Monday, May 31, 2010

명. 고맙습니다 (Thank You)

My father's war was not a war, officially, but only a "conflict." He's never called it anything but what it was, on the rare occasions that he's ever said a word about it. Like most men of his generation, perhaps like most men who have been to war, my father saw nothing in war that he wished to remember, certainly nothing he cared much to share.

The few stories I've heard -- of the troop carrier where every man was sick for days and weeks, of frozen K-rations at Thanksgiving, of a prank that left him trapped in his bunk in a snowbank, where he nearly died of the cold, of the deadly efficiency of the Turks his unit followed into a captured position, of finding a brass incense burner in the wall of a foxhole, -- none of these brief anecdotes told me much of what he actually saw in Korea, of what it must have been like there, for a green boy, never before away from his hometown in Pennsylvania.

When I asked him once, directly, what the war meant to him, he said "it meant nothing," and left it at that.

He's never spoken of what it was like to kill another human being, though I know he did. I know that the thought of it, and of all the death he saw in the war, the one time in my company that he could not keep the memory of all that from his mind, undid him, a sight I'd never seen before and have never seen since.

He told my mother, when he came back home to marry her, only that he was glad to be home, and with her.

Some years ago, at one of the perpetual yard sales with which my father has supplemented his meager retirement pension, he came down off the porch to help a couple of customers looking through the stuff he'd arranged on tables in front of the garage. He watched them for awhile first, not wanting to make them feel shy of just looking, until he happened to hear these two young men, "college boys," my father guessed, speaking a language he hadn't heard in years, a language he hadn't thought to ever hear again.

When he said hello to them, in Korean, they were understandably startled. When they returned his greeting and tentatively tried his memory with a little more, he smiled, and told them that that was about all he could actually say now in their language, though he "remembered the sound of it." The three of them stood there in my father's yard and smiled at one another.

They asked him, in English, if he had been in Korea? He told them, he had. They asked him, had he been in the war? He told them, yes, he'd been in the war. They asked him, much to his surprise and embarrassment, if they might take a photograph, with him? He said, he couldn't imagine why they would want "a picture with an old man," but they were gently insistent, and so he let them have their picture. He wouldn't let them buy anything, though they tried, and they wouldn't let him give them anything from the tables. The stalemate made them all smile again, even laugh a little. Finally, they turned to leave, and as they did, they bowed, stiffly and very low, and my father remembered another word or two of Korean:

"명. 고맙습니다 ," -- "Thank you," they'd said. They said it again and again, until my father waved them away, and went back up onto the porch and watched them get in their car and drive away.

"That meant something," he told me, "that right there."

War is Kind

Daily Dose

From The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane


"Scars faded as flowers."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Grape-Filter

Daily Dose

From The Humour of Homer and Other Essays, by Samuel Butler


"I met a lady in Switzerland who had some parrots that always traveled with her and were the idols of her life. These parrots would not let anyone read aloud in their presence, unless they heard their own names introduced from time to time. If these were freely interpolated into the text they would remain as still as stones, for they thought the reading was about themselves."

From Ramblings in Cheapside

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Two Writers

Daily Dose

From Midnight Oil, by V. S. Pritchett


"He was the only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse."

From Chapter 5

Friday, May 28, 2010

Clippings Saved, for now, from Burning

When we moved into our present house, I was finally able to have all my books out of boxes. It is a big house, certainly the biggest in which I had ever come to live, and I had a room, for the first time, large enough for a library. I had fine new pine shelves, purchased from a used bookstore going regrettably but conveniently out of business at just the right time, and having painted and put these up, I made a space worthy of the word. It was an exhilarating moment. To see not just my familiars finally shelved in order for the first time, but to find forgotten friends, to reunite scattered volumes, to rank my sets in line... it was an exhilarating week. My library, such as it was or will ever be, had at last found a home. There were, however, more books than I remembered packing. Some, frankly, were completely new to me. When had I purchased this? Where had I come across that? Why on earth had I felt the need of her and when exactly had I planned to read him? And just who the hell was this? So for all the pleasure of those days I spent unpacking and arranging my books, there was some considerable confusion, even consternation as well. I found myself sorting, in ever bigger piles, books I could not imagine my reasons for having bought, books I had no memory of ever owning, and books I had no intention of keeping. These kept stacking up and up in one corner of the room until I might address them later. When I finally did, most went back directly into the boxes from which they'd only just been taken, some for what seemed to be the first time, as if they'd been an unwanted gift from the faeries. Most of these have long since been sold off or thrown out.

The next problem pile to be addressed was less complicated, but more embarrassing. Even someone as forgetful -- and greedy --as I am could not help but be taken aback by the inordinate number of duplicate titles. Worse was realizing just how many of these had gone unread in any and all of the editions in which I'd bought them over the years. I always, or almost always, buy books with the intention, however fleeting, of reading my way right through-- at least I used to. These books went the way of the unwanted as well.

Finally, what was perhaps most shocking when I came to sort and organize my library, was a whole bonfire's worth of receipts, bookmarks, notes and ephemera, pulled from nearly all my books; read and unread, wanted and not. I never meant to clutter so many pages with so much trash. I certainly didn't intend to sell books crammed with snapshots and magazine-subscription-cards, torn sheets of newsprint and the like. And I knew enough, as a used books dealer, not to let all this inferior paper sit and brown the pages of my books. I should hope by now I know better than that.

What is usually called "ephemera" in the trade,comes to us just this way; forgotten between the pages of a book. Most of these bits and pieces are there as bookmarks, not the kind provided as promotion from the seller, but taken up from a desk or a nightstand as convenient to the moment, used to save one's place, and then forgotten when the book is put down or done with altogether. Reviewing my own books, it seems I was as guilty of doing this as the next person, even though, if anyone, I ought to know better. You see, most of the scraps we put in books to hold our place are printed on paper inferior to that from which the book was made; acids and inks and all manner of unpleasant chemicals that do no harm in our daily encounters with them, if left between the pages of a good book, may discolor and even destroy the book in which they have been abandoned. Likewise all the little Post-It notes, rubber-bands, paperclips and other detritus readers tend to forget having added to the text. As a bookseller, All this trash gets tossed, unless it is old enough, and interesting enough of itself to be sold as a curiosity. Old theater programs and tickets, stray illustrations detached from their books, even family photographs, can become "ephemera" to the dealer, once the stuff's been slipped into a Mylar bag and had a price-tag slapped on it. All well and good, but for the most part, what we leave in books is just so much stray paper. Cleaning up my books, I myself filled a large trash bag with the stuff, and other than a school-photo of a nephew here and there, and a single twenty dollar bill -- such luck! -- there was nothing in the stuff I shook loose from my books that was worth keeping.

There are things slipped into books intentionally by the owner, things meant to add to their value, at least for that first reader. These most often consist of newspaper clippings; a review of the book, or an original advertisement of the publication, but sometimes an obituary of the author. Nothing, as it turns out, that one could slip into a book is likelier to damage the pages than a newspaper; as the newspaper yellows and disintegrates, the pages of the book are infected and do likewise. As a bookseller of used books, I hate newspaper clippings.

And yet...

Above, please note not one, but two clippings discovered smack in the middle of my recently purchased copy of The Note Books of Samuel Butler. Both would seem to be from The London Times. The one on the left is indeed from some time after Butler's death, and while not an actual obituary, is clearly a valedictory published some time not long after the posthumous publication of Butler's greatest and most lasting book, his autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh. If I were to recommend nothing else written by Butler, I can heartily recommend this. No book other than Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians probably did more to undermine the smug assumptions of perfect Victorian piety and virtue than Butler's novel, and like Strachey's, Butler's book can still be read with delight as one of the greatest examples of invective in English literature. It was heartening reading this notice, by the otherwise unidentified, "C. H. H.," to see that even in what was probably pretty close to the novel's own day, it and it's author were already much appreciated as exceptionally worthy of memorialization. The article is charming. I'm keeping it -- though not in the book.

The second clipping is a review, by no less a Grand Old Man of Letters than Helene Hanff's own "Q" -- Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch -- of Butler's prose version of Homer's Odyssey, and of Butler's eccentric book theorizing the authorship of same, The Authoress of The Odyssey, in which Butler set out to prove that Homer was in fact, a woman. I haven't read either Butler's Homer, or his book on the lady who wrote it, but reading through Quiller-Couch's review, I think now that I might have to get me a reprint of the latter to go with a cheap used copy of the former and have a go.

So I'm keeping that clipping too.

I'll keep both in a nice, clean folder, in my filing cabinet, well away from the book, so as to avoid the clippings doing anymore mischief to the book.

So, yes, even I can appreciate something wonderful and old found slipped between the pages of an old book. This doesn't mean that I wasn't right to take them out, anymore than I was wrong to throw away all that junk I'd stuffed into books myself. Just means I've developed a more selective judgement when it comes to my personal pack-ratting, is all.

And a filing cabinet, for any like me who might want this kind of thing to hand hereafter, is an important feature in any private library. (One's heirs can burn the stuff just as easily... after.)

Daily Dose

From Silk Parachute, by John McPhee


"He walked around behind my jumping and Flapping teammates, and found me lying on the ground looking at the sky. He liked that. He checked me off. In the extended indolence on the grass, he recognized the essence of writer."

From Warming the Jump Seat

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Men & Monkeys

Daily Dose

From 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein


"And so we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence."

From Chapter XXXV, The Argument from Solemn Emotions

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Again, From The Notebooks of Samuel Butler

Daily Dose

From Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman


"In the end, my primary consideration was this: Don Quixote is not essentially a puzzle for academics, a repository of Renaissance usage, a historical monument, or a text for the classroom."

From Chapter Two, Translating Cervantes

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Reading from The Notebooks of Samuel Butler

Daily Dose

From The Notebooks of Samuel Butler


"Some writers think about the life of books as some savages think about the life of men -- that there are books which never die. They all die sooner or later; but that will not hinder an author from trying to give his book as long a life as he can get for it. The fact that it will have to die is no valid reason for letting it die sooner than be helped."

From Chapter VII, On the Making of Music, Pictures and Books

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Try at "Out-Lunging" a Forgetful Posterity

Just a note here, to explain my latest little project: namely, to read aloud bits from the essays and notebooks of Samuel Butler. The idea is to try reading some of Butler's prose aloud, much as I would poetry, and by recording these excerpts and posting them on as well as this blog -- the one it seems necessary in order to do the other -- to convey something of the pleasure to be had from doing so, even should no one else be listening.

The thing about reading Samuel Butler in this way is that it is easy, not so much to do, but to find things worth doing. As with other books by great essayists, the urge to quote, and at greater length than is serviceable in just a daily note, is irresistible. There are just so many good things! But one hesitates to read out to even the best friend even the briefest passage from an essay. The reason why one may wish to share this bit or that would often as not require more context than the time it would take in the doing. Conversation can afford but so much quotation, and requires an excuse for even the lightest allusion. Meanwhile, memory, at least mine, being what it is, is never to be relied upon to get such things quite right, so that even should I find the moment to quote Butler, I will probably get him wrong and that would defeat my purpose, which after all is to put something better into the discourse than I could invent. When, exactly, might I share Butler's little note on monkeys, for example? What conversation could I slip that into? Meanwhile, having read it, why wouldn't I want to bring it to the attention of someone who might find it as amusing as I did?

And if no one cares, I at least have set myself a task I enjoy, so there's that.

The practical problem of how to read these excerpts aloud is in me. The nature of Butler's Victorian sentences can be such that my clumsy tongue tends to stumble through four or five tries before I can make sense, even to just my own ears, no matter how many times I've read and reread a particular passage. But this is a good thing. Too often the rhythms of prose, good, stout prose, festively decorated with dependent clauses and tricky sibilants and the like, can wreck the confidence of even a more studied and professional reader than I can claim to be. Such writing, even though clear enough on the page, is without the easier accents and rests of a poem. I may know what the author is saying, but that's not the same thing as being able to say what he's written. There's a challenge here then that while I may not meet it to even my satisfaction, seems well worth doing.

Finally, there is Samuel Butler himself. In taking him up again, just to read, I was struck, particularly in The Notebooks, by the aphoristic power of much he had to say, whether I agreed or disagreed with his conclusions. This is an enviable quality in a writer whose work as a novelist and essayist I already respected and enjoyed. The chance of finding such a treasure trove of discreet thoughts, so aptly and wryly put, made the idea of reading some more prose aloud here irresistible.

So, why not have a go?

For what it's worth, this little exercise is also obviously undertaken with the hope, not altogether vain I hope, of inducing at least one or two readers otherwise unacquainted with Butler that they might do well to read him for themselves. Having had The Humour of Homer & Other Essays recently reprinted for me on the bookstore's EBM, I am much involved just now in reading Butler. And sharing just a few passages from his Notebooks, inspired a beloved coworker to get a copy of that reprinted from the same source. So, who knows? Maybe the moment is right to put a little Samuel Butler back into the discussion.

Daily Dose

From The Notebooks of Samuel Butler


"The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a great fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too."

From Chapter XIV, Higgledy-Piggledy

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Reading from Samuel Butler

Daily Dose

From Cowper, by Goldwin Smith (English Men of Letters series.)


"The translation of Homer into verse is the Polar Expedition of literature, always failing, yet still desperately renewed."

From Chapter VI, Short Poems and Translations

Saturday, May 22, 2010

From The Notebooks of Samuel Butler

Daily Dose

From Unconscious Memory, by Samuel Butler


"We must remember that there is no action, however original or peculiar, which is not in respect of far the greater number of its details founded upon memory."

From Chapter XII, Refutation -- Memory at once a promoter and a disturber of uniformity of action and structure.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Butler Bagged

Down the street to another used bookstore at lunch today for a quick gab and a look around. Seems the buying desk has been humming there as well of late. Now where I work, we have discreet shelves for the incoming books, a case for the recent arrivals, and carts that get wheeled off every couple of days to their respective areas of the sales floor. This is not the usual way with used books. Most places are considerably smaller than the one in which I work, and buying books more usually means making great, undifferentiated piles on a table or the floor, to be priced and sorted as best can be later, so that what's been bought first can look unlikely to ever rise out of the chaos, but it does, you must trust me, it does. The buyers know, or like to think we do, and it is remarkable, even in a tight corner, just how quickly and with what accuracy books get cleaned, priced and shelved in even the most seemingly random looking space. There are days though when I would defy even the most experienced and best organized dealers to tell me just what is on those heavily freighted tables. The sight of such seemingly random books piled so high, sorted if at all still only by the price paid or by the buy, draws the bibliophile like a fat man to a baker's truck:

What ya got in there, friend?

Being in the trade, I've learned to respect the apparently unsorted order of unpriced books. Few things one might do in a used books shop are as likely to cause bad feeling as failure to respect the integrity of a buyer's heap. Even just turning one stack ever so slightly, just to have a quick peek at what's behind it can mess with the delicate arrangement of things, or worse, cause the whole barely balanced mass to come shuddering down. We're not architects, we aren't likely to have calibrated the stresses carefully or considered the potential consequences of putting the ten pound dictionary on top of all those slippery paperbacks. It's busy. There are still boxes to be got through. Time is of the essence. These are not yet for sale. These are certainly not yet your books, people, and they may not yet even be ours.

Don't be mucking about.

The urge to at least circle such a stack though, that's just irresistible, isn't it?

Even as I'm chatting away with the harried owner, trying to eat her cold lunch at the cash register, my eyes are drawn to what I may not yet buy. Can't be helped. What's worse, having found not one, but two reasonably priced little volumes of Samuel Butler already out on the recent arrivals shelves, I am easily convinced that there must be others in the joint. Stands to reason, at least when already fevered by my find. One might ask, of course.

"Any more Samuel Butler, you think?"

The perfectly sensible answer, the expected and understandably bemused, even sympathetically gentle response is, well... no. What, after all, were the odds of finding The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, and for just eight bucks, yet? What then the likelihood, having found that book, that I should then spot Unconscious Memory -- less exciting but Butler still -- for only seven dollars, on another shelf entirely?! It is finding that second title in the same shop on the same day that actually produces the febrile delusion that all of Butler must be somewhere near to hand, like in that buyer's muddle on the back table. I'm sure of it. These two little books clearly came from the same owner. Stands to reason, he or she had others, doesn't it? And if my friend the shopkeeper bought these, she must have bought the rest. Just hasn't got to them yet. Must be there somewhere. Can't expect her to remember every book. Maybe, now we're done discussing the season and the general hectic madness of the day, maybe if I just drift back there, and just give it one more quick scrutinizing pass, now I know what I'm looking for specifically, no harm in that, is there? There are books on that table that had I to guess I'm sure came from the same source. Must be, down there, near the bottom. Were I, very carefully, with all due respect, you understand, to just tilt this one tower, just nudge it a bit that way...

But I am not going to be that annoyance. I'm not. Not today, anyway. I'm better than that.

Instead, I buy the two I've found and am grateful. I am however unreasonably discontented with the purchase, naturally, though it rather made my day all of ten minutes before. I walk back up the alley, already late coming back from my lunch, convinced, still, somewhere in those other books, on that table, there is something... more.

Despite the owner's smiling acknowledgement of the obvious when asked if she was quite sure these were the only two volumes of Samuel Butler she'd purchased recently, I remain obstinately unconvinced. What if someone sees them in the pile tomorrow and gets to them before me?

"Who else," she asks me, "do you think, is looking for Samuel Butler?"

(I just know She's got Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered in there somewhere, damn it.)

Daily Dose

From The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, edited by Henry Festing Jones


"In Art, never try to find out anything, or try to learn anything until not knowing it has come to be a nuisance to you for some time. Then you will remember it, but not otherwise."

From Agonising, from Chapter VII, On the Making of Music, Pictures and Books

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson: A Tercentenary Celebration, edited by Peter Martin


"It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader."

From Adventurer no. 137, February 26, 1754: The usefulness of an author

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Anthropomorphic Clerihew


I suspect that Garth Stein
Over-thinks the canine.
A dog's best bit of legerdemain
Is the trick of whizzing in the rain.

Daily Dose

From Concerning E. M. Forster, by Frank Kermode


"There seemed to be no limit to his desire for the company of gifted young men."

From E.M. Forster: A Causerie

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Caricature

Reading Wendy Moffat's exciting new biography of the great E. M. Forster, and it is revelatory. With access finally granted to the great novelist's private papers, including a diary of his whole sexual life, the centrality of Forster's queerness, both to his biography and his writing -- and to the long silence after A Passage to India -- is here made undeniably clear, and all the more moving for what we may only now know.

(How this book makes me wish we might have the papers out of Henry James' bonfire, an unexpurgated record of Whitman's cabbies, Byron's autobiography, etc., etc.)

Clearly, I'll have to read Maurice again!

Daily Dose

From The Pacific Northwest Reader, edited by Carl Lennertz


"He is very large, but he is wearing a teal T-shirt and a matching pair of teal shorts. He has sandals and tall white socks. A dangerous man would not make this footwear choice, I decide."

From Bigfoot Calls, by Matthew Simmons

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Sedimentary Clerihew


John McPhee
Just might be
The only one who can make me
Read a book on geology.

Daily Dose

(above, a caricature by Edward Landseer, of Sydney Smith.)
From The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, Vol. 2


"That we had a very pleasant evening I need scarcely say, but to Boswell Sydney Smith would out-Boswell Boswell."

From A Letter to Mrs. R, Butler, North Audley Street, Dec. 3, 1843

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Accessorized Clerihew


Dame Edith Sitwell
Found when her tits fell
She could always compensate
By simply wearing dinner-plates.

Daily Dose

From A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society, by Elizabeth Hardwick


"The notion of a large or small masterpiece lying about unnoticed -- a Vermeer in the hayloft -- has always stirred men's hearts."

From The Neglected Novels of Christina Stead

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Speculative (Unscientific) Clerihew


Say "science" instead of "speculative fiction,"
And suffer the speculator's malediction.
(But then, that could
Just be Atwood.)

Daily Dose

From My Queer War, by James Lord


"'What's your name?' he said. 'I don't like to do it if I can't call you by your name.'
'It's Jim,' I said.
'Mine's Alex,' he said, and he pushed me backward onto the bed.
It was so easy, it was too easy, and I did it."

From Chapter 7, September 1943 -- January 1944

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Shakespeare & Co., by Stanley Wells


"Only in the Victorian period did The Alchemist fall out of favour; a play opening with a fart would have been unlikely to appeal to the decorous audiences of that era."

From Chapter 5, Ben Jonson

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Brief Doodle Rant

Okay. As of today, it's official: if you wear these clown-shoes into a bookstore for any reason other than to pick up you latte, or to hit the john before you get right back on your bike, you are probably a bad person.

Why is it that every middle-aged character in age-inappropriate athletic gear and bicycle-tap-shoes seems to be perfectly comfortable scuffing tiptoe across the sales-floor, talking loudly into a "bluetooth" about either highly personal matters, or as one gent did today, the coming "economic and environmental Apocalypse," for what feels like hours at a time --

-- without so much as looking at a book?!

It's a lovely day for your bike-ride. Please get back to it.

Daily Dose

From My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack


"It's only a matter of time, of course, before our heroine ends up piloting the plane, a task for which her vision problems would seem to disqualify her, but if she didn't try, you'd never get to see her thrust her tongue eight inches beyond her head while trying to pull a relief pilot (dangling from a passing helicopter, mind you) through the cockpit's shattered window."

From Karen Black: Diva of the Deranged, by Michael Schiavi

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Bookstore Doodle

One of three doodles of customers today -- all tuned in, or at least plugged in.

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From We Have Always Lived in the Castle, By Shirley Jackson


"I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Book Between Friends

A friend who is dying asks me to her apartment to help her dispose of her remaining books. There aren't many, but then there never were. She's worked in a bookstore for years and most of the books she's read she's either borrowed from stock, or read in advance-readers-copies -- the publishers' galleys of forthcoming books, sent out to reviewers and the trade in advance of publication, usually in plain paper covers. (I only recently learned, when major publishers, facing new economic difficulties, stopped printing so many of these, that it is actually more expensive to produce an ARC, in most cases, than to simply send fully bound copies, but timing is obviously a factor as well. Despite their comparative rarity, and what used to be a select, but loyal group of collectors of these in the used books business, now better served and undone by the Internet, most ARC books have little or no value.) My friend is not a collector. Her apartment is small, comfortable, but sparsely furnished, in part as a matter of personal preference as she has little attachment to things and less money, but also as a practical necessity. A survivor of polio, she's quite a diminutive person, and until recently when her treatment for cancer made the use of them impracticable, she wore leg-braces and walked with crutches, nicknamed, "Bert & Ernie." At home, at least when she was alone, she would sometimes navigate her day without. For some time now, she's had to use a wheelchair, so her apartment has been simplified even further, to accommodate the wheelchair. She describes this process to me as "cancer shui." Of the books still in my friend's apartment, few have any sentimental or monetary value; these she has already either given away or otherwise dealt with. I am here to collect whatever is left.

It is an unlikely pile that fits easily in a box or two. Looking through them with her, even as she insists that "there's nothing really here," my friend does what people so often do with the books they intend to just be rid of, and explains or defends the presence of each before dismissing them.

"This was actually a pretty good book."

"This one was supposed to make me rich!!! See how well that worked out?"

And then she laughs, exactly as she used to before she got sick: barking loud until she coughs, then a smoky diminuendo that resolves itself in a sly grin behind the back of her rather elegant little hand.

Most of the books are of a practical kind: dealing with financial and or situational matters from health to interpersonal relationships. "Self Help," one way and another, might best describe these. She is dismissive of the lot, though individually, as we put them into the boxes, she will admit that this or that one, "had some good sense in it."

There are also one or two rather serious philosophical works, which rather surprises me as conversationally she was never one for either systems or theory. Even more surprisingly, there are also a few books on spirituality, in which I've never known her to express the slightest interest. It is a delicate thing, handling other people's books, particularly a friend's, and even in less difficult circumstances and when finality does not hang quite so heavy in the atmosphere, one learns not to question too closely just how and why someone might have books that seem so far out of keeping with what one knows of someone else's interests or character. Books are intimate objects. To see what someone else is reading, even to glance at a stranger's book on the bus, is to get a glimpse into the privacy of another person. This is why that glance is not always welcome, whatever the book. To see, to have been invited to see even just the few books my friend had left on her living-room floor, was a matter of trust. It is best to be careful, so I am. My friend says whatever she wants about the books as she hands them to me, and I listen and agree.

Everyone who reads is occasionally embarrassed by what they read, sometimes even as we read, and some people, myself very much included in this, would rather other people not see some of the things we've read, profitably or not. My friend, though still as proudly, even fiercely independent as her present circumstances will allow, and while never apologetic as that isn't her way, nevertheless clearly does not want me to think any less of her for owning the books we've put in these boxes.

"I've read a lot of junk," she says when we're done, "that's all most of this is. But everybody does."

I agree.

"The best books I ever read, I don't have anymore."

And then we talk for awhile about some of these.

When I leave, I take her books with me, to sell at the bookstore, some of them, and the rest I sell for her elsewhere. I don't remember now giving her the money from doing this. I might have given it to another friend to give to her. She might or might not have taken it from me, so I probably passed it along. It wasn't much, as she'd said it wouldn't be. Doesn't matter.

Before I leave, she tells me, "You probably don't want any of this shit, but if there's anything you want, or anything else you think anyone else would want, just keep it." She's right about this as well; there really isn't anything I want among the books I've collected from her, nor is there anything I think anyone else would particularly like, but again, that doesn't much matter in the end.

Later, when my friend dies, and before I speak at her memorial, a dear friend of hers gives me a framed pastel drawing that our friend did years before. I'd never seen it before, so far as I remember, but it's rather wonderful: a weirdly wild-eyed face, loosely depicted in swirling colors, and a very free self portrait, I like to think. When I look at it, I can hear her laughing.

Tonight, for some reason, I picked up one of the books she said she genuinely loved. I like it too, and own my own copy. I read a little of it, just before sitting down to write this. I was going to write about the book, rather than my friend. Now I think I won't.

That's just between us.

Daily Dose

From Letters of Dr. John Brown, edited by his son and D.W. Forrest, D.D.


"I am reading Endymion, and indulging, perhaps, too much in what Wordsworth calls the 'luxury of disrespect.' Such a rigmarole of tawdry, clever, vulgar, stupid, startling stuff I have not seen since Lothair. What do you think of him saying, in describing the face of a beautiful woman, 'Her nose was a gem'? Or how would you or I like to have a pair of 'alabaster arms' thrown round our necks? Commend me to good warm flesh and blood."

From Letter CCCXXVI, to Miss Molyneux, 11th April 1882

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Spare Hours, Second Series, by John Brown, M. D.


"I confess I think falling in love the best way to begin; but then the moment you fall, you should get up and look about you, and see how the land lies, and whether it is as good as it looks."

From Medical Odds and Ends

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Blackstick Papers, by Anne Thackeray Ritchie


"Caves and Stonehenges may be the next fashion, for all I know."

From Egeria in Brighton

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Clerihew of a Married Man


Miss Charlotte Brontë's married lover
Was eventually uncovered,
Though the discreet Mrs. Gaskell
Never really named the rascal.

Daily Dose

From Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations, by Mrs. Oliphant, etc.


"Well! was not this that which she had longed for, the natural end of life toward which her Shirley, her Caroline, her Lucy had angrily stretched forth their hands, indignant to be kept waiting, clamouring for instant entrance? And so it was, but how different!"

From The Sisters Bronte, by Margaret Oliphant

Friday, May 7, 2010

Clerihew of Bitter Witness


To be blunt,
Trust Leigh Hunt.
While his "Byron" was unfair,
Remember always, he was there.

Daily Dose

From Table-Talk, by Leigh Hunt


"There have, undoubtedly, been bad great men; but inasmuch as they were bad, they were not great. Their greatness was not entire. There was a great piece of it omitted. They had heads, legs, and arms, but they wanted hearts; and thus were not whole men."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not Seeing the Forest for the Wasted Trees

We get books across the Buying Desk almost every day that, had I no one to answer to but my imaginary trust-fund-trustees, I might buy -- just 'cause. Beautiful, delicate old things, some of 'em, not necessarily of particular artistic or historic value, but odd old volumes of memoirs, full of charming illustrations, or some justly forgotten novel, beautifully bound, but unreadable, or pulp paperbacks, interesting if at all now only for their cover-art; objects pleasant to have about the place even if seldom or never opened or read again. I've certainly seen books just like this in almost every used books shop, and I've worked in used bookstores where these useless antiques were segregated to shelves, usually near the back of the shop, under a sign reading "old but interesting," or "worth another look." Booksellers are notoriously reluctant to let such books go, hoping that just the right interior designer will want to buy those 12 volumes out of twenty of some early 20th Century encyclopedia in full leather, to smarten up some illiterate's condo, or that some collector of children's literature will happen by and be thrilled to find a stray volume of Clarence Budington Kelland's "Mark Tidd" in a pile of old books. This does not happen much, certainly not often enough to justify the waste of shelf-space, certainly not in a bookstore like the one in which I work where stock must justify itself within a defined period of time or be disposed of in a clearance sale or a donation to charity. Professionally -- if that isn't too grand a word for what I do -- I don't hold with cluttering up the floor with such dead wood, but that doesn't mean that I'm never tempted, personally.

Some winsome little volume of gentlemen's sartorial advice, bound in pretty polka-dots, and dating from two turns of century ago, may be full of delightful quaintness, but it won't sell. However mildly amusing the helpful hints on how best to maintain one's gloves on a bachelor's budget, or how to select a dressing gown, however handsome the pen & ink illustrations of fancy men in celluloid collars, however often the word "gay" may innocently occur and be now less innocently read, and no matter how little the seller paid for such a book and how little is asked for it, ultimately, as an investment, such a book is worth less than a mortgage backed security from Goldman Sachs.

Likewise, a weighty volume of Dutch Reform theology, printed in aid of family devotions and intended to rest, unread, next to the family Bible, even if bound in ribbed and tooled leather, all gilded edges and heavy cream pages, with decorative endpapers and shadowed onionskin over the stern photographic portraits of its stern contributing ministers, could not, as book to be sold, be any more worthless if it came with a gilded box of matches attached to the sewn ribbon.

These two examples I take from my own bitter used books buying experience, by the way. Admitting that neither was ever by definition a very good idea, let alone a good book, I ought to have known better.

I like nice old things. Hell, I hope one day to be a nice old thing myself. (Indeed, should I live so long as to go at the hinges or split my binding here and there, when I am a volume short of a full set, I sincerely hope that the judgement made of my value will not be as ruthless as those I pass on old books I pass on every day.) But as I sometimes have to rather cruelly explain to perfectly nice people bringing me their late grandma's old books in carefully sealed plastic baggies, old is neither good nor bad in books -- and I suppose by extension, though I would certainly never want to suggest such a connection to our older friends coming to counter -- in people either. We don't much like the word in this country, presumably because, as a nation we aren't, and because we therefor have trouble judging what is and what is not worthy of reverence, but often as not, old is just old, and grandma, at least in her taste in books, may have been no better than she was, as a reader or collector, I mean. In books at least, age may not wither, but custom can certainly stale, and while it is a mug's game trying to predict what, if anything, in contemporary books will have value a generation or two hence, I can say with some confidence, after handling what must by now be thousands, if not tens of thousands of books, old and new, that most books, most new books and most old books, are, for want of a better word, junk.

So it ever was and will be.

In all the present handwringing over the fate of "print culture" in what now passes for the fourth estate, there is one fact too little acknowledged by either the promotors of the latest technological gizmos and gimcracks or the defenders of corporate publishing; no one seems to be willing to admit that with books, as with most truly valuable things, it is not so much the "format" that needs defending -- as books have yet or are ever likely to be affordably bettered as the means by which we preserve and communicate our culture -- but rather that it is the indefensible worthlessness of much if not most of what is and has ever been printed in books that ought to embarrass us all.

Most books, eventually if not from their first conception, are bad books; a bad book in the sense I mean being one that need either never have been written, and if published, never reprinted, or books the utility of which lasted barely longer than the time it took to accept their return for pulping. This is not a moral pronouncement, or rather, if it is, it is a judgement on the morality of waste rather than taste. It is not vulgarity or inanity or even the obvious insanity of the author that makes a book bad by this standard. All the lumber lost in making computer manuals need not be mourned overmuch, as there was a time, and not so long ago, when such hideous blocks of all but unreadable print served a purpose. Even the most laughable and or unscientific advice on raising children, or begonias or goats for that matter, might once have deserved the dignity of print, if only that it might be challenged, corrected and bettered by the books that came after. Setting aside what I might think of this work of fiction or that, ancient or modern, in poetry or prose, if the author, against all odds, saw it into print, the satisfaction of that moment, however fleeting was something to which the author, and the author's mother I suppose, if no one else, were entirely entitled.

So then just what are the bad books I mean? What then defines junk? I can only contribute my own unscientific observation of more than twenty years experience selling books, and by no means do I propose the following as a comprehensive catalogue of offenses against sense committed even in just my working lifetime in bookstores. (Some bad books, blessedly, one can forget before they've even been marked down and or returned.) As I've suggested already, I wish someone better qualified than myself might take up this problem and address it honestly. But since no one has, so far as I have seen or read to date, I think I might at least start the discussion, as best I can, by offering here a short list of what I've come to recognize as worthless books. Anyone may add to this, object to any part of it, or elaborate any reasons they may have for finding even the idea of such a list objectionable, as I would welcome any reasonable conversation about this, at least if I'm offered lunch first. But I do think this is something worth bringing into the discussion of why traditional publishing is in crisis, or any serious discussion of the future of books, publishing and bookstores, and so I think I'll just have a go.

Here then, my (partial) list of bad books:

Anything for which the publisher paid to a "celebrity" in an advance more than that "celebrity" has either earned by honest labor or contributed in either taxes or charity to the common good.

Any book that reproduces on paper what wasn't worth the time wasted giggling at it on Internet.

The proceedings of any conference for which the intended and honestly anticipated audience was present to hear it at the time.

The "novelization" of anything.

Cookbooks, travel guides, and or local history of any area or region that exists only in so far as it provides an excuse to market books to disparate, if not entirely unrelated people and places, as all part of an otherwise meaningless, but potentially flattering niche brand. (Just here, I'm following the popular mantra of the day and "thinking locally." Just how is Wyoming anything to do with Seattle, or Portland anything to do with Bellevue, Washington, let alone Idaho, other than all being part of some ill-defined geography called "The Northwest?")

Any and every children's picture book ever illustrated by the author's own school-aged child -- or anybody else's, for that matter.

The sequels to and or knock-offs of any fad already passed before these can be rushed into print.

Any American academic defense of or argument against an intellectual novelty already abandoned in its European country of origin.

Journalistic, poetic or photographic memorials of any disaster in a book, the full proceeds of the publication of which do not go to relieve the suffering of those affected.

The collected wit and wisdom of any serving or recently retired member of Congress, unindicted or otherwise.

Any anthology organized only by the common experience of its contributors of any non-life-threatening or even disabling discomfort.

All celebratory volumes intended only to congratulate the reader for having reached either a certain unremarkable age or for having earned a diploma in anything.

Every book that earnestly or otherwise describes at length the irrelevance of books.

The hardcover catalogue of any exhibition that primarily features empty rooms.

Any book designed to be opened in more than three ways.

Titles published exclusively to promote popular consumer goods and or to offer previously unsuspected uses, or recipes for same.

The spiritual, financial, or political advice of any felon, serving, paroled or released, or the wife, best friend or mistress of same, that does not benefit financially the survivors of the crime entirely or at least to the exclusion of the criminal, his relations, friends, etc.

The memoirs or biography of anyone under the age of twenty one still living and not known to have "led a revolution" in anything other than fashion, pop culture or a dangerous new way to ride a fast moving object.

Any book devoted exclusively to mocking unfashionable haircuts.

Novels not by Jane Austen, featuring characters taken from the novels of Jane Austen, and marketed to an audience that has no intention of ever reading Jane Austen

Biblical or Qur'anic exegesis meant to refute any physical law.

Any "special edition" of a book already in print, made "special" by enlarging either the number of photographic illustrations or the format of the book or both, and or by restoring what the original editor, rather than the publisher, convinced the author to leave out.

Anything dependent on a caption to make it amusing.

Abridgements of any book read successfully by children of a previous generation.

Any book shaped like the object it commemorates.

Books whose titles must be read aloud to make the joke explicable.

All books about golf.

I know that is is far from a complete list, as I said, but it is a start. I should like to hear anyone responsible for publishing any two or more examples of the kind of book described above explain to me how the possibility of not publishing such stuff undermines the culture, or the future of publishing, when I should think it is in doing so they do just that. (It's hard to argue for the durability of "print culture" in a room full of wasted paper.) Were we in the book business, even at so increasingly irrelevant a level as independent bookstores, to reject even just the junk on this little list we might save if not our business, perhaps at least our souls.

Daily Dose

From On Balance, by Adam Phillips


"Our disillusionments must be keys to our tastes."

From Forsaken Favourites

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Spare Hour at the Bookstore

A young man, looking to find something unusual and out of print, as a gift for his father, was in the store today and was brought by the desk for suggestions. This was a good looking fellow, with a shining face full of smiles that met every question with an honest answer, but we had some difficulty at first, dear J. and I, defining just what it was he might find that would suit. His father, it seems, is a man of many interests and accomplishments, which tended to complicate rather than simplify our search. The elder man reads widely, so that under nearly every head we suggested the answer came back "yes": "yes," he reads fiction; literary, popular, old and new, and yes he reads biographies; of the famous, the infamous, the obscure, and "yes," he loves music, and sailing, and travel, and so on. The son had heard of our Espresso Book Machine on the recent radio broadcast and intrigued by the possibility of some two million titles made available again by means of that remarkable device, he was determined to find something, anything, that his father was unlikely to already know. Dear J. pursued the travelers, first to one continent and then another across the centuries, and launched a ship or two as well, while I tried first one tune after another, trying to hit on a a favorite composer, perhaps in an old memoir, or in correspondence.

Now I should just say, had our customer been someone other than the very nice young man that he is, I believe sincerely that neither my coworker nor I would have been any less eager to help. I'm quite sure of that. (Here I pass carefully, remembering the snare that caught Oscar when the prosecutor noted that if one "telegraph boy" with whom Wilde had been consorting was, in Oscar's careless phrase, indeed "too ugly to be kissed," that that suggested that the others were not.) I will not speak for my friend, but I do admit that the fellow's sweetness, neatness, good manners, and the aforementioned smile may have inspired something of my own enthusiasm, but like all true booksellers, we do like a challenge, irrespective of the source, and nothing is more likely to set us busily and happily about our work than the possibility of finding something unusual or not-looked-for in the way of old books. I make this point, particularly in preemptory defense of my good coworker, not for fear of being misunderstood so much, at least in my case, as of being thought, at a blush, to conform so entirely to type as to be easily dismissed as less than serious about our work, or indecorous on the sales-floor.

That said...

Anyway, nearly every suggestion made, once it had been refined by a search of both our memories and of the EBM's listings of available titles and editions, was met with a gratifying keenness, and not a few orders. My own happiest thought came fairly late in the interaction, when I finally had the sense to ask what the fellow's father did for a living and learned that the gentleman was a doctor. Here was serendipity!

My latest purchases from Homer, our EBM, happened to be a book of letters, and another of essays, by Dr. John Brown. There have been roughly as many John Browns in this world as there have been sons of Adam, or so at least it seemed when I tried to find books by the particular John Brown I was after. Besides the militant abolitionist, and the famous Captain John Brown of Virginia, there were no less than six John Browns just in direct line down to my Scots physician and essayist, though mine was once the most famous of the lot, as a friend to Thackeray and others, and as the author of Rab and his Friends, one of the most wonderful dog stories ever written. My Doctor John Brown was the son of much respected preacher, himself something of a writer, and the son of my John Brown, was himself likewise a John Brown, and the editor of his father's letters. (You see the possibilities for confusion? I've just noticed, in fact, that the Wikipedia entry for the essayist has a portrait of the wrong Doctor John Brown to illustrate it!)

The Doctor John Brown with whom I was already acquainted and of whom I wished to read more, was an exemplary person; a beloved practitioner who spent much of his professional life treating his friends without fee, and as he seldom treated any soul in Edinburgh as less than a friend, he never made much of a living. (In one story related by his son in an introduction to some of the letters, he tells the touching and amusing story of Dr. Brown coming to an understanding with one old friend that should the good Doctor appear in the gentleman's drawing room with his hat in his hand, he came as a friend, but that if the hat was left in the hall, he appeared in a strictly professional capacity. The Doctor of course always thereafter came hat in hand until his patient, himself by then no less an elderly gentleman than the Doctor, was seen to struggle with his friend over this hat, as the sick man tried to carry it to the hall and the Doctor refused to let go of it.)

It's worth noting that John Brown was as good a son as he was a father, and that just as he wrote beautifully and affectionately of his father the minister, so the doctor's son wrote, in the collection of letters he edited and elsewhere, of his father. Hard then to find a bad John Brown, at least in this bunch.

That same goodness and kindness, tempered with an all too realistic appreciation of the limits of medical knowledge, and human and animal nature, pervades Brown's various writings. His most famous story, of the great "Rab,"is now too little read, I should think, not because there is a single sentiment in it that was not sincere and touching in it's sincerity, but because the story opens with the narrator, then just a boy, rushing with his friend to see dogs fighting in the street. That dogs should do such a thing, and boys watch them without censure, indeed with all the eager brutishness not just of the early Eighteenth Century, but with the brutishness of little boys, is something no doubt distasteful to the more delicate refinement of our day. (We will happily watch men fight still, but not dogs, never dogs, a distinction not much made in earlier days.) That Doctor Brown famously adopted one battered mutt after another from the streets of Edinburgh throughout his life, that he contributed to and publicly solicited for the creation of what was then considered a laughable idea, an animal shelter, in a "Plea for a Dog Home," and that he wrote regularly and wonderfully of all the dogs he knew in a long lifetime of companionable affection and care for the canine, counts for little nowadays. Dr. Brown's biographies of the dogs he knew and loved tell the end of each with as much affectionate bemusement as sadness; unlike the kind of dog stories we now find acceptable, Brown's dogs all die as most dogs do, one way and another, and not always in their beds before a blazing fire or in the owners arms, and of old age -- though some did and do.

Likewise, writing as a physician, and a deeply religious man, in a more uniformly religious and less medically proficient age, John Brown is wont to describe the end of life for his fellow men just as realistically, and with the same honest helplessness and regret, as he writes of life in general. This too does not seem to suit the times. His belief in the beneficence of God is not one I share, and like his general reticence to look beyond the walls of Edinburgh for any explanation of character, his dislike of vulgarity of any kind, and his acceptance of violence, social inequality, poverty and ignorance as both regrettable and endemic to nature, I do not doubt, that piety and all else, good and bad, including a tendency, for all his good humor, to a sometimes crippling melancholy, in other words, the very qualities that made him such an exemplary Victorian in so many ways, have all contributed to the fading away of his reputation and his readership in the more than one hundred years since he lived and wrote.

This is very sad, and genuinely regrettable, as nothing is so sure as what is best in what was, and to deny ourselves the company of good men, and good writers, because they did not think entirely as we do now, is to lose more in real pleasure and good company than we stand to gain in the way of perfect equanimity by having only our own assumptions entirely confirmed by what we read. It seems too obvious a thing to say, but perhaps it isn't, so I'll try to say it plainly by way of this example: I need not be a 19th Century Scot, a doctor, a dog-lover or a Presbyterian to love John Brown, and neither need you be anything like me to see that that's true. All a new reader of John Brown need know about him, I should think, is that he is good, in nearly every sense of the word of which I can think.

So today I added Rab and His Friends to the son's list of good books for his father, the doctor. Of all the books we suggested, and of all the books being printed for him on the EBM tomorrow morning, that is the one I hope the doctor will read first, and like best. I can think of few gifts better suited to the purpose, which, after all, is for the son to honor his father. John Brown is just the man.

Daily Dose

From Spare Hours, by John Brown, M. D.


"I had a friend, -- and though he is now elsewhere, why shouldn't I say I have him still?"

From In Clear Dream and Solemn Vision