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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Is This a "Man’s World"?


What is it about the book business, anyway, Moon wonders. Sometimes it seems like nobody on any level of it makes any money. Maybe if you’re Random House and you can figure out how to publish nobody but James A. Michener, you can make a little money. Everybody else picks up peanuts.


Why do they do it? he wonders. But he knows why.


-      John Dunning, The Bookman’s Wake



Only fitting, I reflected, to find myself reading a mystery starring a rare book dealer in a copy I scored from a ten-cent table of used books. Not a signed copy, not even a first printing, but quite a clean, decent later printing of the hardcover edition, a volume I’m sure Cliff Janeway, fictional former cop-turned-bookman, would have picked up himself for resale. Janeway is also a reader, and the quotes and references to works of literature in the stories' dialogue are part of the fun of this series.


I was about halfway through reading The Bookman's Wake when, as I turned a page, a slip of paper fell out. No, it was not a $100 bill. Not even a dollar bill. Twenty-eight years a bookseller come this summer, I have yet to find money in any book that has come my way, which seems ironic, considering how often I used to hide five-dollar bills in my own books back in a previous (pre-graduate school) life. I would move my hidden cash around so often -- in my concern that the book holding the money was far too attractive and obvious, certainly the first item a book-loving burglar (in my vivid imagination) would pull off the shelf to inspect! -- that I would lose track of it, which made a subsequent accidental finding seem like manna from heaven, an unexpected gift. A harmless eccentricity left behind but occasionally fondly recalled when I find random bits of paper other people have left behind in used books I buy. -- Are you curious? Do you wonder? Grocery lists and airline boarding passes are a couple of the most common such items. 

The slip of paper from the Dunning book made me smile as I read the lines on it made by an old dot matrix printer, words that indicated a purchase made by Mary Ann, of the former Mary Ann’s Mostly Books in Benson, Arizona, the book ordered directly from the publisher when new, its cover price $21. Two Benson bookstores we loved to visit in former years are both gone now. We found retired bookseller Lenore volunteering at the Friends of the Library bookstore, however, and learned from her that Mary Ann had moved her base of operations to Apache Junction, at the urging of (and, I hope, with a lot of help from) her children. In any case, I remember both shops fondly and enjoy my reading all the more, knowing the book came by way of Mary Ann.

- B O O K M A N -


The word ‘bookman’ (from the Dunning’s title) is interesting. Merriam-Webster defines it broadly as “a person who has a love of books and especially of reading” or “a person who is involved in the writing, publishing, and selling of books.” says a bookman is “a studious or learned man; a scholar” or “a person whose occupation is selling or publishing books.” (Parenthetical note: note ‘person,’ no gender specified three times, ‘man’ once.) In the world of John Dunning and Cliff Janeway, an actual, real-life world inhabited by many world-wide, ‘bookman’ is understood more narrowly. It implies a person (man or woman) working in the secondhand book trade, especially one specializing in rare books, a dealer (occasionally a bookstore employee) with an emphasis on and knowledge of contents as well as physical attributes, as well as a deep love of same

Anyone can be a bookseller. To be called a bookman, especially by a bookman, is a compliment, an acknowledgement. When a bookman friend – another woman – told me I was a “real bookman,” I glowed!


‘Bookwoman’ is heard now and then but somehow seems to imply more what the dictionaries give as the definition rather than what we in the trade understand by ‘bookman.’ A big reader. Why is that? Is it the way 'poet' sounds serious and 'poetess' brings to mind a wannabe? No wonder women in theatre and film want to be called, simply, actorsI usually call myself simply a bookseller and leave questions of expertise and gender to others. Today, though, I’m thinking about those questions.


In The Postmistress, a novel that was one focus of my most recent post, the woman in charge of the little post office is actually called the postmaster. The character notes at one point in the novel, and the author reiterates in her afterword, that U.S. postal regulations give the position title always and only as postmaster. This fact points silently to a time in American history when having a woman in the position was unthinkable and perhaps not even recognized as legal. One female postmaster in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, did the work of the job while her husband held the official title, I have read. That’s just how it was. I wonder if the husband, the nominal postmaster, ever made an appearance behind the counter.

No post office here any more

If either my artist husband or my bookstore volunteer is in the shop at the same time I am there, and someone comes in for the first time with a question for the owner, the question is invariably directed to the man. It doesn’t matter who is sitting at the desk. It doesn’t matter what we are wearing. One dear friend of mine who suffered this indignity for years finally began to do a slow burn when her husband, jokingly, would say to the questioner, “Perhaps my assistant can help you,” the assistant being the actually bookseller – and, in her case, definitely a bookman!


But I’ve had to learn to let that stuff slide. It will never end, and there’s no point in spending the precious days of my life resenting ignorant, thoughtless assumptions over and over. 

In MY bookstore!

Whether or not ours is objectively a “man’s world” (and who in the world could take an objective position on the question?), I try to live as much as possible in my own world. I was quite entertained one time when a male friend was telling me about how he could “lose himself” in nature, on a river or in the woods, and added for my benefit that he didn’t think women ever had such experiences!“ And you know that by comparing your experiences as a man with the experiences you’ve had as a woman?” I prodded gently, whereupon he had the good grace to laugh.

My darlings when they were only yearlings

Here are a few aspects of my world. The actual owners of a pair of two-year-old horses, half-brother and -sister, have no idea that I think of those horses on the edge of Willcox, Arizona, as mine. People driving back and forth on I-10 certainly do not recognize the tree I call my tree as mine. Back in northern Michigan, there are many little rural corners and stretches for which I feel what I must admit is a proprietary kind of love. But this is not a sense of ownership as the law would understand it. These are things that have become parts of my soul. I lose myself in them.

And so yes, when I am lost in a book quest or examination of an exciting book find, just as when I am out exploring the morning world with my dog, I am not doing it as a woman but simply as myself. This is one of the glories of being lost in one’s work or in the natural world: other people’s presumptions, assumptions, expectations, and judgments fall out of consciousness. Self-consciousness evaporates.

Michigan insolite!

Off-road Arizona

Why, though, do I not call myself a ‘bookman’? Out of modesty? In part. But also out of honesty. Whatever the field of my various life endeavors – music, philosophy, books – I have never been drawn to specialization. It is the old question of depth vs. breadth, and time and time again I have chosen the latter, content to be one of life’s generalists.


As for whose world ours is, each of us is the center of our experience, and our experiences and emotions come to us subjectively, not comparatively. So I make no apology for living and working and feeling and writing out of my own little world. I say, anyone who claims to be doing otherwise is self-deluded or seeking to delude.


Outdoors with dog or indoors with books? I could not choose one over the other. Fortunately, the two come together in me. Moreover – and miraculously -- my world and the Artist’s world exist side by side and overlap! Lucky, lucky, lucky both of us!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Dear Friends, What Are We Telling Each Other?

Clear day view

Dusty day view

[Those photographs above have nothing to do with my topics today.]

How do you understand fiction? As truth or make-believe?

Jane Austen’s first four works of fiction were all epistolary novels, fiction presented as a series of letters between characters. One of the four was First Impressions, a precursor to Pride and Prejudice, and the later, iconic version of the Bennett girls’ story, while going beyond a collection of imagined letters, still relies on fictional correspondence (40 letters given in whole or quoted from in part) to advance the story at several pivotal junctures. 


Recall, for instance, that the character of Mr. Collins is introduced, before he appears in person, by the first letter he writes to Mr. Bennett, a letter Mr. Bennet reads to his family at the breakfast table. Darcy’s explanation of his reasons for separating Bingley from Jane, as well as his own family’s history with Mr. Wickham form the longest letter in the novel. And Jane’s letters to Elizabeth about Lydia also function as would expository dialogue in a stage play, recounting events that neither sister witnessed personally.


The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, is not an epistolary novel. It is neither composed of letters, nor are letters the main subject. The book is, as any novel must be, about life as experienced by the characters on its pages. Written correspondence, though, does play an important part in those life experiences at that time. Reliance on the post is crucial in The Postmistress, as letters were still the most important and common means of communication for people separated by long distances during World War II, the period of the novel. Moreover, as the title indicates (though she is called postmaster in the text, and that is eventually explained), one of the principal characters is Iris James, the government employee in charge of the U.S. mail in the small seacoast village of Franklin, Massachusetts. Iris takes seriously her responsibility to maintain an orderly post office. 


…The broad wooden sorting table was cleared for the morning’s mail. If there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America. Here was the thick chaos of humanity rendered into order. Here was a box for each and every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward toward this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people’s lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end.


-      Sarah Blake, The Postmistress


What lines to thrill the hearts of those who still write and send handwritten letters! There have been many novels in which a postmaster (or postmistress) appears, but has there been one before Sarah Blake’s novel to make that character and her work so essential to the story?

Excellent service here in Willcox, Arizona!

There are other characters, of course. There is the doctor’s young pregnant wife, who comes daily to the post office at 4 p.m. looking for that day’s letter from her husband, and there is the doctor himself, who after losing a patient has left his wife behind in Franklin to offer his services in London during the Blitz. There is the postmistress’s lover. And of course there is Frankie Bard, reporter, who, when she sees the doctor she has just met killed in a London street, rescues from the street the last letter he wrote to his wife. Soon after that, Frankie lands a long-desired assignment and is sent to travel Europe by train to “get the story” on refugees from Hitler’s Germany. After seeing one of the refugees, a young Jewish man whose voice she had recorded less than an hour before, shot to death before her eyes, however, she begins to think that recording voices is more important than any story she can shape.


“Maybe people talking, just being there, alive for the minutes you can hear them, is the only way to tell something true about what’s happening over here. Maybe that’s the story,” she finished, “because there’s no way to put a frame around this one, no plot.”


I began writing this post before finishing the novel, having read by then about two-thirds of it and, pausing to write about what I had read so far, I was struck by the difference between the living voices preserved on tape and the thoughts of the letter-writers preserved on paper and how and why the author foregrounds both in her story. Did she find the recordings of voices truer than the letters? It seems to me that the letters – No! Yes! We have Iris’s thoughts on this in my first quoted passage above! The letters do not contain stories shaped by someone else for an international radio broadcast: no, each letter contains a single voice, one person speaking to another, “voices set down upon a page … to breach the distance.” In that, the recordings (individuals telling their stories to Frankie, face to face) and the letters are alike. But in both cases the voices and thoughts shared are preserved, so that the one-on-one intimacy can be experienced by later listeners and readers.


Next morning.


My mother always used to call them “the wee hours,” those dark hours between midnight and first light. That’s when I woke and finished reading The Postmistress, and this morning I have a few vague thoughts on truth and story-shaping -- because of course the author has shaped a story, bringing together characters that coincidence would have been challenged to unite in real life – but I want to change direction here and leave the novel and World War II to bring attention to the United States Postal Service today. 


Have you been following the story on proposals for banking through our nation’s post offices? Here it is. If you are not old enough to remember the Sixties, postal banking may be a new idea to you, but it is not a new idea for the USPS, and it flourished until Lyndon Johnson abolished it in 1966 to "streamline" the USPS. (How much influence did the banking industry have on this presidential decision? One cannot help but wonder.) Now, with branch banks closing across the country and only online banking available to many Americans – and only to those who have easy, daily, affordable access to the Internet – the old idea is being revived. Bankers are against it, but bankers shouldn’t decide everything in American lives. Here is some of the history of postal banking. Read about it, please, and think about it. 

In Willcox again

If you have read my blog much in the past, you may know that I have always been a big supporter of the United States Postal Service. (If interested, see more here.) For me, it is not a nice option but an absolute necessity of life, personal and civic. We have one of the safest and most efficient and economical government postal services in the world. Not only are bankers against it, but the whole “government-is-bad” crowd would rather see privatization of everything. How about you? Would you trust a payday lender over your local post office? 


Thanks for reading today! – And now go write and mail a letter!!!


Monday, May 3, 2021

My World, So Tiny and Limitless

Bird of Paradise in bloom and giant agave in Benson, AZ

The other day we drove over to Benson to visit the Friends of the Library bookstore, one of our favorite destinations, and I came home with half a dozen or more used books new to me – a bit excessive, perhaps, as we will be returning to Michigan within the month, and it seemed all the more hoggish as the Artist, on that trip, uncharacteristically contented himself with three magazines. But one of the books I bought was as much for him as for me (The Psychology of Everyday Things, and he said, yes, he’d heard about it, and it did sound fascinating, and he would like to read it), and another was for a friend, and a third something I know I’ll re-donate as soon as I read it, so all in all I did not feel sinfully greedy or guilty. 


Benson is only 52 miles from Dos Cabezas (unfortunately, there is no way to get there by back roads, and we have to take I-10 from Willcox), and it is still in Cochise County. Our parking lot picnic after shopping for books was an apple and cheese stick apiece and a shared bottle of cold water from the car cooler, following which we drove back to Willcox and shared a brownie along with our usual drinks at the coffee house. Not a huge adventure, no new places, no exploring off the trail, and many of our days are like that, passed within a small, familiar world we know very well. But don’t let mileage fool you --.

Before even paying for my day’s selections, I had read the first page of one of the books I’d found, and I couldn’t wait to dig in further. “Couldn’t” wait – but had to. Peasy needed his regular afternoon run when we got home, and a start had to be made on our supper -- both my responsibilities. Once the dog had had his exercise and a beautiful pasta salad was cooling in the fridge, however, I sat myself down with a cold beer and Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, the story of an American couple who move to the celebrated town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, where the husband, the book’s author, soon finds himself working (“anarchistically,” he says!) for none other than bookseller Richard Booth (d. 2019), the eccentric man who remade the little Welsh town into a literary heaven on earth

The town we found that first day was filled with stores stuffed to the rafters with old books, massive ancient shelf breakers like a Pilgrim's Progress the weight and color of a manhole cover, a heavy bit of allegory indeed; and a slim and beautiful copy of Eve's Diary -- a curiously innocent work, lush with languid Beardsley-like drawings on every page, almost unrecognizable as being by Mark Twain, of all people -- we spent hundreds of pounds just shipping them all back home.

- Paul Collins, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books

“This alone was worth the drive to Benson!” I tell the Artist happily, as I emerge from the Welsh countryside and back into my seasonal southern Arizona life. 


Hay is a town of 1500 inhabitants, and at the time Paul Collins and his wife moved there with their toddler son from San Francisco, Hay boasted 40 bookshops! The boast now has shrunk to “over 20,” still more than a decent number (apparently several former bookshops are now antique shops), and there is a huge annual book festival, too. Reading of Hay, I recalled the summer I tried to persuade young Paul Stebleton (he is my son’s age, so, young to me), bookseller-owner of Traverse City’s Landmark Books (formerly Book-o-rama), to move his shop to Northport so the two of us could be pioneers in founding a northern Michigan version of Hay-on-Wye. He demurred – and is now in beautiful digs in the old state hospital in Traverse City – but it was a pleasant fantasy for me while I entertained it.


Back to the present – that is, the very recent past: After our pasta salad supper, I read a little further in my book and then set it aside to read aloud an article on Van Gogh from the new issue of New York Review of Books, trading my solo Welsh armchair travels for an armchair trip to France with the Artist. We paused once to return to Cochise County, Arizona, to make popcorn, and we then had Peasy’s full attention as we humans continued exploring Van Gogh’s world, rewarding little Pea’s good manners with the occasional popped kernel. For now, the three of us are still together, and it was a happy evening for me.


Much earlier in the day, shortly after sunrise, Peasy and I had fortuitously encountered friends out on the range, where Therese and I caught up on news and laid plans for the following day while our dogs enjoyed each other company, Peasy and Molly in their usual rambunctious way (Molly loves to chase Pea, and he loves being chased by her), old Buddy more sedately. That was a lovely interlude, too.

At day’s end the Artist and I watched, on the recommendation of both my sisters, the first few episodes of “The Kominsky Method,” which we loved. (Alan Arkin! It doesn’t matter to me how old he gets: to me, he is always sexy and appealing.) The show is set in Los Angeles but felt, to me, not so much like travel to an exotic place (my mother was born in L.A., but I’ve never been to California)  as being in the familiar country we now inhabit daily, that of the declining years of life. Not in a terrible way, either, for the most part. After all, the “small world” feeling of doing ordinary things together is very sweet, as we had experienced in Benson, in Willcox, in Dos Cabezas. We don’t have to be in Wales or France to be happy. (Good thing, too, eh? We still work at least half the year. We are not checking out yet!) And before we went to sleep we visited Peru! Yes, as I read aloud from Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, the Artist and I were two young Argentine doctors, hitch-hiking around South America!


This happiness thing – it comes and goes. Reading aloud to David, watching him share popcorn with my dog, I was perfectly content in my little world. Such a tiny world! Just the two of us in the car that afternoon without the dog, too, and then sitting in the coffee house together. My time outdoors with Therese and our dogs. A geographically and socially restricted world it is of partner, neighbors, dogs, birds, and cows, but it feels quite expansive, since there are also letters from faraway friends and books and movies to transport me over miles and across oceans.


The truth is, I wake almost every morning (and usually during the night, as well) to free-floating feelings of angst and dread, and it takes coffee and writing to put my world back into perspective and fill me with gratitude for the life I have had and the life I still have, and this return to perspective I have to accomplish over and over. (Like housework, like showering, it's never done!) But it works, so I will do it again tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

What am I doing here, anyway?

What am I doing here?


Five in the morning. Coffee. Thinking about blogging. Thinking about writing about blogging. Why on earth?


As a family or an orchestra comprises its members and a handwritten diary is composed of chronological entries, a blog is made up of chronological posts. A post is what is written and published on any particular day, and the blog consists of the entirety of its posts, from the first to the last. Since ‘posting’ is also a verb in the world of blogs, a post can also be referred to as an entry, which is legitimate usage, in that a blog is a kind of diary, although not usually added to on a daily basis (and how many people write in their diaries or journals every day, regardless of the origin of those words?).


The term blog (which some linguistical purists find abhorrent) comes from two separate words, web + log. The worldwide web, the ‘www’ in Internet addresses, needs no introduction online. ‘Log’ deserves more consideration.


In the early days of sailing, a ship’s log or logbook was, for one thing, a daily record of speed achieved and distance covered, as measured by how many knots passed through a sailor’s hands when a log trailing a knotted rope was thrown from the stern of the ship. (Hence the speed of a boat recorded in knots rather than in miles.) The captain’s log, however, also included important information on crew, passengers, and cargo; routes, ports, and destination; weather; sightings; damage, maintenance, repairs; unusual occurrences; etc. With its daily and sometimes hourly entries, the log provided essential information not only to captains on board but also, later, to the owners of sailing ships. In the longer and larger scheme of things, geographers and cartographers learned much about the world and its seas from ships’ logs. 

Nowadays sailors often keep logs electronically (samples online provide models and templates), although handsomely bound blank books remain available for the purpose and would probably be the choice of those adventurers hoping eventually to publish writing of their travels. In any case, keeping a record, whether handwritten or electronic, of a boat or ship’s positions and travels is mandatory, like the flight logbook kept by air pilots, and in both cases details are crucial. 


No one is obligated, unless by some condition of employment, to maintain a blog, however, and very few of us who do post daily. As the origins of the term indicate, posts reside online rather than in handwritten pages, although more than one blogger keeps electronic files on a personal device. Ephemeral in one sense, in another sense blogs seem to take on a life of their own, with old posts often remaining online long after their authors have moved on to new lives or, in some cases, even died.


The first blog I followed was written by a woman I had not yet met at the time but who lived only about ten miles from me. We have since become acquainted in person. Another I discovered (and followed for as long as the blogger kept it) was written in French by a young Chinese woman, a university student from the countryside who eventually earned her master’s degree in French and went to work in the wine industry in China. I learned a lot about China from her blog, both city life and country life. Her parents were my son's age! 

Yet another blogger, a librarian, was a collector of children’s books and caregiver for his elderly parents, and posts on his blog, “Collecting Children’s Books,” stayed close to his subject for the most part, but after a while he joined Facebook and posted more personal stories from his life there, while at the same time keeping up his book blog. News of Peter's unexpected death was announced by his brother on the blogger’s Facebook page, and from the outpouring of grief and condolences there I know I am not the only one who misses the years when he was posting to his blog and sharing his life and its concerns to a limited public on both venues. It all felt very personal. He was a friend I never met.


Which reminds me of another way that blogs are different from log books, diaries, and journals: they can be, via reader comments and blogger replies, interactive. Conversations can take place in the space of a blog. This doesn’t seem to happen as often as it did formerly, now that more and less demanding social media have proliferated, but when it does it can be delightful.


Of course some blogs, like podcasts, are short-lived. The daughter of an old friend of mine is a podcaster, and from her I learn that only about half of podcasts have any kind of extended life, while slightly over a quarter of them never go past the initial foray. But that is hardly different from anything else in life – learning a musical instrument, taking up a sport, starting a business or a novel. Maintaining enthusiasm for something over the long haul can be tough. And sometimes other enthusiasms come along and take precedence, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  


A blog can be personal or commercial or some mix of the two. It can be private and readable only by subscription, perhaps restricted to family members, but most are public and available to anyone who stumbles upon them. In the beginning, part of my own first blog’s stated mission (I have a few lesser blogs where I post other sorts of interests) was to provide year-round connection between my bookstore and my bookstore customers, many of whom visited Northport only for a week or two in the summer, but by now, in its fifteenth year, Books in Northport has taken many unexpected turns and often has nothing at all to do with either books or Northport. Friends back home in northern Michigan and farther afield seem to appreciate my road trip stories, and everyone, it seems, loves the dog tales. 


Quite frankly, my artist husband and I have never been gifted at what these days is called monetizing, and sharper, more savvy participants in the online world would probably consider my blogging (in the unlikely event they gave it any thought) a rather pointless waste of time. I’m not selling anything here, and it isn’t as if I’m writing a book (and why am I not?), so why bother?


I don’t have a good answer. It’s what I do – at least, it’s some of what I do. This is the fifteenth year I’ve been blogging, and, like keeping a journal (which I’ve been doing for over a year now), like writing letters (which I’ve done all my life), it is a habit. It’s also my ongoing “Kilroy was here” statement, and it allows me to look back occasionally and revisit thoughts and impressions of my earlier self. So it has at least that personal, private value, and I keep at it. What more can I say?

Log-like entry: This morning I’m out in southeastern Arizona, in the high desert, in the ghost town of Dos Cabezas, nearing the end of my “seasonal retirement” until winter comes around again. High winds have been blowing for days, kicking up dust storms from the playa in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Summer birds have returned, and migrating species are passing through. There are clouds in the sky at 6:30 a.m., but rain would be a miracle, although we need rain desperately. 

Soon I will get dressed and go outdoors with my dog, little Peasy, the “dog with issues” (I may post more about those issues soon), and maybe we will scare up a cottontail or two. Later I’ll go to town to do laundry and post this entry to my blog. That’s how my morning looks so far. And a few weeks from now the Artist and I will return to northern Michigan, where I will re-open Dog Ears Books for the season, and the Artist will happily re-inhabit his studio and gallery, and the two of us will spend many hours mowing grass around our old farmhouse, because in June that task admits of little pause. In other words, we will move our life's base of operations from one ancient seabed to another, from the basin and range region of the Southwest to the Great Lakes shoreline.

We won’t always be here, any of us, “here” being far from a singular place as life’s hours fly by, but we’re here now. We’re alive. I’m here in the ghost town this morning, very much alive, and grateful for my present companions in life’s journey.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

When Letters -- on Paper -- Were Everything

Reading a diary from before the Civil War, I am struck by the number of letters the young male diarist tells of regularly writing and receiving. His lawyer brother in New Orleans seems to have written to Silas almost every day, and it was a rare day that Silas did not write to James or to Warren or to one of his sisters back home and perhaps also to the editor of a local newspaper. And all his correspondence was, of course, conducted in longhand (Does anyone still say ‘longhand’? Or was it only necessary to make the distinction when secretaries took dictation in shorthand?), with every cranny of space filled.

I have trouble considering anything a book if the words aren't on paper. Likewise a letter. E-mail messages can be important and precious -- I don't pooh-pooh them. But they are not letters. And a "diary" kept in digital format? Really?


Silas did not write in his diary every day, but when he did, it was in addition to letters he had also written that same day. The diary he kept for himself; the letters were to and for others. Way back then, without cell phones or e-mail or so-called social media, letters were the way he and others kept in continuous contact with family and friends. His letters to newspaper editors, less frequent, were a way to voice his opinions publicly, as he also did in amateur debates and public addresses.

The debates in which he participated, like his letters, were as much public entertainment as they were communication. Conversation, reading books, and playing musical instruments were ways to pass a quiet lamplit evening at home in those days, and letter-writing was another way, but Silas also made preparation for a debate or for offering a public address by writing longhand notes in the pages of his diary, another occupation that filled his evening hours and also served as preparation to reaching out to others, near and far. Back then, townsfolk and country people regularly traveled to schoolhouses, village halls, and churches for evenings spent listening to debates, public addresses, and sermons. Yes, even sermons were entertainment in those days, with visiting sermonizers critiqued afterward in depth by audience members -- often as much or more for performance quality as for theology, judging from Silas’s diary.


In our time, now the third decade of the 21st century (can you believe it?), a general “felt need” for handwritten correspondence seems almost to have disappeared. We have public forums for our every thought and deed in social media, the instant gratification of texting (often with almost instant replies), and none of it requires paper or stamps, let alone a trip to the post office. But if letters are classed by collectors as ephemera, what can digital exchanges be called? Even if the storage media are somehow preserved, is there any guarantee it will be readable in future? Whereas I can take in my hands Silas’s diary and the handful of private letters tucked into the diary pages, all written over a century and a half ago, and read them as if they were written yesterday, how many of the thoughts and experiences shared on Facebook will anyone be able to visit a century and a half from now?

As thrilling as it is for me to time-travel via Silas’s diary, it is just as thrilling or more so to find a letter in my own mailbox, written to me by a sister or a friend, bearing postage and return address and cancellation that tell of its journey and the thought that went into someone caring enough to reach out to me over hundreds of miles. I can tear the envelope open in haste or slit it carefully with a knife, read the letter immediately or tuck it away and carry it with me to enjoy later – or I can do both, reading it eagerly at once and folding it away to read again an hour later, beginning already to form in my mind the reply that will eventually becomposed and sent off, a personal, intimate, committed-to-paper, taken-time-to-write missive sent to one person alone -- although perhaps to be shared with a partner or friend at the other end, too, because once the letter reaches its destination it belongs to the recipient. The gift has been given.

Then there are the enclosures that letters may contain, as delightful in their way as the letters themselves. This old bit of "ephemera" captured my attention, and I wish I still had new snapshots every week to send with my own letters. Sadly, our photographs are another thing we rarely commit to paper any more.

The biggest problem for me with Sundays is that there is not even the possibility of finding a letter in the mailbox. Monday’s return to mundane, everyday life does not trouble me at all, because the postal carrier may bring me news and thoughts from someone I love.


One friend back in northern Michigan who shares my enthusiasm for written correspondence is doing more than writing letters: she has started a movement for slow correspondence called Leelanau Letter Writers. You don’t have to live in Leelanau County, Michigan, to join. There are no membership fees, no meetings

You may also elect to join the LLW pen pal group, but you don’t even have to do that. Just let it be your inspiration to write and mail letters. Will you write about what’s really on your mind? What will that be? You need share that only with your recipient. It's that personal. Who will receive the next letter you write? No need to tell me -- just write and send that letter. On paper.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Incomplete But Nonetheless True Confessions

Spring is here.

I have not yet (ever) read The Handmaid’s Tale.


For any serious reader but especially for a bookseller (female, yet!), this is a pretty serious confession, and two years ago I vowed I would read Margaret Atwood’s modern feminist classic over the winter. I didn’t, though. And I haven’t yet. 


I’m not intentionally avoiding the story, but sometimes when any book has already captured the attention of so many other people I don’t feel a huge amount of personal responsibility for hurrying to get to it myself. Bestsellers are already bestsellers, after all, and classics are not going to stop being classics overnight. I’ll get to The Handmaid’s Tale in my own good time, as I’ve gotten around at last to many other long-neglected and worthy works of literature.

My book corner: you've seen it before.

I am usually reading multiple books at any given time. 


One of the books I’m currently reading is a different Margaret Atwood novel, Life Before Man, set in 1970s Toronto, a book that came to me serendipitously, as so many of my books do. I couldn’t have sought it out, because I don’t recall hearing the title before. Written in the third person throughout, the story presents multiple points of view, one point of view contained in each short chapter. I find it difficult to stop at the end of a chapter, feeling almost compelled to begin the next.


My car book these days is Crazy Weather, by Charles L. McNichols, first published in 1944. Lewis Gannett, reviewing Crazy Weather in Books and Things, wrote of it:


Crazy Weather is the story of a white boy who, through four days of torrid weather and cloudbursts, goes glory-hunting with an Indian comrade [Mojave] and returns to discover that he is, and prefers to be, white after all.


South Boy’s ambivalence is clear from the very beginning of the story, and no wonder, given the opposition of character presented by his father and mother. Hal Bortland wrote of the story:


This is the story of a boy who became a man in four days. Into it Charles McNichols has packed an amazing amount of action, adventure, Indian lore, and satisfying psychology…. 


Sterling North loved it, too. I wonder what reputation (if any) the book holds in our own day, particularly among Native American readers.


After our nightly pack time and movie, before going to sleep, I picked up another J. A. Jance mystery featuring fictional Sheriff Joanna Brady of Cochise County, Arizona. Part of this particular novel’s action took place on the old Charleston Road between Tombstone and Sierra Vista, and I read the description of the road aloud to the Artist, who instantly recognized the road we had taken to see water in the San Pedro River and been surprised by the locks on the footbridge.


I have been known to go on a genre fiction binges.


Yes, it’s true. While I called myself “a serious reader” at the top of this post, I do go on these binges from time to time. Presently it’s J. A. Jance. At other times it’s been Lee Child or Alexander McCall Smith or Sara Paretsky or James Lee Burke. Don’t get me wrong, though. This is a confession, not an apology.

Current binge books --

Mystery series books, books that develop a main character through time and through multiple crimes solved, I make little to no attempt to read in chronological order (whether reading for the first time or re-reading the series).


As a bookseller, I am very familiar with readers who feel they must begin a series at the beginning. A few won’t even start reading until they have the entire series lined up. I, on the other hand, would be hard pressed to name a series I started with the first book. What usually happens is more like this: I realize that such-and-such a writer is immensely popular and that it would behoove me to have some slight acquaintance of her or his work, so I pick up a book from the series and try it out. If I like it, I reach for another. Eventually I worked my way through the entire Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series in that haphazard, nonchronological manner and still feel comfortable picking up any book in the series whenever the mood strikes. I dove into Jance’s Joanna Brady series the same way and continue as I find more books in the series.

Arizona dry wash

Escape is probably one of the reasons I read so many books. 


There are so many reasons for reading books, and like many readers I can’t say a single reason explains what some might term an addiction. I read for information, for understanding, for pleasure – and, I will not deny it, for escape. But my life is wonderful! Why do I need escape?


I am a worrier. 


I wrote once in this blog that I have come to believe needless worry, the kind of fretting that we do completely apart from taking action, is a form of superstition. Here’s some of what I wrote on the subject a while back:


As I try to tease apart this mystery, it seems to me that we hold a vague, unconscious, and unreflective belief that by worrying we feel we are making time payments to ward off future disaster. Pay now, play later! The focus of a worry, remember, is an undesirable outcome (or, all too often, multiple undesirable outcomes on a variety of fronts); thus worrying is suffering in advance that we feel should be subtracted from the outcome. If my hypothesis is correct, this same unconscious belief explains our worry over loved ones, as well. If, for example, I worry myself sick over my son’s late return home, I am paying the price that might otherwise have to be paid by a terrible accident befalling him. Or so says my superstitious belief.


Anyone who may want to read the entire post can find it here.


What I thought and said and wrote then and still believe today is that such worrying is irrational. And yet I continue to do it! I don’t worry that much about myself (What is this rough patch of skin? Should I have it looked it? Okay, when we’re back in Michigan) as I do about others. 


Since my former husband died a year ago, I’ve talked to my son nearly every day by phone. He is doing fine. But once a mom, always a mom! When I don’t hear from friends, I worry that something might be amiss with them. Situations of those I love facing surgery or recovering (I hope!) from same: another source of worry. 


I worry about drought in the Southwest, race relations across the nation, family, friends, the future of the country, the fate of the earth -- and especially, these days, what is going to become of my rescue dog, the “dog with issues,” little Peasy. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about Peasy’s future and have to turn on the light and read myself back to sleep ... because ...  

Along the Kansas Settlement Road

I have fallen in love with Peasy. 


It wasn’t “love at first sight” when I first laid eyes little Pea. (It was hard to get much more than a glimpse of him, the way he hid from anyone who came near!) He was cute, though, and needed a home, and I needed a dog and figured I could work him through some of his issues. Together we have made great strides! And naturally, gradually day by day, I have come to love him more and more. The way he looks at me! How can I help it?

Good boy!

David and I were absolutely smitten with our Sarah. Besotted! The thing is, though, anyone would have loved Sarah, and quite honestly I think she could have been just as happy in another home, with another family. Not only beautiful, Sarah was also supremely confident and easy-going and able to adjust herself to any situation. (She barely had a startle reflex at all.) When people asked if we had “rescued” her, I used to say we were just lucky enough to find her before anyone else did, and that was the truth. That little puppy spent only a single night in the shelter before we scooped her up took her home, and she was about as easy to train and live with as a puppy could possibly be.


Peasy, now -- quite a different kettle of fish! Not easy-peasy! Picked up as a stray, he was held in the pound for over three months because no one wanted him! What a challenge that boy was his first week with us! 

Now people who see him tell me what a beautiful dog he is, and I see him as beautiful, too, where at first he was only a funny, kinda cute, goofy little scaredy-dog, way too skinny and with a coat full of mats. He is still afraid of strangers, though, and just about everyone is a stranger. And so --


I could and would give him up, out of love for him, if I found someone who could give him a better, fuller life here in Arizona than I can hope to give him in Michigan. At least I think I could....


Because he is so happy here! He behaves and minds me very well. He has an absolutely joyous time when we go out with our neighbor and her two dogs. If the Artist and I leave him alone for a couple of hours, he greets us with happy wiggles when we return. And he blisses out when he joins us for 15 minutes to half an hour of nightly pack time up on our bed. He is, as I say, a happy dog. But still a dog with issues. And back in Michigan I won’t have the freedom of my “seasonal retirement” to devote myself to his training and exercise. I cannot see Peasy leading a rich, fulfilling life alone all day and/or in a cage (call it a “crate,” if you like, but it’s a cage all the same), and he has a very long way to go when it comes to acquiring social skills. 

Clockwise from left: Buddy, Peasy, Molly

I still think adopting him was not only good but the best thing for him. He could have languished in that sterile cell forever! Instead, he has had love and lessons and increasing freedom, and he begins and ends every day a happy, happy dog. (I know I am repeating myself. He is lying contentedly at my feet as I type these lines. How can I help myself?) And that’s what I want to continue: a happy, rich, fulfilling life, with as much outdoor work and play as possible. 

My Peasarino is a good, sweet, loving little dog. Given the right situation for him, for the dog he is, and given a kind, attentive, patient, owner who will love him as much as I do, I think he has potential to be a great dog. It's just that (I can't help thinking) someone else might be better able to bring out his full potential.


And yet I’ve done almost nothing to find another Arizona home for him. 


It’s so hard even to think of giving him up that I don’t look much more than a week ahead, if that, telling myself there’s no need to rush, that I still have time to work with him. But as hard as it is for me to think about his long-term future, it’s equally hard to banish those thoughts or worries from my mind, because there’s no way I’m going to “surrender” him, even to Aussie Rescue or the well-run shelter in Willcox, without knowing where he might end up. I am the one who adopted this dog, and that makes me the one responsible for his life.


And so continues the unfolding saga of Peasy, dog of the desert.