I knew I hadn't any, to speak of, and I assumed better educated people had it and that I might acquire some by the same means. I assumed someone would, eventually, point me in the right direction. Failing that, I thought I might at least be warned off from the worst with a friendly gesture now and then. Didn't happen, much.

It was a friend's mother, when I expressed a rather tentative interest in reading more poetry, who gently warned me away from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Not bad advice, at the time. My taste, as I say, to the extent I'd been able to acquire any, was worse than unformed, in fact, was barely more than a worried confusion about the Moderns, and such snatches of Edgar Alan Poe, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and stirring old barnstormers like "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight," that I'd heard at Grange recitals. My friend's parents were both educated people. They were from New York City! They owned books. They'd been to college. Their children read, most of 'em. What I might have made of Edward Fitzgerald when I was thirteen, I can't imagine. He certainly wasn't the sort of poet I was likely to find in my friend's house, or about whom I might look forward to a midnight jaw come college. What the good lady was trying to spare me was wasting my time on what was, no doubt, for intellectuals of her generation, yet another dusty relic of the Victorianism at which even her parents' generation had already long since given up rolling their eyes. I was being spared an embarrassment. It was a kindness. Quite right, too.

I carried that low opinion of The Rubáiyát with me down almost to this day. Once I was in the business of selling books, every new edition that came along, and one comes along every few years, however tarted up with gilding, or with covers decorated in artful Arabic script, with facing pages of the original, or some new introduction, I let pass with roughly the same disdain I might reserve for a gift edition of Gibran, or some Mother's Day anthology in pink silk and ribbons. I recognized, of course, the most famous quatrains:

"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

And that most parodied:

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

Pretty much the end of my experience of Fitzgerald. That is, until I became insane for letters again recently. Well, I've finally read Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and found it delightful. Whatever it is as translation -- and the consensus now seems to be that Fitzgerald's is both unfaithful and superior to the original -- and however old-fashioned, in terms both of form and sentiment, it seemed to my older friend, it is charming. Having read Byron's Don Juan, or Moore's Lalla Rookh with admiration and pleasure, I'm fine with pantomime versions of The Mystic East. In fact, I almost prefer them. I've read a little in more modern translations of the classic Persian poets, and, well... it all must be so much more so in the original, because in English? Let's just say, it ain't entirely to my taste.

Edward Fitzgerald was a scholar, almost the now lost gentlemanly definition. He had plenty of money to live comfortably, though he didn't do much with it, it seems, but buy pictures and books and give loans to friends, money I don't think he ever saw again, or expected to when he sent it. He paid his friend Alfred Tennyson a pension for a couple of years, just to write, until Tennyson came into money of his own. Fitzgerald lived for his friends, but then, as I said, he could afford to. By the middle of the 19th Century, when Fitzgerald was dabbling in translating Spanish classics, among other things, the idea of a rich man doing that sort of thing for his own amusement and or as a service to literature was fading into embarrassment, a mere eccentricity, like vegetarianism or composing at the pipe-organ. Professionals, meaning paid academics, were already largely in charge of the footnotes and variant readings and the like even by then. So Fitzgerald's anonymously published little 1859 first edition would probably have sunk into complete obscurity, had it not been discovered in a by-the-way bookshop, on a remainder table, and purchased for a penny as a gift for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His enthusiasm for the book, with that of Swinburne and a few others among the high Victorian literati, sent the book out into the public, where it found, and kept, an amazing popularity down almost to this day. Fitzgerald tinkered with his Rubáiyát for the rest of his life. The fifth and final edition was actually completed by a friend, based on Fitzgerald's final revisions, after the poet's death in 1883. The used hardcover I finally bought and read contains both the first and the fifth versions.

The story of Fitzgerald's book, and it's amazing popularity, particularly in the US, would be a worthy subject for some American student of popular culture. (I see, via the Internet, that in 2009, there was just such a collection of scholarly essays, all from professionals, on this topic. Not a book I would imagine anyone reading, in the version I saw, but that needn't discourage others.) There was a time, lasting nearly one hundred years or more, when Fitzgerald's poem was perhaps the likeliest to be known by heart by the American swain. It had a reputation, not only as poetry, but as a tool of romance, you see. I can't quite see it now, but the sometimes swooning illustrations by the likes of Edmund Dulac and Edmund J. Sullivan probably helped. It was this all but universal popularity among the Hoi Polloi in grandpa's and great-grandpa's courtin' days that probably earned Fitzgerald's less than fully respectable reputation among the New York intellectuals of the generation to which my friend's parents belong.

Reading Edward Fitzgerald's letters, first in a handsome little two volume set purchased used, and locally, and now in four full volumes ordered from the esteemed institution, Powell's Books in Portland, I'm reminded how little one's taste may actually be influenced by education, and how much more by inclination and friendship. Fitzgerald, like many a rich man's, or in his case really, a rich woman's son, as it was his mother who had and kept the greater fortune, completed his education in a most dilatory fashion; collecting only a second rate degree. Most interestingly, it was to please a younger man in whom he had taken a passionate, if sadly chaste interest, that Fitzgerald first took up Persian poetry. Edward Byles Cowell, who went on to become a noted translator of Persian poetry himself, and the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University, first sent his friend Fitzgerald a manuscript of Omar Khayyám's quatrains, taken from the British Library, before Cowell, and his wife, went to live and teach in Calcutta. As with nearly all of Fitzgerald's extant writing, including most obviously his wonderful letters, his translations were undertaken then to please not just himself, but his friends. Fitzgerald learned Persian, at least in large part, so that he and Cowell might "study a little together." As the title of the biography of Fitzgerald, by Robert Bernard Martin, -- the biography I also ordered from Powell's,by the way -- suggests, Edward Fitzgerald was With Friends Possessed. It was not always a happy thing for Fitzgerald to be so. Obviously queer as a tea dance in Provincetown, and just as obviously either unaware himself of the fact, or unwilling or unable to act on it sexually, Fitzgerald devoted himself, body and soul, to a series of masculine friends, from school days forward and throughout his life, never apparently laying one of them. He, and we, were lucky in Cowell, in so far as that romantic friendship yielded up Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát.

There is an obvious irony in that poem being used by generations of straight if aesthetically inclined undergraduate males to woo their ladies fair, just as there is another in more people in the West still knowing the name of Omar Khayyám because of Fitzgerald's translation than will ever have heard of any other Persian poet, or of Fitzgerald. I should think Fitzgerald, a fundamentally friendly, if shy and modest man, who when he published at all, did so by preference anonymously, would have been amused, and just fine, with these developments. It is because of his talent for friendship, and the very real affection he inspired in lifelong friends as diverse as the brothers Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Cowell, and others, obscure and more famous, and the wonderful letters they kept, that we know anything of Fitzgerald at all. This would also please Fitzgerald, I believe.

If, in childhood, I expected a friend or mentor to guide my tastes and refine my opinions, and found few enough willing or able to do so, my own reading, pell mell, has brought me such friends since; real and in books. Perhaps that is how I could come finally to read Fitzgerald in my forties and find, specially in his letters, yet another I now count among my friends, someone I would eagerly introduce to others. Perhaps that is where the busybodies, old and new, go so far wrong in worrying about this "reluctant reader," and his less likely opposite, the boy who reads beyond his station and so "gets ahead" of himself; in thinking anyone reads for pleasure to any purpose other than in search of better friends.

Let me then, for any who may not know him, recommend my friend Fitz, and hope that you will make him

Yours, etc.

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Volume IV: 1877 - 1883, edited by Alfred & Annabelle Terhune


"I must not let Christmas and the Old Year pass away without a loving word from me. You know that I have but little more to say; for I have seen and heard less all this Year than any year before, I think: and have at present little news to report of my own personal Condition.
Let me hear at least as much, and as well, of yourself."

From a letter to Frederick Tennyson, dated Woodbridge, December, 1881, Fitzgerald then aged 72

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For a Limited Time Only

Ah, Christmas projects! Should anyone be so rude as to lift the edge of the duvet on the daybed in my office, they would find the ruins of many a clever, crafty idea, mostly to do with my making things more personal this Christmas -- or last, or the one before that. Even I don't remember just what it was I intended to do. Didn't get done, whatever it was. And yet, I would seem to have thrown nothing away... What to make of a bolt of burlap, dried corn-husks, a bag of black-eyed peas, three kinds of colored string, turpentine, shellac, paper, pens, all manner of spillage, artistic and otherwise? Wrecks, failures, flops and everywhere, everywhere the undone, the half-done, and or the half-assed.


Again this year, I had what I still think was a clever notion.

The idea was gift I could mass-produce, in a very modest way, and ship without spending too much in postage. I was not sure what the quality of reproduction would be, or if what I do with a pencil to put up here would register at all when copied, even professionally, into a calendar. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. This kind of thing has evidently come a long way from the days when I had to cut and paste construction-paper to make friend's advent calendar. (Finished that one, though he didn't find my various "surprises" as hilarious as I did. So much work, making all those little paper doors! Many of my little jokes had to explained. Always deadly. Should have just used real candy.)

Nothing wrong then with either the original idea, or even the eventual outcome. My timing though. I didn't pick my pictures until the very last, or organize them properly until I was at the counter in the copy place. Each got a Post-it with a month scribbled on it.

"And for the cover?" the clerk asked sweetly. Oh. That would be why the cover is the same as January. Wasn't thinking about a picture for the cover. Mark Twain had to do for both.

I chose the drawings I thought would register best when reproduced, rather than what I necessarily thought the best of the batch, if that was something I would ever be willing to say. I did choose some as being appropriate to the month -- Dennis Cooper for October being the most obvious, at least to me -- but really, by the time I'd finally carried the pictures to work and down the street, I hadn't thought much further than that. This selection does by no means represent a selection of my favorite authors either. Portland's Chuck Palahniuk is here because I thought the drawing would work, whatever that might mean. I also recognized that not everyone would recognize every author caricatured herein. Tried to avoid anyone unlikely to be known beyond Seattle, so no friends or booksellers, just the first twelve, of national or international reputation, and with strong enough lines to be read in flat black and white. Some worked better than others, as drawings and as subjects for a calendar. Overall though, even the strongest lose something of whatever subtlety I was able to give them with a pencil. Still, they look okay.

The chief irony in the final selection is that no one in my family will recognize anyone but Twain, I shouldn't think, or find anything very funny in these pictures. I sent each of the clan a copy, nonetheless, just 'cause it was something I made 'em. (Childish ego, but there it is -- like a clay ashtray from Summer Bible Camp. We did things like that, way back. Nobody thought anything of it at the time.) Even the friends to whom I'm sending copies will not necessarily want, say, Dame Anita Brookner smiling down at them for a whole month, but there we are. I did the best I could with what I had, when I finally actually did anything at all after weeks of not.

I've purposely ended up with about a dozen extra copies, so that I might make a brief experiment. Our real calendars at the bookstore where I work will see their prices cut in half come the New Year. That gives me about a week to see if anyone in the bookstore, Christmas shopping or after, will actually buy one of these things. A kind coworker created a record on the inventory system for me and made labels. I put some out on the Used Books buying desk, and my work-husband, dear J., also put a few up on the edge of the main Information Desk, without being asked, bless 'im. So now we'll see.

If I do sell one or two, I will think about maybe doing another of these next year, and try to get myself organized in better time. Never know, it could happen. Put more thought into it, and maybe make some images specifically with this purpose in mind. I'm not looking to be the late, great David Levine or anything like that, with annual customers who depend on finding a new calendar each and every Christmas. Don't know that I'll still be doing enough drawings to justify such a project, in a year's time, or doing anything like a calendar again. Just for now though, it will be fun to see if anyone I don't know will so much as pick one up to look at it. (Not a nibble so far today.) Selling these things at cost, which was too much per calendar, frankly, so there's no money to be made, but curiosity rather than capitalism was the motive, so that's alright. An exercise in Christmas ego, this, honestly, now I think about it. Oh well.

I needed a project, and at least it's done! I seem to say that so rarely, it feels rather good. That's something, isn't? Won't say that it's the thought that counts. Didn't get any of these into the mail in time. Typical. Anyway, we'll see.

(Want one? Talk to me January 1st.)

Daily Dose

From "Christmas to Me," by Harper Lee


"I missed Christmas away from home, I thought. What I really missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents' house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother's night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my father's bumblebee bass humming 'Joy to the World.'"

Essay published in McCall's, December, 1961

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Charles Lamb, to a friend in China, at Christmas

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Volume III: 1867 - 1876, edited by Alfred & Annabelle Terhune


"Here all is dismal enough, with Snow, Fog, and -- Christmas, I am afraid -- when the shops are all shut, and the Sailors all drunker than usual. I begin almost to advocate Tee-totalism -- except in one's own case."

From a letter to Hallam Tennyson, dated Lowestoft, Christmas Day, 1874

Monday, December 20, 2010

Charles Lamb on the Christmas Season, and Parties

Daily Dose

From The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Volume I: 1830 - 1850, edited by Alfred & Annabell Terhune


"I think Handel never gets out of his wig: that is, out of his age: his Hallelujah chorus is a chorus not of angels, but of well fed earthly choristers, ranged tier above tier in a Gothic cathedral, with princes for audience, and their military trumpets flourishing over the full volume of the organ. Handel's gods are like Homer's, and his sublime never reaches beyond the region of the clouds."

From a letter to Frederick Tennyson, dated London, February 6, 1842

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Clerihew for the Elegist of a Country Churchyard


I daresay,
Thomas Gray,
Might have been willing to forgo bliss,
Rather than be stuck in Stoke Poges.

Daily Dose

From By Order of the King, by Victor Hugo


"Love comes not to permit too much of paradise."

From Chapter IX, Abyssus Abyssum Vocat

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Twelve Days of Christmas (Bird Doodles)

Daily Dose

From The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot


"But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless,--fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart."

From Chapter 2: The Christmas Holidays

Friday, December 17, 2010

One More Duck in the Pond: My Year in Teal

It's been a good year for me, with paperbacks.

When I was a kid, I bought paperback books by preference, because that way, I could buy more. There was a time, just before I went to college, when I had hundreds of paperbacks, so many in fact, and so badly housed, that one night my shelves collapsed at the foot of my bed and buried me. My parents, asleep in the room next door, thought a coal truck had hit the house. When I started earning my own living, I started collecting hardbacks, because they are nicer. Yes, it is an affectation. Yes, I was fantasizing myself in the book-lined library of an English country house, smoking a pipe and sipping sherry -- which it turns out I actually rather like --surrounded by leather-bound books. Never happened, of course. Still, I am in a library, mine, as I write, and yes, the walls are book-lined. In fact, the floor and the furniture are covered in books as well. There are a few books here that actually have fine bindings, but they are as few as the paperbacks. I married a great guy, but, alas, I did not marry a Lord. Oh well. But even if they aren't priceless, privately bound treasures, my books are good books, for the most part, and will probably outlive me. I'm glad I converted to hardcovers. Hardback books are easier to read, generally; the type is bigger, the margins wider, the illustrations, if any, actually to be seen. Hardcovers tend also to be more durable; better made, printed on better paper, less likely to fly apart when dropped, or shed pages when opened at odd angles, or to crumble away to dust quite so fast on the bookshelf. I'm too clumsy for paperbacks. When we moved to San Francisco, or thereabouts, I finally determined to sell off all my paperbacks, at least all but the irreplaceable few. My friend Peter borrowed a delivery van from the restaurant where he worked and we spent the day, driving up and down the city as we sold off my paperback books. More than once that day, on more than one hill, Pete cursed the ancient stick-shift in the van, cursed the ancient van, cursed the weight of my books, cursed San Francisco's city-planning, cursed me. I bought him dinner with cocktails, after, and all was made right. From that day to this, my library has had very few paperback books in it.

Then came the Espresso Book Machine to the bookstore where I work.

Another reason I prefer hardcover books, or rather, another reason I almost always end up owning so many? Back in the day, publishers like Penguin, and imprints like Anchor used to have the most amazing backlists of classics in inexpensive, paperback editions. (For anyone not in the books business, or anyone too young to remember what that used to mean, the "backlist" was what kept publishers, and independent bookstores, in business: every title kept in print after its initial publication became a part of that publisher's back-list, literally the back of the publisher's catalogue. When someone spoke of, say, Knopf's books, and authors, what was meant was not just whatever books had shipped that day from New York, but all the titles that Alfred Knopf printed and kept in print, and all the authors, like H. L. Mencken, Ezra Pound, Elinor Wylie, John Updike, with whom the publisher had an established relationship, writers in whom the publisher believed, and continued to pay, promote and encourage year after year, book after book. Backlist also meant all of the public domain titles that a publisher like Penguin kept in print, not because Charles Dickens might get picked by a national book club, but because Charles Dickens wrote great books. I know, crazy, huh?) The days when a reader could count on finding an attractive, affordable, paperback edition of almost any book by almost any writer of any reputation in the English language are over. The backlist is dead. The common explanations of this -- that nobody reads books anymore, that agents and lawyers ruined the relationships between authors and publishers, that bookstores that stock backlist titles lose money, -- all of that is bullshit. What killed the backlist? Entertainment. No, I don't mean television or technology. When American publishing ceased to be a business and became a subsidiary of multinational entertainment conglomerates, and when bookstores, in national chains, took to the same rough business model, treating books as an adjunct to coffee, and CDs, (remember those?) and greeting card sales, that was what killed off the traditional business of bookstores, publishing, and the backlist. Unlike the business in the days of the great Alfred Knopf, for example, the nearest thing American publishers have now to a mission or taste or a personality, is a few powerful editors, and even they are dependent on producing "hits," i.e. the kind of blockbusters that promise the shareholders in multinational entertainment conglomerates something like the kind of profits that a hit movie or television show or video game might. The people who now oversee American publishing for their corporate employers -- can't really call them publishers, in the old sense, so lets just call them what they are, the BAs -- have roughly the same relationship to someone like Alfred A. Knopf that a pimp in a titty-bar has to a Diaghilev. Just in it for the tips, this lot. Doesn't mean that American publishing isn't still full of people devoted to books, to literature and to writers, but they now work, rather than for publishers, for touts -- and increasingly greedy, stupid and panicked lot of barkers they are, too. The suits may still be tailored, but the taste isn't there anymore. American publishing is now run by corporate entertainment lawyers, accountants and bankers; not the sort of people known for their devotion to culture, or for their refinement, now are they? (Try to explain to a corporate entertainment attorney why giving Paris Hilton a million dollars to "write" a book is not the same thing as publishing, or why such an object is not even a book, and, I would imagine, you will have some idea of just how heartbreaking it must be nowadays to work at what was once Simon & Schuster, now a "division" of CBS Corporation, aka Westinghouse Electric. Yes, Miss Hilton's two published... things... made money, we are told, but how many backlist titles became "unprofitable" and went out of print to pay that creature her money? And to pay the man who signed her contracts?) So even if I wanted to read paperbacks, with every passing day, the selection of the backlist available to me has disappeared. As my tastes have matured, my options have narrowed. For someone like me, I can read primarily used books, or nothing at all. If I'm going to buy used books, I might as well buy books that weren't printed on crumbling newspaper stock, in fading type, etc. That's meant old hardcover books, for me.

And now, the good news. Thanks to yet another wonder of modern technology, and the not entirely to be trusted intentions of the folks at Google, I can now cause to be printed for me, in roughly twenty minutes, while I wait, not just backlist, but books so far from being profitable for publishers to reprint that not even I would suggest someone needs to see that Austin Dobson be returned to the retail shelf.

I've ordered and read more than three dozen titles, so far. None of these books could I find, or afford, even as used. Here they are though, stacked right on my humble desk. Memoirs of and stories and essays by Maria Edgeworth, "the Irish Austen," books by Dr. John Brown, or about Montaigne, letters written by the poets Thomas Gray and William Cowper, poetry by Walter Savage Landor, sermons -- yes, sermons! -- by Sydney Smith! Books by Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, anecdotes, and bon mot, parodies and nonsense, biography and table-talk, and all, or nearly all of them in these uniformly hideous white and teal paper covers, books I've come to love and could never afford to buy, were it not for the Espresso Book Machine, the great bookstore where I work, and the great libraries of the world that have kept these books, if not always in pristine condition.

The color teal, as I understand it, takes its name from that rather dazzling plumage just 'round the eye, or here and there among the feathers of a particular male duck. Not an easy color to appreciate in any more extensive display, I grant you. Far from my favorite. The duck at the head of this entry is, in fact, a teal. Pictured though is the female. Not so gaudy as her mate. Truth be told, rather a dull duck, as ducks go, I should think. Necessary though, for the survival of the species, obviously, and in her way, I should say, the superior animal of the couple, as the female so often is in all but flash. She may not look much, but wouldn't want to see a world without her, would we?

I won't labor the point further, but I will just point out that literature requires conservation. It's no good to anyone if it becomes something encountered only in museums or kept in carefully tended and protected preserves. We human beings need literature, in all its diversity and richness, to know our own humanity, and just as we need and are dependent upon nature to sustain us, and have the capacity now to undo ourselves by neglecting and polluting the world around us, so too we must commit to sustaining our literature, if we are not to leave this world in a far worse state than we found it.

Seems to me, this new machine of ours, this EBM, that can make me a paperback book, at an affordable price, in less than half of an hour, is about the first good news about books and publishing and bookstores, that I've heard in a good long time. Getting a copy printed of In the Footsteps of Charles Lamb, by one Benjamin Ellis Martin, just for me, for just eight dollars, may not do much to save the world, but it's a start, isn't it? One more duck in the pond.

That's lovely, isn't it?

A Very Brief, On the Job Video

Did this well before I got my Christmas head cold, and then forgot about it until people started sending me the link. Fun. Check out the other bookseller's recommendations.

Daily Dose

From Letters for Literary Ladies: to which is added, An Essay on the Noble Science of Self Justification, by Maria Edgeworth


"Literary ladies will, I am afraid, be losers in love as well as in friendship, by their superiority. -- Cupid is a timid, playful child, and is frightened at the helmet of Minerva."

From Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend, Upon the Birth of a Daughter.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Unreserved List: 10 Favorite New Books of 2010

Having reviewed already the books I enjoyed despite myself, I thought I would just quickly remind readers of the new books I thought the very best among those published this year. This list, unlike the earlier one, ought not to require quite so much explanation for each title, as I have, one way and another, already made note of these books here, talked about them with anyone who would listen, and or done my level best to promote them at the bookstore where I work. While numbered, for the convenience of making a list, I would be hard pressed to say which I loved best, but as I may have already communicated as much to the party or parties responsible, I will just say here, these are all remarkable books of enduring value and I would encourage anyone to read the lot!

1) The Professor and Other Essays, by Terry Castle. Any one of these personal essays would have been enough to make this one of my favorite reading experiences -- ever. Uniformly brilliant, wickedly funny and full of unexpected warmth, there is not a rum effort in the book. My favorite? I've never read a better, less sentimentalized or more accurate depiction of first foolish love than that in the long, title essay. The best. I have a new favorite essayist.

2) How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. I'd just had Bayle St. John's Victorian-era biography reprinted for me, for want of a good book about Montaigne, and read that, when I saw Bakewell's book displayed at a booksellers' convention and begged a copy from the publisher. So glad I did. Bakewell's is easily the best book on Montaigne I've ever read, or am likely to read. Anyone who's never read the great essayist, should read this book first. Anyone who loves Montaigne, should read this book. Everyone should read this book.

3) Role Models, by John Waters. This was an unexpected delight, from beginning to end. Whether profiling Johnny Mathis, or the little guy who made a one man industry of seducing jarheads on tape for the home video market, Waters proves himself to be the man one most wants to tell a story at any party. What a delightful writer!

4) Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, et al. I can't help but smile at strenuousness of the effort, in the making, and the wading through to Twain in the middle, but here at last is the first volume of an epic reconstruction effort. While the full weight of the scholarship might sink a less buoyant document, Twain's dictated pages make even all the extra stuff interesting. An amazing accomplishment by the Twain Project.

5) Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim. First pass through, I was riled by some of the sniping at his elders, and disappointed to find such an impersonal, wholly professional record of a life in the theater. When I finally settled down and read it straight through, I discovered a unique and minutely detailed self portrait of the greatest theatrical writer/composer of my lifetime. Fascinating man. Fascinating book. There's never been anything quite like either of them before. Can't wait for the next volume.

6) Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring. This is the life I've been waiting to read since I briefly met the subject, decades ago, in San Francisco. Nobody had a more interesting life -- witness that subtitle -- or better deserved Justin Spring for his biographer. This is a meticulously researched and cleverly composed book about one of the most amazing men I will ever have met. I read it so fast, I had to go back immediately and do it again. It's that good.

7) A Life Like Other People's, by Alan Bennett. I read everything Bennett publishes. He is one of the great ironists in a competitively ironic time: dry, droll and yes, even quite dear, in his way. I was taken aback to find this little book so emotionally exhausting. In telling a son's story of his parents' marriage without a hint of sentimentality, and sparing himself nothing, Alan Bennet has written a simply beautiful book. I know these people. I'm genuinely grateful for the privilege.

8) While the Women Are Sleeping, by Javier Marias. A collection of short stories by the most exciting novelist I've read since I was a much younger, and more adventurous reader. I hesitated to pick this up, for fear it would disappoint after reading his masterful trilogy of novels, Your Face Tomorrow. These stories only reinforced my conviction that Marias is the most interesting writer working today. Such ease! I don't remember reading anything this entertaining in such brief performances since Calvino. This book proves it. I will read anything this man writes.

9) Never Breathe a Word: The Collected Stories of Caroline Blackwood. Another remarkable personality I'd only too recently discovered. Caustic and very carefully calibrated, each and every piece in this collection, fiction and memoir, just avoids being too bitter by being subtly forgiving, in ways that may only be appreciated in rereading. Blackwood was an accomplished stylist, as well as being uproariously attractive as a narrator, of her own life, or others', and this collection bottles what was best and brightest in her writing.

10) Half Empty, by David Rakoff. The writer's previous efforts represent a certain facile bad humor in short form that I've always found to be great fun. A bad attitude is all but required in the contemporary humorist, and I endorse the trend. What makes this book specially noteworthy is Rakoff's application of this formula to the unlikely subject of his own cancer treatment and remission. He is ruthlessly funny throughout, without once either descending into maudlin cliche or avoiding the genuinely complex and painful realities of what it means to become a patient when impatience is your style.

Already there are other books now crowding in on this list, books I ought to have thought of sooner, or somehow have made a place for before this comes to a quick close. Books like Harold Bloom's fascinating anthology, Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, and the Library of America's beautiful boxed set of the "novels in pictures" by Lynd Ward, the reissue of Stuck Rubber Baby, but this will have to do.

It was a good year.