The other day, Willow was describing a second-hand copy of Charles Simic poems that she had recently purchased from Amazon. Rather than being in the "very good condition" that it had advertised itself, the book was marred by the intrusive scribblings of a previous owner. I would have guessed that Willow is a courtly lover of books, but her poem on the subject confirmed the fact. (I will also venture that Willow dislikes purple prose, but I know that she disdains a purple pen!)
Coincidentally, I had just been rereading an essay called Never Do That To A Book from the brilliant collection titled Ex Libris. In that essay, author Anne Fadiman classifies two different kinds of book lovers: those who maintain a courtly and respectful distance in relation to their books, and those whose approach is far more earthy and intimate, perhaps even abusive.
Fadiman describes a courtly lover as one who believes that "a book's physical self (is) sacrosanct." A courtly lover practices "Platonic adoration" and treads as lightly as possible on the pages of the love object. Such readers do not care to leave mementoes of their presence, and they certainly wouldn't presume to rudely argue in the margins. Courtly lovers use special bookmarks, which they have probably taken great care to match to the book in some way. Courtly lovers do not eat whilst turning the pages of their book; nor would they dream of taking a book into the bath. Certainly you wouldn't catch a courtly lover stuffing a book into her handbag or letting it fall onto the floor of her car. (Not that I would know anything about that.)
Fadiman places her own family firmly in the carnal realm. "To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy." Happily, she married another writer and reader with carnal tendencies. (In one of my favorite essays in the book, Fadiman describes "marrying" their libraries.)
I don't know about you, but I tend to fall somewhere between the two book loving modes.
I've never been one for marking up books, much less writing "NO!" or "Idiotic" in the margins -- like one of my best friends does. In every other regard, though, my habits tend to be more carnal.
Although I have cured myself of splaying books, or dog-earing their pages, I'm not especially fastidious when it comes to marking my place. I possess many beautiful bookmarks, but more often than not, I will use whatever comes to hand -- a used envelope; a postcard; one of those ubiquitous order forms which constantly fall out of magazines; a square of toilet paper. (I am fond of reading in the bathroom, whether or not I have business there. I discovered, long ago, that it is the room in which one is least likely to be disturbed. Also, our current bathroom has excellent natural light and a good view of the garden.)
I would much rather have a book than be without one -- which means that books are my companions during most activities, and sometimes they cannot help but get a bit roughed up. I especially love to eat and read at the same time, and no doubt most of my books bear the smudges of not-too-clean fingers. I will also take a book into the bath, although I do use some discrimination -- and keep a towel at hand's reach.
Although I agree with Willow about not wanting someone else's dubious or objectionable witterings on the pages, I do like certain traces of former owners. I especially love bookplates, and I was very tempted to buy a ridiculously expensive copy of Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope when I was at Jarndyce Booksellers last week. Although I wanted the book, what really attracted me was the bookplate -- which had belonged to a certain Sir with a wonderfully ornate name. I really want some bookplates of my own, although I'm about as likely to adorn my thousands of books as I am to organize my photo albums. (I got behind on that project in 1999, and haven't caught up yet.)
Some kinds of intimacy are better than others: I don't want to find anyone else's crumbs between the pages of my book, but I would love to find a letter -- or even a shopping list. This summer, I bought a used book primarily because I was dying to have a look at the letter housed within. (It turned out that the book had been a gift and that the letter wasn't particularly interesting, but it certainly didn't deserve to be callously passed on to the second-hand book stall.)
In general, I would guess that the courtly lover is less likely to be a book-loaner -- mostly out of concern for possible wear and tear. On the other hand, a carnal type might be more inclined towards jealous possessiveness. I don't mind lending books -- not much, anyway -- but I've never figured out a good system for getting them back. (My memory is, unfortunately, a very imperfect system.) This is exactly why I need bookplates, although my lust for them is more aesthetic than proprietary.
By the way, the book pictured above (with a Dorothy Parker bookmark) is A Girl of Mettle by Frances West. I have a first-edition published in 1908, and my copy of it -- unlike Willow's Charles Simic -- is in "very good condition." Although that makes me happy as the book owner, it makes me rather sad as a book lover. It makes me think that it hasn't been read over and over, and handed down from daughter to mother. It makes me think that it hasn't been loved well enough.
On Monday, my youngest daughter had to pay a visit to a dentist on Wimpole Street. These days, the street is lined rather prosaically with the discreet brass plaques of dentists . . . but at various points in time (real and fictional), characters as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Barrett, Professor Henry Higgins and Paul McCartney resided there. It is one of those London places with a special frisson, at least for me. All of those layers of history just go straight to my imagination.
Since Wimpole Street is conveniently close to one of my favorite bookstores -- the splendid Daunt Books -- I thought that a bit of book-browsing (buying, too, of course) would happily fill a spare hour or two.
I hadn't ventured far into the store before I was distracted by a display of beautifully bound Virago Modern Classics. One of the first novels to catch my eye was 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. Not long ago, my daughter and I had watched this film -- with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles. When I randomly opened the book, it fell upon a letter that I remembered well from the film: Helene is speaking of her desire to visit London: "to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the tower . . .". She speaks of her longing "to look for the England of English literature."
Of course I had to buy this lovely book -- which describes, so entertainingly, the transatlantic friendship forged by and through books. If that wasn't a sign, then Wimpole street was!
Daunt Books is spread out over three floors, and in some ways it feels more like a library than a bookstore. There are three major sections: literary fiction, travel books and second-hand books. We were there for more than an hour, and the man with the black braces and the bald head never stirred from his seat. Perhaps it is all of that polished wood, or the parquet floors, but it has a particular hushed quality that encourages a person not just to browse -- but to delve inside the tempting pages.
I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. (Jorge Luis Borges)
Absorbed in my own book searches, I didn't notice that my daughter had disappeared; well, except for the vague sense that no one was tugging at my elbow and saying "I'm bored!"
When she finally appeared, her eyes were shining and her hands held a treasure: a first-edition copy of Yvette in Italy and Titania's Palace, written by Nevile Wilkinson and published in 1922. As far as I can tell, by examining the bookplates, this edition was specially made for The Children's Union (Waifs and Strays). Apparently this was a stray copy, as there is still a perforated form in the back of the book for any child who wishes to become a Rose-Maiden of the Order of the Fairy Kiss. The pristine quality of the copy, not to mention the still attached form, convinces me that my daughter will be the first reader to really know this book. Unfortunately, I doubt that the Order of the Fairy Kiss is still organizationally intact.
So with our bag of books -- several new ones for me, and one special old one for my daughter -- we retreated to Paul for coffee and crepes.
Although we shared occasional discoveries, mostly we sat, and read, in companionable silence.
Despite having visited London many times, my daughter has never liked it much. Many people are energized by the frenzied activity, but she prefers less crowded places. Like most London visitors, we have tended to travel the busy streets: Oxford Street, thronged with shoppers, and Piccadilly Circus, choked with tourists. We have pursued loud and expensive entertainments; we have attempted Hamleys during the school holidays and risked Harrods during an annual sale. My daughter has been to museums and the theatre and ice skating at Somerset House, but funnily enough, she has never walked a quiet street as London goes about its everyday business.
Despite all of our efforts to chase it down, sometimes it seems that pleasure is more easily found in a simple moment; at least I have found that to be true. I've long known where my happiness is likely to be found, but how gratifying to discover that my daughter can find it in the same place!
Although I’ve been married to an English man more than sixteen years now, some aspects of the culture are still as clear as mud to me. A certain kind of humor (or “humour”), for example.
Last weekend we attended the second wedding of a dear friend, and my husband was asked to “speak” on behalf of the bride. It was a very intimate wedding – thirty people, give or take a few, and all of them family or very close friends. Both the bride and groom had difficult first marriages; there’s an example of English understatement for you. Let’s just say that the couple are bringing five children, two volatile ex-spouses, four weary parents and an awful lot of emotional baggage into this new relationship. Nearly everyone in attendance had been to either the bride's or the groom's first marriage.
It was our first “second” marriage, and the tone was less giddy expectation and more sober hopefulness – not to imply that the wedding was a teetotal affair. To the contrary, like marriage itself, it required no small measure of endurance. The bride’s first marriage had been in June, and it seemed like everyone was starting out with their adult lives; this one took place on a rather muted October day, which better suited our middle-aged selves.
We were, in many ways, a gathering of marriage veterans from the same company: all of us scarred to some extent, and most of us aware of the more bruising skirmishes of our fellows. So within this context, I begged my husband to keep his speech short, sweet and sincere. Although inappropriate humor is a typical element of these speeches, off-color jokes are such uncertain missiles. With so many raw nerves, I didn’t think it appropriate to risk hitting any.
Anyone who has seen Four Weddings and a Funeral will be aware of the apparently obligatory mortifications of the best man’s speech. It is more roast than toast, really. In the guise of celebrating the new bride and groom, the best man feels it is his duty to single-handedly lower the tone. The speech is not considered to be a success unless all of the members of the wedding party have been insulted and/or embarrassed in some way. I’ve never really understood this tradition, but perhaps it has something to do with the English fear of being earnest. Any possible flowering of emotion and sincerity really must be squashed.
Although the groom’s speech went a little close to the bone, and I doubt that the new husband of the matron-in-law was very happy about it, he was forgiven a certain amount of plain-speaking. Most people put it down to the fact that he is from Yorkshire. (Jokes about the difference between Northerners and Southerners? Also obligatory.) My husband was up next, and I’m happy to see that his words managed to be gently funny (and true) without actually being hurtful. But then came the best man’s speech . . . and oh my goodness. We talked about it all night, and I’m sure we will talk about it for years to come. I guess, from that point-of-view, it was a kind of success. It was also the most cringe-making speech that I’ve ever heard, with no taboo subject left uncovered. You know, rather vicious cracks about ex-wives really don’t go down that well when their teenage children are there to bear witness. The groom later told us that the best man had rejected a joke that went along these lines: The groom’s first wife (insert real name) was very temperamental. 50% temper and 50% mental. Truly, that would have been preferable to most of what he did include. No one laughed much; of course that was an embarrassment, too.
Not long ago, Dick was speculating about the nature of English humour over at his Patteran Pages. (I wonder if he could explain the best man's speech?) Dick listed several examples of jokes which really tickle him – and although I could kind of see that they were funny, none of them made me laugh. Not properly laugh, anyway. I was reminded, instead, of the occasion several years ago when we attended a Christmas Pantomime with my parents and my mother-in-law. The panto style of humor is rigorously formulaic: either sexual double-entendre or slapstick silliness. My English husband and his mother howled with laughter throughout the performance, while my parents and I were left stony-faced and slightly embarrassed.
Sometimes, there really is no translation.
Hopefully not lost in translation: I'm not really a shoe person, but I happily submitted to the "shoe quiz" administered by Dan, from The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes. Dan's blog highlights the best of creative Twitter -- but he made an exception for me, as I'm not a Twitterer, either. You can hear Dan read from his work at The Albion Beatnik Bookshop in Oxford at 6 pm on October 29.
The other day my teenage daughter told me that I had started "acting like an old person" ever since we moved to England.
What do you mean by that? said I, maternal indulgence blending with indignation.
When pressed to explain this statement, and its condemnatory tone, she started ticking off her evidence: gardens; old houses; making jam; Jane Austen.
However, more than once this week I've had cause to remember this conversation. For instance, I received a letter addressed to "The Anglophile American House Guide" when I was at Jane Austen's House today. Although I don't recall this particular encounter -- oh dear; isn't that a sign of the aging brain? -- apparently I had a lively conversation about literary tourism with a certain gentleman one day. He kindly sent me a variety of brochures, and he encouraged me to visit Shandy Hall, the former home of Laurence Sterne. (Do you suppose he is suggesting a tryst amidst the scenes of Tristram Shandy?) Old houses: tick.
Actually, I don't really think it's the interest in old houses that is aging me; it may be a symptom, but it's certainly not the cause. I suspect that has more to do with the teenage daughter.
For reasons too lengthy to go into here, but having something to do with adapting to the local culture, my oldest daughter is applying to go to boarding school next year. It is sort of like going to college two years early, both emotionally and practically, and requires all sorts of gauntlet-running -- including hours of exams and interviews. On Tuesday, while she was undergoing these mental tortures, I had many hours to explore the small town of Malvern.
By the end of the day, I do believe that I had the measure of the place. Not only had I visited all four bookstores (one independent; one chain; one second-hand; one charity donation shop), but I had also visited the local museum and several other sites of interest. I suppose that I could have gone shopping, or written letters, but I am a perpetual tourist in England. New place? Needs must explore.
For geological reasons that I won't pretend to have grasped, Malvern has two outstanding features: hills and pure water. During the Victorian era, when water cures were all the rage, the rich and famous flocked to the place to be wrapped in wet towels and doused with gallons of cold water. (Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin are two examples which come to mind.) There were some nay-sayers, of course, but there were many true believers, too. The Museum is full of testimonials and descriptions of the hydrotherapy -- which sounded rather like water torture to me.
In the centre of town, this goddess of water keeps an open-tap policy. Apparently, it is not merely decorative; indeed, I saw more than one person fill their water bottle from the source. Don't you think it is a charming twist on a drinking fountain? (My daughter thinks that taking pictures of non-human subjects is another sign of being an old person.)
My best find, though, was a place that no less an authority than The Guinness Book of World Records deemed the world's smallest commercial theatre. Amusingly, The Theatre of Small Convenience is located in a former Victorian Gentleman's Toilet. (I suppose that all of that water had to go somewhere.) This is the funny bit: the theatre seats 1.2 people. Yes, that's what the official Guinness Certificate says.
Showing now: Molly and the Man of Letters. After the brisk summer season, the theatre keeps limited hours. You can catch the show at 12:30 pm on Saturdays . . . so don't be late!
What do you think counts as a person's .2 allowance? A small dog? A large belly? A bulging book bag? I could only wonder.
As I wandered around the beautiful campus of Malvern College, and admired interesting bits of statuary, I did feel a bit old, actually. And I realized it had nothing to do with gardens, or the fact that I enjoy visiting eccentric little museums, or anything of that sort.
Instead, it seemed to be rooted in my deep relief that I was not the one taking all of those tests. All of that academic striving? All of that tiring business of trying to figure out who you are and what you are going to do in this world? I think that I'm too old for that.