There is something about books that needs be said. I’ve written one. In a manner of speaking. At least the one I’ve written is a compilation of stories that I wrote for the county newspaper. And so it has always surprised me when readers tell me how they respond to it. What it has meant to them. The most surprising was a review criticizing my “choice” to build beautiful gates while there was no electricity in the barn. It wasn’t a choice. I’ve received grant money to pay for creating paddocks to keep the sheep out of New York City’s water. My price for the wooden gates was the low bid of the contractors who wanted to install premade ones, and so I was given the money. Only I cared about electricity. The city didn’t. But I’ve taken, of late, to wondering what books have meant to me and why. If any had influenced my own story telling.
I was an early reader. The summer when I was seven and a half I had my first library card and borrowed The Secret Garden. I started reading it at 12:30 one afternoon. My mother plied me with Ritz crackers and butter. In our family all meals were eaten together at regularly spaced intervals. No exceptions what so ever. It was dusk when I finished that book. I went into the kitchen. Cool. Dark. There on the table was a tall glass of milk, sliced cucumbers and rye bread and butter. I’d never sat at that table alone before. I ate and went out onto the front porch. There were my parents in their great limb wood and rush seated chairs, my father with his cigar in his hand. My mother looked at me and said to my father “she was reeaading”.
I had some shelves built in my library the other day, just painted them and am putting books in them now. There has been a spill over from the few shelves in the living room, the bookcase in the winter bedroom and the shelves already in said library. Which, by the way, besides books consists of pillows piled (sometimes) by the two gable windows and a little stuffed chair slip covered in a Salamandre print fabric. No electricity by the chair. The only light is on a wall by the stairs. The little “room” is, in truth, a lavish double landing on the third floor of the house. Well lit in daytime possessed of great charm. In a rare moment of self indulgence I declared to the person who occasionally does some barn carpentry for me that I wanted something that day for myself. And some bookshelves were it. They are deep enough to accommodate two rows, the back of the row which is under a slanted ceiling suits paperbacks, the front row, and hard covers. The paperbacks were easy to sort by author, usually English mysteries with Simenon being the odd man out. I have forty Maigrets. The front row surprised me. I’d never thought about what I read. Until I saw the collection. Modest one, nonetheless, mine. While I do read a lot the constraints of being a farmer make a purchase here and there more of a luxury born of acute necessity. The need to break the isolation that permeates life on the farm. Books are therefore both a luxury and a necessity.
There is a biography of Sir Walter Raleigh with whom I have a special infinity because in the kitchen bookcase is a copy of his cousin Lady Fettiplace’s “Receipt Book” with a recipe of his Tobacco Liquor. And I think of him when I reread it. The biography of Abraham Lincoln as a writer is next to it. Lincoln was raised on the Bible and Shakespeare. I wasn’t. But many good writers were. When I, at the age of 46, was a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, I took a class in the Bible as Biblical Narrative. It was because I was interested in nineteenth century English literature, felt I wouldn’t read all of it, but could read what most of those authors had read. Weekly if not daily. The Bible. My conference work was to read the six Palister novels by Anthony Trollope. By the time I finished the course one more novel was added to my required reading, not of the series, but written in-between and The Irish R.M. And so all eight of those books grace the original shelves in the library as well as three of the books by Trollope’s mother, Fannie Trollope. One of which was, by the way, her opinion of America written during her four year visit here. Which brings me to Tocqueville, both a biography and his criticism and opinions of us, (much of which is still true). Democracies, The Founding Brothers by Ellis, Dear Friend, Abigail Adams and her letters to John Adams, On Themselves, the letters between Clementine and Winston Churchill. There is a biography of Isaiah Berlin of hedgehog and foxes fame as well as two of his philosophies. The Discovery of France. Coming of Age in the Milky Way is one of my favorite rereads. As is The History of Mathematics. I love the new physics which argues with one that two and two can never make four. Add it up. Six letters can’t equal with four letters. And the energy used to compound two two’s into four will either release enough heat to diminish each two, or add enough to increase four into four point something. My favorite storyteller is Angela Thirkell and her reconstruction of Trollope’s Barsetshire series. She did something brilliant and fun for herself in recreating and developing a world that was already there. The families, the towns, the countryside, the social structure. All she had to do was run with it. And she did. Even she had to confess that sooner or later she got the fifty or so people whose lives she wrote about muddled up a bit, did they have three or four boys, no matter, one will always climb the church steeple. Her use of language has been enviable and her education makes my heart ache with longing. It’s never too late, I’ll tell myself from time to time. And so appears a Latin primer. And I reread Virgil’s Georgics, wishing I could minimize some of C. Day Lewis’ beautiful translation. But most importantly, of all of the grand miscellany one comes to mind. A book I bought a long time ago, Singing Madly in the Mountain, about and in part by Arthur Waley, who brought us Chinese poetry and Genji which led me to Li Po and David Hinton’s Mountain Poetry. The writing I love the most and feel rings true in me is Chinese poetry. Not ancient Chinese poetry, but that of about eight or nine hundred years ago. It is flat. And the way I like to tell you about the life here is also flat. Pictures. Pictures that you will create in your own mind. Pictures in words.
Both the living room bookshelves and those in the “library” hold a mix of history, Medieval English and American, mostly about our revolution, biography and science. The Silk Road fascinates me and I love tying it together in books about the history of mathematics and autobiographies of people like Sven Hayed. Of course Marco Polo makes an appearance as well. The winter bedroom’s bookcase, on the other hand, is all about farming, animals, agriculture and the like, with only all of Laurie R. King’s Cherokee Holmes reincarnation adding balance. However, now that I am organizing my books according not just to category, but to what I read in which room, I find my choices somewhat confounding. Why, I am asking myself, have I chosen this relatively motley crew to take me, on occasion usually at two in the morning, away from the farm?
When I sold my first book I spent almost two thousand dollars of the advance on books. There, was an exuberant catalogue called the Common Reader from which I did most of my shopping. I still have most of them. They sadly went out of business. I think their enormous inventory did it rather than Amazon. Although I have some guilt about shopping there near the end of my budget. I still use the catalogue from which to look for books.
I reread all summer the books that took me to safer worlds. Even Maigret brought comfort in his forays into bistros and the imagined smell of French country food. Something has always stayed my hand from underlining books, an action which might help me remember more of the facts of history or sciences. It just seems wrong to me. Now I have those nice paper thin “book darts” to slip onto pages to help me find things I wish to recall. They help.
I wish I wrote like Angela Thirkell. But were I to say what I love most are the Mountain poems of the Chinese poets. The only poetry that makes sense to me.
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