Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ineffable Creature

"Morning, Weasel."

They've painted over the burns on the sidewalk where she stubbed out her cigarettes with the tip of a crutch. Somebody else gives out the dog cookies at the cash register, calls customers to tell them their special orders have arrived, organizes the shelves of customer "holds," solves paperwork tangles. But every time I hear a metal cart half full of books bump and ring off the elevator, or look across from the Used Books Buying Desk when voices get raised at the Check Out, or I have a particularly comic encounter with some eccentric soul, I still look for The Wolverine.

It's been a year. I was reminded just the other day, by a mutual friend. It has been as long as that, longer, since we last shared a bitter laugh, growled together at the fate of the world, grinned across the floor at each other at some fresh absurdity. We went to a play once, not very well done, and coming out at the intermission, unsure if we really wanted to go back in, she pointed down the sidewalk, hacked despondently, and said "Go ahead, you bastard, run away -- just leave me here to die." Death was not something she feared terribly much. She fought it, refused it's attendant sympathies and show, laughed at it even as it came to her. She was a small woman, my friend and coworker, Jennifer Kuhn. Polio took the legs from under her when she was still a child. Cancer took her job, her hair, her mobility, even her dignity from her, but she laughed even at that. At the end, in that strangely vast looking hospital bed, she looked as small and vulnerable as a baby bird. "I don't dress for visitors anymore -- hope you don't mind," and then, drugged and still wracked with pain, she laughed. It was a harsh laugh, but then it always had been; smoky and loud. The last time I was with her, only days before she died, she said, "Dying is hard -- I wish it was over. I'm ready to go. Can't imagine why it's taking so long." And she laughed again, less loudly, not long, but still true.

"... how little alteration in good spirits the approaches of death make" as Bacon observed.

She called herself a badger, a wolverine, worse. When I asked her once why she identified so with small vicious mammals she said, "Well, I am a small vicious mammal." Her wit could be unkind, and her attitude defensive, if not occasionally offensive, but she was really all bluster and bark. Really, she was profoundly empathetic, perhaps too much so, particularly with the truly vulnerable: the crippled, the mad, the old, the young, the four-footed and the misfit. If she snapped, she snapped at the privileged, the pompous, the thoughtlessly mobile, the sententious and the overbearing. Little ass on the hard floor, her braced legs straight out before her, shelving books, she looked up at most people but always said to me, "You don't look so big from down here, Weasel."

That she invited me into her den, saw in me just a brother mammal, called me "Weasel," and friend, was and is a point of great pride. Not everyone was called to be her familiar.

We at the bookstore still miss her so. But as Montaigne says, "our feelings continue beyond this life," and as mine for her are still tender, I remind myself how she would have rolled her eyes and barked at such sentiment. Yet she did say it, more than once, near the end.

"Love you, Weasel."

Love you still, Wolverine.

Daily Dose

From Concerning All of Us, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


"It is necessary sometimes to deal with venerable prejudices after the manner of the greatest of English law reformers, Sir Samuel Romilly. When told that some unjust institution dated back to the days of the King Edwards, he replied, 'What care I whether such a law was made by one set of barbarians or another?'"

From The Merely Conventional

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thoughtless Acquisitions

Pique seems to have more immediate consequences, at least to my finances, than any more intense or sustained anger of which I am capable. I've never had to pay damages. After even the worst fight I can remember, I owed only apologies. When truly furious, my blood-pressure swings wildly up and -- drops away to nothing and I faint. No lie. But I understand the finer shades of red. It is part of my inheritance. I was raised by a good, if justifiably disgruntled, working class father. He may not have always had the vocabulary with which to describe an emotion, but being a sensitive sort of child, I quickly learned to gage his unhappiness by the rise in color from his nape to his hairline. Pique, though I would hardly have known to call it so until I was well into my twenties, happened somewhere well above the collar and still below the chin. Any keen observer, with a view unobscured by my beard, could today have seen me reproduce the exact effect. Thus, in part at least, my need of whiskers. Oh, I may have spluttered a bit and cursed a little and offered unasked for explanations of my agitation to my otherwise unaware coworkers, but being piqued, as opposed to simply annoyed or darkly wrathful, there was nothing for it but to spend money. Extravagance is, I find, my habitual response to pique. And being poor, the consequences are all to my wallet, to my credit and -- for another day.

For now, I am happy! I write tonight to exhibit said consequences. The photo above is the first ever taken with my new Nikon Coolpix camera. Even with an employee's discount, and even having had the sense to choose the model with the fewest confusing options, I spent entirely too much on it today. I am no photographer. (I will not tell you just how long it took me to add to this text the picture you see.) I am a taker of snapshots. (I refer you again above.) But to take a snapshot I might share here, I have had need for some time of something better than a disposable camera from the drugstore. Now I have a 21st Century camera with which to illustrate my rather 19th Century musings herein, record my own time-rumpled mug or the ageless attractions of my partner, A., or exhibit, as I do tonight, my thoughtless acquisitions from a flying lunch-hour raid on a neighborhood bookshop not my own.

And look how well I did! The bottom of the stack, as I doubt you'll be able to read, is titled Journal of a Country Curate, by one Frances Kilvert. Just above, another slipcased treasure from the Folio Society, The Diary of a Country Parson, by James Woodforde. My work-husband J. remarked dryly, on being excitedly asked to marvel, that "surely now" my shelf of English Vicars "must be complete." Silly J. The four slim volumes atop the pile are all from Harper and Brothers, New York, MDCCCXCII, and read, from bottom to top:

Concerning All of Us, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Americanisms and Briticisms, Etc., by Brander Matthews, Criticism and Fiction, by W. D. Howells, and finally From the Easy Chair, by George William Curtis.

It was that last I first picked off the shelf at lunch. Pretty little thing, just like it's brothers, but my instinct made me take up George William Curtis first. Opening to the Contents, I found, straight away "Dickens Reading (1867)" and "A Little Dinner with Thackeray" and a strange and contented calm spread through me like a a cooling draft. Naturally, I had to gather the whole brotherhood up. The ecclesiastics came along I misremember how.

I already forget the total on the receipts, as I forget now the slight quarrel that sent me off in search of my lost equilibrium. Bibliophilia is such a minor vice. And isn't my new camera nice? Such bargains. You should see my neck, all alabaster beneath the beard again.

Daily Dose

From Picked-Up Pieces, by John Updike


"Think of a pencil. What a quiet, nimble, slender and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steam-roller with no weight, a palace at no cost."

From Why Write?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Quick Review of the Rules

Among yesterday's tributes to the late John Updike, I found the following rules for reviewers reproduced in more than one. It is taken from the foreword to Updike's second collection of reviews & essays, Picked Up Pieces, published in 1976. Easily found elsewhere online today, I add it here in tribute and gratitude.

"1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

The astonishing thing to me, having reread the whole foreword again tonight, and having then read any number of the comments posted on other blogs, is how unlikely it seems to me that anyone would find cause to challenge a word of this. And yet...

No matter. Would that it were issued with every book sent for review. Would that every book sent for review deserved such kind attention.

Daily Dose

From Selected English Essays, Chosen and Arranged by W. Peacock.


"It is a hard and nice subject for a man to write of himself; it grates his own heart to say anything of disparagement and the reader's ears to hear anything of praise for him. There is no danger from me of offending him in this kind; neither my mind, nor my body, nor my fortune allow me any materials for that vanity."

Abraham Cowley

From Of Myself

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Familiar Voice

Terry Gross devoted her entire broadcast on NPR's Fresh Air today to the late John Updike, running clips from three interviews from over the years. It was marvelous to hear Updikes voice again: cider-tart, slightly nasal, laconic and wise. Years ago I went to hear him read in a bookstore in San Francisco. The host store was not where I worked, and I had to hustle to get there in time for the reading. There were not many authors' readings for which I would have willingly illustrated that verb "hustle." But Updike was Updike; master of the New Yorker story & poem, essayist and reviewer for the New York Review of Books, the novelist most likely to represent his generation of American novelists -- that last, roughly, the word from Philip Roth. So I hustled. I was met at the door of the locally famously famous bookstore by a very large and enthusiastic crowd, packed to the walls and unwilling, nearly unable, to admit another single body. But I was young and slim then -- it was a phase -- and I slipped my way in, with many a bump and blush, and shamelessly pushed near the front. I was not yet a collector of autographs, so I was unencumbered by bags of backlist. There was no such thing as a seat. We all stood.

Updike was nowhere to be seen -- presumably kept in an office somewhere until called to the podium -- and the crowd was hot, restless, and already footsore. Some, it seemed, had been there for hours. But when a member of the bookstore's staff finally made his way to the podium, the place grew as quiet as church and a collective grin circled the room. Our host for the evening was a lanky, undistinguished youth with hair in his eyes and touching little whiskers. In other circumstances I might have found him rather precious. Before he spoke the crowd's great grin seemed to blind him a little. I will never forget the introduction he immediately began to read from one grubby index-card:

"Welcome to B____ Bookstore. We are... (mumble) tonight. Our guest, John Updike (applause) is a novelist and... (mumble, mumble, mumble) ... author of... (mumble) and... (mumble) and... (mumble.) Please welcome... (mumble.)"

And then our host shambled off. He did not wait for Mr. Updike to emerge from off, he did not look again into the now wide-eyed and much stunned crowd, he simply... left.

A minute passed. No Updike. The crowd, sensing that the responsibility for the evening's success had been handed off, quickly took up the honor of San Francisco, the reading public, and bookstores everywhere, and tentatively burst forth in welcoming cheers and applause. Perhaps sensing he was finally "on," Updike, unaccompanied and smiling rather shyly, finally walked to the podium, bowed slightly, looked off to where, presumably, the staff member may have gone, shrugged his high shoulders and said, " ----." Abashed, Mr. Updike then fiddled with the microphone, eventually turning it on.

"Thank you" he said, in that same smiling voice I heard today on the radio,"Thank you all for coming. And thank you, young man, for that humbling introduction."

I would defy you not to love John Updike at that moment.

It was, without exception, the worst introduction of an author I have ever heard, to this day. Updike sailed straight on. When his reading was over, he took a few questions, then, checking his watch, suggested that if anyone wanted a book signed, he supposed he ought to begin. Locating the table and chair behind him, he then signed and chatted with customers for roughly another hour. He was absolutely, dazzlingly charming.

If the boy from the bookstore reappeared, I don't remember him. One hopes he was subsequently beaten to death in the alley behind the store.

The voice of John Updike, particularly for me in his many essays on art and writing and new books, is not a voice I am likely ever to forget. It is a voice that will be sorely missed.

Daily Dose

From Miscellanies, by Augustine Birrell


"It is given but to half a dozen men in a century really to teach their grown-up contemporaries, whilst to inflame them by oratory is happily the province of a very few, but to bore them well nigh to extinction is within the scope of most men's powers."

From Is it Possible to Tell a Good Book from a Bad One?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Break from Bronte

Having got Miss Lucy Snowe to Villette, and no further, I've paused to take up another book. Such is the way of things when one works in a bookstore. I have learned to allow for this. It explains the state of my nightstand and why, when reaching each morning to turn off my alarm-clock and retrieve my glasses, my hand must snake between stacks -- some already dusty with neglect. Distractions, from any book, however good, are among the chief benefits of my present employment.

Today's distraction was the kind of book I will never be able to resist. The pull-quote writ large across the back is as follows:

"Bette Davis. That's who I'm like. Did You notice? Everybody says so."

Yes, I am that queen. Mention Bette Davis and I am all attention. But there has been much written about Miss Davis that is worth no more time than it takes to turn the book over and read the title.

But this book had me as soon as I did. Lola's Luck: My Life Among the California Gypsies, by Carol Miller, from the new GemmaMedia. Nothing to do with Miss Davis, you see, but I have other spots that are soft. From the day I read George Borrow's The Romany Rye, I have been hooked by any reference to the Roma. Jan Yoors' The Heroic Present: Life Among the Gypsies, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca and others, have all put their spell on me before. I took Miller's new book with me to lunch, read the first forty pages, and will now, I think, have to read the rest before I so much as acknowledge Miss Lucy Snowe's presence in the nightstand stack again.

Carol Miller, I read, is an anthropologist, living here in Seattle. She worked with the Machvaia Roma of California. She knew these people, studied them for years. She became a friend to the woman, quoted and pictured above who, as you see, looked nothing like Bette Davis, but I begin to suspect, had every right to claim that she was like her, none the less. Carol Miller, it would seem, is my kind o' anthropologist. I can not wait to read on. Charlotte Bronte will have to wait quietly until called for. I am off tonight with the Gypsies.

Daily Dose

From Walter de la Mare: A Selection from his Writings, made by Kenneth Hopkins.


"The End, he scrawled, and blotted it. Then eyed
Through darkened glass night's cryptic runes o'erhead.
'My last and longest book.' He frowned; then sighed:
'And everything left unsaid!'"

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Very Desperate Habit

"Apologizing - a very desperate habit - one that is rarely cured. Apology is only egotism wrong side out." ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Professor at the Breakfast-Table

Oh dear. I have been called to task on two points. First, I was reminded by an acquaintance that "people do not read long entries on a blog," which will mean, I'm afraid, said people will not be reading this. Nothing to be done about it. I am long-winded; I write as I talk and talk, when granted a listener, until I'm stopped. On more than one occasion I've talked even the most attentive listeners to sleep. When I was writing for work, I tried rather desperately to keep things light and quick, adding pictures seemed to help when I was blogging, and after many years in the book business, I may finally have mastered writing Staff Recommendations that actually fit on the requisite card -- in a very small font, but still. Here I seem, to myself, to be rushing, even racing to the end of each entry in what feels like the fewest possible words. It does not, evidently, seem so to others.

I bought a new camera before Christmas. To call it a "video camera" seems wrong. It is smaller than my first cigarette-case. My intention was to film my own reading of Capote's "A Christmas Memory" to distribute in place of Christmas cards. Only after I bought it and tried to work the thing, did I decide instead to hire a professional to film the reading and make the DVDs for me. His only complaint in trying to do so? My reading, which to me always seems rushed, was simply too long to be easily accommodated in a computer, at least as I understood what he was telling me. It seems, yet again, I did go on.

An old friend -- himself a former newspaper man, now in advertising -- wrote to tell me that, having read something of what I've written here, while I can write, my habit of apologizing was driving him crazy. Do I do that? I do. He's right, of course. I would apologize... but you do see the problem.

These are bad habits. They make for bad writing. I really must amend. I will try. But, ( you had to have seen that conjunction coming, no?) I have read too much in the old essayists, and affected, I think, a modesty I may not have earned. Johnson said, in a letter to Richardson, "what is modesty, if it deserts from truth? Of what use is the disguise by which nothing is concealed?" But then Johnson, and even Samuel Richardson, whose books may be masterpieces though I can't seem to read them, were voluble men, as well as great writers, and their modesty is admirable because of their achievements. Mine is inbred. The first lessons of my childhood were all chiefly to do with minding my manners, and my place. Attention could be given, but was never to be rudely drawn to one's self. Having offered this excuse, I would supply another. I learned, as a queer but clever, sly boy, that I might say almost anything, if said in an amusing way, and so long as the requisite apology afterwards was sincere. My apologies are still and almost always sincere.

Our oldest, true arms in this life are the defenses we are given at home and acquire on the playground; the bully in rompers will bully his wife, the coquette in pigtails will cage drinks when she's wearing a wig, and the sassy sissy, will still grovel and snap as he passes forty and five. To promise I will go and sin no more would be... insincere.

I will try, however, as I said, to amend. I may never have the confidence to say just what I think, and the consequences be damned, anymore than I will ever stop thinking and saying what I ought perhaps not. I think in qualifications. I express my regrets as easily as my opinions because I have the reflex of the former at the expression of the latter. What if I am wrong? Who the Hell am I to say? It is the best I can do. Maddening, ain't it?

Never So Trivial

Oscar said "people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously." I hope I haven't done, here. Truth be told, I have never taken much to myself at all. For the first time this morning, I've had occasion to read back over what I've written so far, and there is an awkward stateliness to the thing, but that is just my clumsy writing rather than any intent to appear more important than I am. I know my place, as the chambermaid said to the -- you know how those old jokes go. The triviality of this undertaking is, I hope, inherent to the form and not in my style, such as it is. I do take writing seriously, even this, but from respect for the language, not from any pretensions I might once have had to ever mastering it. That will never happen. I haven't the discipline, the ambition, the skill.

I have been lucky enough to live a charmed, which is to say, a dilettante's life, at least in my leisure. I have always had to work. I would not know now how to not. But, at my leisure, I am fortunate in having an understanding and indulgent mate; his house has filled up with my books, he tolerates my absence from him, to doodle and scribble and talk with friends. He, being admirably self-contained, accepts my more scattered interests, and if he sighs, sighs quietly. He allows me quiet, and with surprising and sustained interest listens to my burbling when I'm of a mind to natter. We met when I was quite young and he already a man. He might once have had hopes of me making something of myself other than the little I have, but experience has taught him to take me as I am and appear, amazingly, if not satisfied, then resigned. He has learned, when presented with some temporary enthusiasm; carved apple-heads, or collage, or a public reading of Dickens, to not ask me, as he once did about my writing, "what do you want to do with this?" Instead he smiles and sits through my readings, admires my handiwork, consoles me in my disappointments. He continues, as needed, to take me seriously, and so lets me laugh at myself without prompting, however strong the temptation, in twenty five years, must have been.

But I can not take myself seriously. I take my job seriously. I take such responsibilities as I've been given or inherited, as seriously, I hope, as as they deserve. But myself? Pshaw. Hazlitt said, "So have I loitered my life away reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best." And so have I, but with the benefit, which poor Hazlitt lacked, of someone who loved me just as the muddle I am. So perhaps love has made me silly, or at least allowed me to continue so. But had I lacked it, would I then have been Hazlitt? No. What Hazlitt had that I lack -- beyond the trio of attributes listed at the close of the first paragraph above -- was genius.

Now, Samuel Butler would have had none of this. He said, in The Way of All Flesh, “I have no idea what genius is, but so far as I can form any conception about it, I should say it was a stupid word which cannot be too soon abandoned to scientific and literary claqueurs.” But being just such a clapper and naught else, I use the word for want of a better.

Hazlitt was a tempest; full and loud and furious. His eye was everywhere. His style, supremely assured, easy, fine. I own The Miscellaneous Works of William Hazlitt, In Five Volumes, published by Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, Philadelphia, 1876. Lovely old books they are too; embossed green cloth covers, handsomely printed, sturdy still and easily browsed. I came on them in a used bookstore in Southern California, marked at a ridiculously low price, and bought them knowing next to nothing of Hazlitt except the little of him I met in Lamb, and perhaps his "Indian Juggler." But such a set must mean something. And in it I have found the best of English writing on Shakespeare, on art and painting, on boxing and writing and reason. Here is a writer of serious prose! With no triviality anywhere in him.

He wrote an extraordinary confession, Liber Amoris: Or, The New Pygmalion, almost unbearable to read in its vulnerability. He fell in love with an illiterate working girl and, in the estimation of his friends, threw himself away in the pursuit of her. It scandalized his friends. That he wrote about it honestly, nearly ruined him. Contemporary scholars are much enamoured of this book, it speaks to contemporary insecurities, I suppose, or to the bookish soul enthralled by the pretty face. I don't know. I could only read it once. His friends were right to worry, so far as I can see.

But in his essays, Hazlitt is all in all. He is not well served by the only edition available now; a paperback from Oxford University Press, edited -- viciously edited -- by some minor academic who seems to think he knows better than all who came before him, how to present this English master to the masses. After an introduction as dull as any lecture the professor's poor students must suffer through, "placing" Hazlitt dully in his times, etc., said professor then chops and drops great chunks of Hazlitt as if to stew all the juice out of him, and in so doing, somehow make him more palatable to the low standards of the academic High Table that presumably suits better the professor's own flat taste. It is criminal. Hazlitt had politics, radical for his time, and these are well in keeping with the present times, but he was also a supreme stylist, and that can not survive being picked at, and picked apart, to be cut to present fashion.

So reading Hazlitt means reading him whole, if only in a single essay. He is altogether too easy to quote. But quotation can be a disservice to such an artist, as it has been to Oscar, if one does not then seek out the works from which the clever phrases have been drawn. Hunt for a proper collection of Hazlitt's essays. They are hiding, unsuspected, in used bookshops all around. Our ancestors, in this, knew better than we, and printed his essays as they found them: complete and unabridged.

And I will go on reading happily, learning too little from so much worthy of imitation, in my cheap set of miscellaneous masterpieces, and writing no better than I do, perhaps no better than I can, even with William Hazlitt at my elbow.

Daily Dose

From Friendship Poems, selected and edited by Peter Washington.


The pleasures of friendship are exquisite,
How pleasant to go to a friend on a visit!
I go to my friend, we walk on the grass,
And hours and moments like minutes pass.

Stevie Smith

Sunday, January 25, 2009

To My First Follower

Oh dear. It seems I have a "follower." Whose usage is this?! It seems to me an awful noun, that word, to have it tethered to so slight a thing as this. My hope is that only a friend is meant. That is my assumption. I could guess at the identity behind the coded name, but I will not. Rather, I'll simply say, "welcome" and "thanks."

Seeing that anonymous "icon" pop up on my screen reminds me of my purpose, or at least of my better purpose, in taking this gab up again after I left off elsewhere. There I wrote as a way to participate, to support and promote a business I love and a place, a very special place, that has given me good reason to be grateful. But here? As I just said, my motives were clouded somewhat when I started this two days ago. Emotion made me impetuous and habit made me write. But now? Tonight I think I am writing for that reader, that singular friend, kind enough to subscribe, if that's the word, or at least to be seen to do so. As I have written just today, I have need of my friends.

But where then am I asking you to go with me? And why? How 'bout this: if you are there, and not just a gesture -- much appreciated if just that -- if someone is actually reading as I write, and excusing me what passes for my style, as I can not manage another without the restraint of retail or some other, proper object, then I will try not to talk so much about and to myself. I will rather write of books, but my books now, my friends, the companions of my mind, my teachers, my superiors.

They are all around me as I write. To my left sits Isaac Beshevis Singer. At his father's court I can introduce you to wise men and women long since vanished from the world like so much smoke. In his stories you will find the tragedy of the last Century, the mysticism of of an ancient People, often as not framed in New York apartment windows, and an English made richer in translation than any language of which I have command. And because these are my shelves, and narrow, next to him, for reasons only of space, P. G. Woodhouse is piled; Psmith and Jeeves and Blandings all higgledy-piggledy, some books facing out and some facing in to keep the stacks from bowing. And just to the other side of Singer rest the works of Muriel Spark, all sharp as nettles and just as stinging.

You see? My library, such as it is, is no better organized, no more thought out, than this thing I do now, in writing this. But, in it's small way, my library is rich with unlikely possibilities, strange bedfellows, and much that may be unknown to you. Do you know Julian Green? He sits between Henry and Graham. You may know them already -- Graham is the Greene with the final "e" -- but you may not know Julian Green. He was an American and the first man not a Frenchman elected to the Académie française.

And Nicholas Mosley? You might know him, but what of dear old Francis King? Or Robert Liddell? Kawabata is famous still, I should hope, as is Naguib Mahfouz, but have you ever heard of little Daisy Fellowes? Or Coleman Dowell?

There are so many friends I never get to introduce at work. Their books are out of print, or if in print, available only to those who might use them for research, a legitimate use, I admit, but hardly a fond one. Poor old Arthur Hugh Clough, or Coventry Patmore, when were they last turned to with an open heart or the hope of simple pleasure?

That I am no scholar, is here, for once, not an embarrassment but a pleasure. I have no theory to support, no reason to make claims or assert anything beyond my own gladness in addressing someone, some new or familiar friend, on behalf of just my own reading, my own books!

Again I say, welcome! I hope this will prove to be a conversation worth having. Whenever I can I will shut up and let my friends speak for themselves. I hope you will like them, as I do. They are so much better at this than I have any hope of being.

And so the last word tonight to William Cowper, from his poem, Friendship:

"If every polished gem we find,
Illuminating heart and mind,
Provoke to imitation,
No wonder friendship does the
That jewel of the purest flame,
Or rather constellation."

Why I Did Not Go to the Party -- and instead am reading Villette

There is a party tonight at Richard Hugo House, here in Seattle. For those not in the know, Richard Hugo House is that most precious and unlikely of public institutions, a place dedicated to poetry and to the community of writers. I confess, I've never been. The fault is all my own. I live in dread of gassing away to some kind soul and being asked after, just what it is I do. I am proud to be a bookseller, but that is what I am, and unless the conversation concerns sales and cover-art, Christmas and displays, I am far less qualified to opine than I am inclined to do, specially under the influence of drink. But I may go yet. Many wonderful writers appear at Richard Hugo House regularly. Many interesting discussions take place there. Poetry is read aloud. Students study. There's a bar. At least there is a bar tonight. The party, to which I was invited for the first (and possibly the last) time tonight, is called "Get Lit," and it sounds a wonderful thing; writers and readers and librarians, poets and publishers, critics and newspaper reporters, all gathered and mixed with liquor, and chatting and buzzing and making connections and merry. I was, frankly, flattered to be asked. I had never been before. I wondered why, and how anyone would have thought to do so. I have no title in the company for which I work. I wrote, before this, all but anonymously, on a bookstore's blog, and that for less than a full year. My last and only publication was twenty years ago, and in zines assembled secretly at night, on corporate copiers, with what felt like daring but was only balls. I am not now, was never and am likely never to be "known" in even the most local and liberal sense of the word. Why, on earth, include me in?

Anonymity is my usual state, and to the few that know me well at all, I am obliged when they invite me out of it and then kindly allow for my retreat. It was not always intended that my life should be as it is. I had dreams, as a child, of becoming an actor. I went to a minor school, having been rejected by a major, to pursue just that goal, though I left after a year to become a scholar, and then left that not long after, when a man proposed we live together and I found contentment with him. I wrote, for awhile, every day and produced unproducible plays, unfinished essays, and once, after many months' labor, an unreadable novel of considerable length and no value at all. I have, on occasion, and by invitation only, introduced many actual writers in the bookstores in which I've worked. I've read the words of genius aloud, in readings meant to celebrate, however humbly and for audiences however intimate, the achievements of my betters, my friends from the bookcases all around me.

But is that enough to make me familiar to the local literati? I do not believe it is. So for me to be included on a guest list for such as I am missing even as I write, there must, I believe, have been some friendly intervention. Some coworker, with a kind heart, better connected and with a more public role, like S., I would guess, has slipped my name into an email list. Perhaps P., the host of this recurring event, remembered me from our very brief encounter while recommending books in a booth for the Christmas trade. I can't imagine why he would, but he might have done. That anyone has read what I wrote before on the blog at my job still constitutes something like a secret thrill to me, but it hardly rates an invitation to hobnob in the actual, as opposed to the virtual company of artists and enthusiasts I imagine gathered now.

The simple truth is, I am more comfortable at home. I am a coward. I am better left imagining the clever things being said and the clever people saying them tonight. For such a loud and chatty man, I am too shy of putting a foot wrong and misrepresenting the only place that would give me a platform from which to speak, the bookstore. Earlier this year, I was asked to join a committee to review books for a prize. I was flattered and agreed. I am glad I did. I read many books I would not otherwise have even seen or having seen, looked at twice. But the saving grace for me was that my service was, with the exception of one meeting, and a dinner yet to come, done at some distance. After the initial meeting, we met only in email, and then in one final conference-call. And even after only that, I believe I managed to make some reputation for myself as an irascible sort of reviewer, a hater of children's books and talking dogs, a mouthy kind of meddler in the opinions of others, a snob; in short, "a character." I shudder now to think that I am to be, for at least the two more years I've agreed to serve, now and hereafter labeled thus, no matter how much I might monitor myself, acquiesce, listen or bow to the will of the majority. "A character" is now my designation on the committee. And so, I suppose I am. But I would rather not be thought so elsewhere, when I can avoid it.

And so, though flattered and much puffed up at having been asked, I did not go tonight. Instead, I will have supper with my husband. We will watch, when I am done here, 60 Minutes on the TV, and then some recurring drama on HBO, and then, while I'm having the last brownie from the pan he made to make me feel better when I came home unhappy from my yesterday, he will doze over the paper, and I will read on in Villette -- a Bronte I'd never tried and which, so far, I seem likely to finish. I never have finished a Bronte novel, by any of those brilliant sisters. Mrs. Gaskell's biography, which I did read, for the biographer's sake, could not even make me love Jane Eyre. But you see? I live in expectation.

And if I should be invited again, perhaps I will go. Perhaps I will bore them all with why I find the Brontes unsympathetic. Perhaps I will refer them to my blog! I can't imagine anything so embarrassing, but then I haven't had a good Lemon Drop cocktail in a very long time, and maybe if I do, and if I have after that first a second, I may yet corner dear Nancy Pearl, say, and ask her to defend poor Charlotte and Emily and what was the name of the third one?

And perhaps I'll stay home and read Trollope.

"Sir, the worst way of being intimate is by scribbling."

The Doctor is right, as he so often is. But then Boswell had the benefit of Johnson's conversation; as they walked the Hebrides, or home from the Club, or simply up the stairs to take tea. I have their conversation too, in their books, but all at second hand. It is a joy to me, but I have no part in it. I am a spectator only, an eavesdropper, a looker-in. I think it safe to say, even were I somehow to go back in time to be with them, my role would not be other than it is. Johnson was a public genius, he took an audience as his due, and rightly so. Boswell was a bold little man and made his friends as others might make resolutions; with the best intentions and from motives of self-improvement, if not to say self-advancement, but also with a true heart. His name has come to mean devotion. And unlike the resolutions I make almost daily, Boswell kept his friends -- for the most part -- better than most of us keep even so light a responsibility as our diets. (You see how I evade the first person, just there at the end?) It is no easy thing, keeping friends. It requires a genuine resolve. And it requires conversation.

The difficulty that confronts me here is that my friends, in their numbers, tend to be elsewhere. I know them from work, but not at home. I've left them behind us when we've moved. I have been negligent. For many years, I wrote letters, as often as I could to as many as would take them, but few people now have the habit of regular correspondence. And even the few that do, have proved no more reliable than I have, so that a letter, of whatever length, often as not has gone unanswered for so long as to make any response irrelevant. I have been the worst of friends, even in the mails. I studied too long in my letters, fussed and rewrote, and failed to send even the things I haphazardly scribbled. Many a letter ran to multiple pages, with multiple dates, and to little or no point, until, at last, whatever was put down was either sent undone or put away.

But now, at least here, I have some chance to redeem myself. Finally finding my way to the digital page, and without even the rudiments of understanding the how or the what of what it is I'm now doing, I have begun again to write, here and on "walls" at what is called a "social networking site." A wonderful thing has happened as a result: I have found many of the friends I had lost, abandoned and neglected. I have been put back in touch with people so long gone from my life as to be all but strangers to me now, or memories at most. Some, many, have children as old as the silence was long. Some have retired. Some have found new loves, earned degrees, entered recovery, grown up. I am hungry for all their news! I am glad to have it by any means, and if that means I must write in a strange and new paper-free medium, without permanence, and abide by a new etiquette I only imperfectly understand, then I will learn, I will change.

To have so many of the voices from my past again in my ears, to have not echos but greetings! and to see again the faces of so many I've loved and thought lost to me, has been my newest joy. And if the new intimacy is not as the old was, if our "conversations" come only, for now, as scribbled notes, so be it. Forster said somewhere that "love generally gives out whenever we move away from our home and our friends." But he also, most famously, urged us to "only connect," and if that connection is now only possible by typing away my afternoons at my desk, then at least I will have made a start. This is a new intimacy for me, and perhaps an inferior one, but what I have. I am so glad of it.

And one last quote from dear old E. M. F., which I will probably misstate as I may have done above -- I haven't checked a book as I should have done and would do were I not so anxious to keep going and be quick -- in an essay I read many years ago, before I kept a proper commonplace book and sourced these things, Forster said: "One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life."

Whatever mess I may have made, I trust that those of whom I continue fond, most fond, will forgive me and take the little I do now as a sign of good intentions and true resolution to be a better friend than I have been.

Daily Dose

From Selections from the Writings of Walter Savage Landor, arranged and edited by Sidney Colvin.


"Marvel. With the greatest rulers upon earth, head and crown drop together, and are overlooked. It is true, we read of them in history; but we also read in history of crocodiles and hyaenas. With great writers, whether in poetry or prose, what falls away is scarcely more or other than a vesture. The features of the man are imprinted on his works; and more lamps burn over them, and more religiously, than are lighted in temples or churches."

From Fame and True and False Greatness

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Familiar References

Any reference to dictionary definition, in a speech or an essay, or even in such ephemera as this, specially anytime a paragraph begins with "as defined in Webster's Ninth Collegiate..." or the like, makes me low. Such is the laziness of writers. That any editor -- for such, I'm told, there are still in the world, though the evidence grows scanty -- should allow such juvenilia to see print frankly amazes. Surely this term-paper stop-gap ought not to be allowed to anyone beyond the age of consent?

And yet, just today, in taking up a new work of American history, from a recognized author and a large and respectable House, there it was: "As defined in Webster's... " And down the book was put.

Can there really be anyone still who does not find in this a sad and sorry sort of cliche, or sign of something worse about the state of reference libraries in a digital age? Webster's indeed.

Tonight, at my desk I find two handsome twins: the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English and the Oxford Compact Thesaurus, Third Edition, bound in leather, ribbed and gilded, bought used, but published as a "bonus" for one book club or another. This pair replaced the Oxford Pocket Dictionary I kept since college, it's dustjacket finally in tatters, it's pages (shamefully) marked and dog-eared. I retained my copy, circa 1961, of The New Roget's Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, Revised & Greatly Expanded, Thumb-indexed, from Garden City Books, for reasons patriotic and sentimental.

And on the round table I bought in a junk-shop and painted white when I painted my pine bookcases, to better match the then anonymous room into which they had to go, I keep my treasured friends: The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles, Third Edition, Revised with Addenda, 1955 -- revised by the delicious sounding Don, C. T. Onions, C.B.E., F.B.A., -- and the two beautiful volumes of The New Century Dictionary of the English Language, in the edition published in this format for the first time in 1930.

The Oxford Universal has been with me many years, The New Century is comparatively new to me. The former cost me twenty-five dollars, in a Pittsburgh bookshop many years ago and was brought home on a bike, though I can not now imagine how. It measures eight inches by eleven and sits three and a half inches thick. The cloth covers have gone from blue to gray, and show every evidence of being dropped and packed and unpacked and left repeatedly open and askew. The red cloth ribbon, presently marking the page "Orangeado/Orbitosphenoid" to the left, and "Orby/Order" to the right, is from some forgotten Christmas gift, no doubt long since discarded, though the ribbon remains. The New Century in two volumes, is a reheaded stepchild of that greatest American dictionary, the original Century Dictionary, in eight to ten to twelve volumes. Like the Universal Oxford, this edition of The New Century was meant for common folks, like me, who had neither the shelves nor the resources to own the genuine article. And as a common user, and owner of just these, I am content.

To be honest, I use the Compact Oxford most. But the old Universal is kept close and consulted regularly. The beauty of both volumes -- "A -- pocket veto" and "pock-mark -- zymurgy & supplements," -- make actually using The New Century Dictionary, with all that lovely line-illustration, the bold and handsome type, and the beautiful stamped covers, too distracting. At roughly twice the size together of the Universal, at least so far as thickness, though with much larger type and smaller entries, The New Century is neither more nor less practical in shape. But the difference is between dress pumps and workboots. The occasions for for the former are few, and special; a bird's name, as there might be a picture, or a butterfly, as that provides the excuse to examine one of the color plates. I would not willingly part with them for many times the money I paid (twenty dollars for the set.)

I have other, more specialize reference works, from the whimsy of Instant Yiddish to Fowler's, to commonplace books and more scholarly tomes, but my dictionaries, taken together, represent the better part of my self education. My affection for them is true. My reverence of the men and women who made them profound. I would not think of quoting from them, even here.

Daily Dose

From The Gentlest Art: A Choice of Letters by Entertaining Hands, edited by E. V. Lucas.


"When I began this letter I thought I had something to say: but I believe the truth was I had nothing to do."

Edward Fitzgerald

Friday, January 23, 2009

Closing Out My First Day In a Mellow Tone

In a long phone conversation tonight with a dear friend, too seldom seen, we returned again and again to the subject of misunderstandings and the frequency with which we find ourselves misunderstood from that best of motives: enthusiasm. Now, my friend is a musician and an instrument maker, an artist and mask maker, a true bohemian and the gentlest soul I've ever met. The very idea that anyone new to his acquaintance would find in him anything uninteresting strikes me as astonishing. Few are the men I've ever met more likely to surprise, delight and reward with affectionate sympathy even the slightest interest. J. listens, as I've found musicians tend to do, with an even greater facility than he talks. As a talkative old party, what more could I require in a younger friend? That he is also very easy on the eyes only adds to his attraction of course, but we speak just now of higher things, and it is his enthusiasm; for music, for books, for sex, for life, that seems most often to put him into corners.

I'll explain, briefly. When asked what he was doing when I called, J. explained, without the least self-consciousness, that he was "just working on the script for the Job play." That this project is a puppet show, that it is, indeed meant to tell the story of the Biblical Job -- subject you will remember of that infamously heartless celestial bet -- and that, as with most of my friend's many artistic undertakings, this will involve "early music" and little or no pay, I understood immediately that we were off to unfamiliar places together. I know J. and his ways well. But not everyone would. How could one not want to know more? And yet, there are those benighted souls who on hearing just such a rare occasion for interesting conversation, will turn the talk immediately to the weather, the day's news, or the state of their child's diapers. My friend's enthusiasm, in much of his daily life, is met not with the curiosity he deserves and invokes from any sensible person, but instead with a coldly intentional misunderstanding. The assumption sometimes made -- from his facial tattoos, his quiet manner, the gamba strapped to his back -- is that there is simply... too much to address. And so a rare opportunity, a rare individual is missed.

Do not confuse eccentricity with interest. There are as many bores with feathers in their hair and studs in their eyebrows as there are in business suits and Florsheim shoes. But having ventured a chat with someone like J., however basely carnal one's initial interest -- the boy is hot, I tell you -- one will find, at least in him, fascinations far beyond the termination of the tattoo that may start at his navel. And yet friends, and even lovers, as well as strangers have refused the obvious invitation J. is to learn. And that is an awful thing, and breaks his heart I think, more often than one would assume one heart, however brave, could be broken.

In my own little life, lived far less expansively than J.'s, and fenced all around with timidity, hesitations and the avoidance of embarrassment, I too have had some experience of presuming too much on the interest of others. Though my stock of anecdote and event comes all but exclusively from the books that have always been better friends to me than I have been to them, my enthusiasm has too often been met with a not dissimilar indifference. When I've wanted so badly to communicate, for example how perfectly Addison may have addressed just the point being made, too often I've bumbled the quote, or even if I've got it right, I've dropped it too late into the mix and so spoiled rather than spiced the dish being served. My enthusiasm can be mistaken for pedantry, and my engagement for garrulity.

So my new venture online may serve only to prove yet another opportunity for misunderstanding. I never intend to bore, though I know I do. And if, in my enthusiasm for old books and old language, for long, breathless sentences and dependent clauses, for commas and chatter, I have already undone this new effort to engage with the world, I am sorry.

Perhaps I would do better to take yet another lesson from my friend, and let music make my way for me. I never finished my oboe lessons in Jr. High, and I can not sing, though I do, so I promise, when able to add a song to this typing, from a better source than myself. Perhaps, if it is allowed, I might share the Anita O'Day I'm listening to now. Do you know the great, late Anita O'Day? As jazz singers go, she is the rhythm of a snare drum and the snap of a bass, rather than the flight of trumpets. And I like my Anita old, in "recovery" and much the worse for wear. "Live in Concert Tokyo 1976" plays out all around me as I write tonight. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is pounding and skipping through brief thickets of polite Japanese applause and as always, Anita is swinging. I can't make such music myself, would that I could, so instead let me just humbly recommend for now something perfect that requires no explanation from me. This at least is an enthusiasm all too easy to share. Just find it and listen.

Meanwhile, goodnight to sweet J., whose music this isn't but who would listen attentively should I suggest or insist, and who, as I end for the day, I still wish were here, to tell me more about Job, and puppets, and harpsichords and Handel, and the boy that misunderstood and broke his heart again.

The Means of Making Acquaintance

It would seem that the single immediate advantage of being now alone and adrift on the Internet, is in not being bound to any practical purpose. With nothing to promote, and no one to be pleased but myself, I may noodle away my unexpected afternoon-off by wandering among my own books. And as the vast majority of these are long out of print, and presumably likewise out of mind to anyone but me, I can, if I choose -- and I do -- pass an hour or more -- as I just have -- with only old E. V. Lucas for company. Why not?

We come to know books and their authors as we come to know strangers met in the street in the company of friends; the slightest introduction will do, and if the converse, however brief, be amiable, the looks of of the person to our liking, and nothing passes to put us off, then the happy accident is acquaintance. I need not befriend a book to buy it. It is enough that we should have a friend in common. (And here, an index is the best hostess. I always, if a book has one, turn first to her to help me find "the old familiar faces:" Beerbohm, Max or Goldsmith, Oliver or Lamb, Charles, etc.)

Edward Verrall Lucas (June 11/12 1868 – June 26, 1938) was a long-time editor at Punch, that much and justly maligned magazine of the less than amusing bits of jingo, cant and class snobbery that passed for entertainment in great-grandfather's day, though I doubt any of my ancestors read it, or could read much for that matter. And, at first acquaintance, Lucas would see to embody everything ick about the type; clubman, cricket-crazed, well traveled but always English first, a gossip and dog-loving gent, with a well-tailored, stuffed style, meant only to crack the thinnest smile on the other fella's thin lips. But Lucas while very much that, was more.*

He loved Lamb, and from my first encounter with Elia, it was Lucas, among his admirers, who seemed to love him best. Reading Lamb and then collecting Lamb, it would be impossible not to eventually own books by Lucas. And, after some luck on, and a happy trip down to Powell's in Portland, I came to have not only the Lucas Life of Charles Lamb, in two volumes, Seventh Edition, Revised, from April, 1921, but also my joy of the past few years' worth of bedtime reading, The Letters of Charles & Mary Lamb, in three volumes, edited by Lucas, also from Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1935. Gods bless 'em.

Having so dear a friend in common, my acquaintance with the clubman from Punch grew. And yes, while he can be pointless and smug in his essays and stories, he can also be amusing and kind. In his travels, all unknowingly perhaps, he preserved a world long vanished; of privileged access, of history still unbombed, of a style of wandering no longer possible on the crowded streets of London and Paris and Holland (pictured) and Bagdad.

He is also a collector of anecdote and an editor of delicious anthologies of letters and pen portraits and travelers' tales. In every little book of his I pick out from some dusty, neglected used bookstore shelf, I am, it seems, as likely to find yet another new friend; Sir Philip Sydney, say, or Rab and His Friends, as I am to drift a little disappointed from page to page.

And what friend doesn't bore us now and again? (Why, I'm likely to be doing so now, and I've only had you with me the length of this page!) As Johnson said, "admiration begins when acquaintance ceases," and E. V. Lucas has long since ceased to be anything less to me than a most admirable friend.

How can one not want to know better a man who said “One of the most adventurous things left us is to go to bed. For no one can lay a hand on our dreams?”

So, back to The Open Road, and Good Company and A Rally of Men, and The Second Post, and then, most likely a nap. I'm sure the Old Boy's shade will understand if I doze.

*Lucas was said, by way of titillating tattle, to have had "the greatest private collection of pornography in London." So it wasn't all teacups and cigars.

Daily Dose

From The Charles Lamb Daybook, compiled by E. V. Lucas, entry for January 23:


"I confess that I do feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess. I can look with no indifferent eye upon things or persons. Whatever is, is to me a matter of taste or distaste; or when it becomes indifferent, it begins to be disrelishing. I am, in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices -- made up of likings and dislikings -- the veriest thrall to sympathies, apathies, antipathies."

From Imperfect Sympathies

It's 12:20 AM... That Makes It a New Day

 "PRESENT, noun.  That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope."  -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Assuming that there will be some satisfaction in doing this on my own, to no other purpose now other than to amuse, and potentially to no other audience than those of my friends who may find me here, I begin again this morning after what has proved to be a not particularly surprising, if singularly disappointing day at work at the bookstore.  To anyone who should happen on this, I ought to explain that while I have been writing regularly for a blog elsewhere, my intention now is to begin anew, just here.  The habit is established and I will not willingly alter it simply because I no longer have any particular purpose for continuing. 

And with that last sentence, I do believe I have finally and officially entered the community of regular habitues of the 21st Century internet, no?

So, for the present, my intention is to use this space to write about books, bookselling, book buying and collecting, and frankly, anything else that may happen to catch my fancy.  And as my fancy, such as it is, seems seldom to stray from this singular obsession, any readers I may potentially attract need not worry that I will go any further from that topic than my own limited education, experience and resources will carry me.

I will pledge to you, o' my as yet imaginary readers, this much at least: you will never hereafter herein find anything intended to offend, cause me to endanger my livelihood or the continued affection of my employers, coworkers or acquaintance, or in anyway upset the happy equilibrium of my marriage.  Such confessions as I may make will be of shortcomings all too obviously my own.  Such criticism as I may be inclined to record will be, if not always constructive, at least well intentioned.  And any controversies arising from anything written here, will be clearly of my own making, and will, in all likelihood, be resolved by prompt apology, a swift and sincere admission of a woeful ignorance of the facts, and an embarrassingly predictable refusal to go anywhere near the subject again.  Obviously, my opinions are my own.  I speak for no one else.  So let me just say, from jump-street, as it were, I am quite sure you are right and I am wrong.  I will try to amend my thinking accordingly, but do please be patient.  My misjudgments have been many, my errors frequent, my improprieties habitual, my tone, often as not, troublesome to delicate sensibilities, but I never meant, in most cases, the slightest harm.  

I am only what I am; a bookseller of 20 some odd years experience and a lifelong bibliophile. I make no claim to special knowledge or expertise of any kind.  And if that doesn't qualify me to "blog," well then, I don't know what would.

If after that last, anyone still intends to keep reading, I welcome your kind attendance and correction.  I can not promise you any excitement beyond what you might find in my actual company, but I would hope that will prove to be enough -- for now.  I may yet improve.  Else why are we here?