Saturday, September 29, 2007

Second-Hand Books are Wild Books

Virginia Woolf on visiting a second-hand bookshop:

Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind's inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller's wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman's library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.

From Virginia Woolf, "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" in The Death of the Moth and other Essays (1942).

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Irresistible Temptation of Book Sale Season

Over the summer, I did some serious culling of my book collection.

I have always found it inordinately difficult to let go of books, any books. Generally, the best that I can manage is to relinquish the odd outdated health book or computer manual. I can easily justify hanging on even to multiple copies of the same novel. Of course, the content is the most important thing, not the physical object in which that content is embodied. But to my mind one edition is superior in one respect, and another in another, and I find myself in some way emotionally attached to a third, and on and on it goes. So there we were, my beau and I, living in a fairly big house, with anywhere from one to three large bookcases in every room, with an overflow of books stacked on every free bit of floor space threatening to squeeze us out.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, my need for order overtook my need to hold on to every last book in my possession. I'm not sure precisely how many books I gave up in the end. The initial decision was a wrench each time, but once I made it I acted quickly to rule out any possibility of backsliding. For a couple of weeks, I walked to my neighbourhood Goodwill store every day with a large bag of books to donate in each hand. I didn't attain my ultimate goal of reducing my collection to the number of books that would fit comfortably on our multitude of shelves, but I got close. We can move about freely in every room in the house once again.

You would think that with that experience fresh in my memory I'd steer clear of book sales for a while. But no. I think of Fall as book sale season in Toronto. Every year various colleges of the University of Toronto put on a series of used book sales that begin in September and stretch through November. The minute I feel the first chill in the air, I find myself thinking eagerly of those vast tables of books which never fail to yield up at least a few fabulous, unexpected finds.

Today, I gave in to the temptation and spent a glorious couple of hours at the Victoria College Book Sale. I think that I was a tad more selective than I would have been before the grand cull. But I still came home with a fine selection of books:

Van Wyck Brooks, From a Writer’s Notebook

Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes

Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore

Daniel Halpern (ed.), Who's Writing This? Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits

Roy MacSkimming, The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada's Writers (a marvellous book which I have wanted to own ever since reading a library copy a few years back)

David Magarshack, Gogol: A Life (I've been dipping into Gogol's Collected Stories recently, and this will be a nice supplement to that reading)

W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (containing an essay on the short story form which I plan to read immediately)

Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (a duplicate, I confess, but I promise that one of you lovely readers will soon be the beneficiary of my folly…)

Anais Nin, The Novel of the Future (a duplicate again, but a much nicer copy than the heavily underlined and water-damaged one that currently resides on my shelf)

Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (I should have bought this one new—sorry Terry!—but it completes my Teachout collection and I couldn't resist snatching it up)

The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume I 1915-1919 (another duplicate, but a lovely hardback edition with which I am very happy to replace my yellowing paperback copy)

Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth (a battered 2nd edition from 1942 which I'm quite sure contains essays that are not included in any of the Woolf essay collections that I already own)

Perhaps more books than you were expecting when I claimed increased selectivity, but I swear that in other years I've come home from that sale with three times that number of books…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Advice For Young Ladies

THE READING OF YOUNG LADIES (from the American Magazine of Useful Knowledge, December 1836, p. 91)

[A] still greater fault with man is, the reading of works which impart no important knowledge, nor tend to moral improvement; but serve only to gratify the imagination. Too much time is spent on novels, few of which are calculated to instruct or to improve. The writings of Scott and some others may be an exception. But generally, they are trash and chaff. More useful and solid works should engage the attention of the female mind. And of this description of books there is no want. Many have been written within a few years, by learned and religious persons, expressly designed for the improvement of females. Some histories cannot fail to be useful. The study of botany, chemistry, astronomy and biography will be sure to enlarge and elevate the mind. Essays on moral and religious subjects, and on the personal, social and relative duties, will also leave good impressions, and furnish motives for uniform propriety of conduct.

Read the rest here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Compelled to Read the Novels of Sir Walter Scott

I did a bit of googling today to see if I could find a quick answer to the question of how exactly Sir Walter Scott's "Waverly novels" are connected to one another. Inspired by Dorothy W.'s recent foray into Scott, I’m poised to dive into The Heart of Midlothian and I thought a bit of context was in order. Alas, I wasn't able to find an answer that easily. But I did stumble upon a gem of a letter written to the editor of the Connecticut Mirror in 1824. The particular Scott novel to which the writer of the letter refers is none other than The Heart of Midlothian. It's a long letter, but I can't resist reproducing it in its entirety:

THE WAVERLY NOVELS (from the Connecticut Mirror, August 23, 1824, p. 3, col 2)

The Waverly Novels.--A subscriber in the country has given us the following account of the effect of the Waverly Novels in his family.--

To the Editor of the Mirror--

I have been compelled, almost in self-defence, to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. They cost me some "days in harvest," and I may find the balance against me in the spring; but it is not the mere loss of my own time that I regret. I brought the novels into the house, and something was directly at loose ends. There was neither breakfast, dinner, nor supper. The butter did not come--the soap did not come--the wheel stood still--the fire went out--there was neither sewing, spinning, nor knitting--the cows want milked--the cattle want foddered--the hogs want fed. It was catching weather and I had ten tons of hay down. Some of my hands had gone off--more were wanted--one cart had broke down, and it began to rain. The news was told to me in as quick succession as it was to Job. My wife insisted I must go, but I told her I would wait to see how Jenny Deans came out with the Duke of Argyle, if there wasn't a lock of sweet hay made in the country this season. But I soon found there was no stopping-place in the book--so I put it down, but was not fairly out of the room before my wife had taken it up and turned back to a place marked with a thread. I contrived to read it through, and on Saturday night, about sun-down, I found my wife a little way advanced in the second volume.--She is usually a strict observer of Saturday night, but she read till after candle-light.--The girls got the tea and cleared it off. My wife put by the book, but after musing sometime, asked me when it was on Saturday night that holy time commenced. "Sundown," said I. "It seems to me," said she, "that I have heard some people say it did not begin till midnight." "The evening and the morning," said I, "was the first day." "Ay, but which evening." "Why," said I, "[i]f it was the first day, it must have been the first evening." "That's true," said she, "I wonder there ever could have been a question about it."

By this time one of the girls was peeking into the book. "Shut it up and sit down, it's Saturday night."

Holy time, however it might begin, ended the next day pretty punctually at sunset, when the reading again commenced, and continued till I know not what time in the night, for I had been abed and asleep.

The next day our worthy Parson paid us a visit, and surprised my wife with the novel in her hand. She hastily laid it down, but not till she was caught by the Parson's question "what book it was," which she was obliged to answer not quite so glib as I have sometimes known her[.] The Parson took so fair an occasion to warn against the corrupting influence of novel reading. It consumed time, destroyed seriousness, gave false notions of things, and endangered morals.

I was about trying to help my helpmeet out of the scrape, when she did it much better herself, by telling the Parson that there was no magic in names, and there was a great difference in novels, as he might [b]e convinced if he would read the book, the first volume of which she offered him. He sent it home, however, the next day, with a civil request for the loan of the second.

I directly perceived that the perusal of the book must go through my family as strait as the small pox, so I determined they should all have a fair chance:--my laborers, and my folks in the kitchen, not forgetting the dogs. I then placed my three boys in a row, and made them read by turns, as they do at school, determined that the audience should have enough of it, and sit patiently 'till they were cured of novel reading. The youngest boy answered my purpose admirably. He made such work of the Scotch, and the poetry, and the pauses and the sense, that if the Author himself had been by, I would not have desired to put him in greater pain. And the eldest did pretty well for some time, till he caught the run of the story, when I found myself taken in by my own contrivance.--He varied his tones, noticed the pauses, and came very near the style of an actor. It was with me a moment of weakness, and my unlucky wife suggested the propriety of sending him to college. To make short of a long story, my family have turned heroes and heroines, and speak Scotch quite broad. The youthful reader is to go to College and be made a master of--Ravenswood--with a small chance for a little learning, and a pretty sure inheritance of poverty.

The letter may not be genuine. It has been speculated that it was penned by the then-editor of the paper in which it appeared. But I have no doubt that the phenomenon it describes--an all-consuming enthusiasm for the novels of Sir Walter Scott--was a genuine one. It reminds me of nothing so much as accounts that I read this summer of whole families collectively reading the final instalment in the Harry Potter series aloud.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Resumption of Short Story Discussions

A new season of short story discussions begins today at A Curious Singularity. This month's story is "A Conversation With My Father" by Grace Paley. Click here to check out what participants in the discussion have so far had to say about the story and to put in your two cents. If you would like to become a member of the A Curious Singularity blog so that you can post your thoughts on the story there, please send me an email and I will arrange to have you join. Otherwise, feel free to participate in the discussion via the comments sections of the posts. I'm plotting my own post on the story and looking forward to diving into the fray.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Litlove's Language Meme

I've been mulling over Litlove's meme about the joy of language. In the days that have elapsed since she posted it, I have caught myself more than once repeating favourite words aloud to myself as I meander about my neighbourhood of an evening. I don't think I've frightened any of my neighbours but I've certainly confirmed my eccentricity in their eyes. (Incidentally, I rather like the words mull, meander, and eccentricity.) Here are my responses to Litlove's questions:

List some of your favourite words:

dreich, gloaming, marmalade, muse, quiescent, rivulet, smirr, whisper

What's your favourite maxim or proverb?

"What's for you will no' go by you."

What's your favourite quotation?

"When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully." (Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners).

What's your favourite first line of a novel?

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

Give an example of a piece of description that's really pleased you in your reading lately:

"Everyone's saying this weather can't last. 'We'll pay for it!' we agree, in our gleeful Calvinism. Fancy—day after day of summer sunshine, in April. The house grows dusty and neglected because we spend so much time outdoors. It's unseasonal, but all weather is unseasonal nowadays. The plum blossom is coming and next door's old pear tree is a perfect triangle of greenish-white froth. They do this like a conjuring trick, the old trees. They're brittle and cronish all winter, then blossom issues out of them and fills the tree slowly, like a dancehall filling on a Saturday night.” (Kathleen Jamie, Findings)

Which five writers do you particularly admire for their use of language?

John Banville, Jackie Kay, James Salter, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, and many more...

And are there writers whose style you really dislike?

I can't think offhand of particular writers to name in response to this question, but I can say that I don't enjoy writing that strikes me as flowery and excessively descriptive. (Yes, I do see the irony in my use of the word flowery here just after citing a descriptive passage about blossoming as one that has really pleased me recently!)

What's the key to really fine writing, in your opinion?

I'm reluctant to identify a single key. After all, a central element of one bit of fine writing may be wholly absent from another bit of fine writing. But perhaps I can provide a response to the question without smoothing over what seems to me the glorious diversity of fine writing by focusing on voice. A unique voice to which the writer has fully committed is often what rivets my attention. I hasten to add that I'm not referring here to the writer's voice (I'm not big on the old saw about writers needing to "find their own voice"), but to the particular voice he or she employs in an individual bit of work.

Go forth and meme if these questions capture your fancy as they did mine!