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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reprise, Reflection, and Promissory Note


Reprise

As promised, here are a couple more images from that old, falling-apart book. I'm happy to report, also, that one of the "new and scientific" pieces of advice for controlling insects is to halt the slaughter and extermination of birds. 
Millions of our song birds are slaughtered annually to satisfy the whims and follies of fashion. While quails, prairie chickens, partridges, grouse, pheasants and various other birds, that are friends of the farmers, are almost exterminated in order to satisfy the passion for sport. Were it not for birds no fruit or grain could be raised [emphasis added]. 
Further along on the page it is stated:
The insects which they [birds] destroy in the early season is worth three or four times more to the producer than the highest market price ever paid for these birds as game. 
And from ecology we turn back to matters of law and find this very pointed cartoon, one of my favorites in what remains in this copy of The Farmers' Manual.


The caption below the illustration, entitled "After the Law-Suit," reads as follows: "The lawyer takes both the cow and the milk, and leaves the two contestants to fight it out among themselves. Think about it....

Reflection

A friend e-mailed from the road, reporting that the GPS system had gone out on their car. She stopped at the next big box store to buy an atlas, and here's what she had to say about the whole incident: 
They used to be in the front by check out--now they hardly have any and they are in the back in the automotive section.  When  atlases and maps are obsolete, how will anyone ever see the big picture? How will they ever know how many choices there are  to get places?  Plus they'll all be indoctrinated in taking orders!  I'm ordering atlases of every place I might want to ever visit so I'll have multitudinous options.
I've always loved maps and atlases and like seeing it all in front of me, on paper, choosing roads and stopping places as we travel. Choices, yes. I'd thought of that before, many times. But I admit I'd never before reflected on how Americans are being "indoctrinated in taking orders" by turning when a robot voice tells them to turn. Wow! 

Give up our maps? Maps are one of the things autocratic governments don't want their people to have, and now, rather than surrendering them to uniformed police at our doors, we're nonchalantly shrugging and saying, "Hey! Whatever! Maps are obsolete." Thanks to my friend's story and her reflections on what it could mean for the future, I will treasure my maps and atlases more than ever before. Knowledge is freedom. 

Promises, Promises

Monday evening I finished reading a most gripping, most beautifully written memoir, written by the mother of someone here in Northport.  I've begun writing a review of the book and will post it as soon after Thanksgiving as possible. 

I'll also have more details on the announcement in the upper right-hand corner of this blog. Yes, Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff! Saturday, 3 p.m., Dec. 13! New books, new venture! Signing and conversation! 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Tune in again after your holiday for more news of Books in Northport. And until then, hang onto your maps!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Different Kind of Day, Outdoors and in Bookstore



Our weather turned balmy. Sky is grey, ground underfoot wet and slushy, but I don’t care. Having a break from subzero wind chill is more than fine with me.

My last post was about the arrival of exciting new books. The next morning, Saturday as a couple friends and I were reminiscing over coffee about childhood Christmas trees, two men came through the door weighed down with box and bag. Santa Claus and a helper? Presents? No, old books from a house recently sold and being cleared out in a hurry. On top of the wobbly box was a ragged partial volume without any kind of cover and missing its first 20-some pages, and of all the dusty volumes brought in, that was the one that caught my eye. Here’s what the first page looked like:




I have no idea what preceded the beautiful lessons in cursive handwriting and calligraphy, but following came all manner of legal information and forms, and then, for me the most interesting, information on plants, insects, poultry, bees, and livestock, all richly illustrated in the wonderful manner of over a century ago.











In general, I love this kind of stuff, windows into the way people used to live. 

Sadly, however, none of the books hauled in on Saturday were in saleable condition. Boo-hoo! The one I love is incomplete and falling apart, and the others had such a strong musty order that I couldn’t bear to have them near me – or near my other books – for long. What can be done with them? I would not donate them to a thrift shop and pass the problem along to others. Hardcover books cannot be recycled unless the covers are first torn off. It’s a long way from Leelanau Township to the dump, and we’ve already made our one trip for 2014.

So here’s my plea to people who want to get rid of old books. If they’re dirty or falling apart or smelly, don’t think you’re doing anyone a favor by donating them, either to a charity thrift shop or a used bookstore. Today was my fault. I should have met the books at the door and sent them on their way. Every once in a while, though, when I’m otherwise engaged, a few slip through. But people, friends -- someone has to pay to have junk books hauled off as trash. This time I’m that someone. Next time I won’t be. Thanks!


Friday, November 21, 2014

In a Bookstore, the Most Ordinary Day Can Seem Like Christmas


Opening a package of books, I hold my breath --
Dan, Dan, the UPS man! He came early today and was hardly out the door before I was ripping open my box from David R. Godine, Publisher. I've been excited and impatient ever since I sent in my order for these books, which are every bit as beautiful and thrilling as I knew they'd be. Some are re-orders, while others are new to me. 

Want to see what was inside the box?  Here you go:








David, on hand for the box-opening, could not keep his hands off the books, especially the Boys’ Handy Book and the story about Hokusai, The Old Man Mad About Drawing. As you might guess, I love them all, so wanted to have them available for customer-friends over the holiday shopping season. 

Such treasures! But then, I always do think of my bookstore as a little treasure island, ready to reward the adventurous, exploring browser.


And we’ve had sunshine today, too! Truly, my cup runneth over.

Slush! Melting snow! A most welcome sight!



Thursday, November 20, 2014

What November Hath Wrought



January Came Early

First came the snow, January snow in mid-November, well in advance of Thanksgiving. Days. Days and days of it, not just falling but blowing sideways and in blustery gusts, shifting direction without warning, turning each country road from clear path ahead to white wall hiding the path. Time on Monday for the pack to crowd together in the truck, so none of us had to travel without 4WD. We didn't get an accumulation of three feet, as did some parts of the country, but driving was still dicey.




Boots
Then came cold, the wind howling and chilling as if the temperature were subzero. Car doors and truck doors froze shut. Not even the dog wanted to go for a walk but came indoors from her necessary sorties as quickly as possible, shaking ice and snow from her dainty paws in disgust. November isn’t supposed to be this cold. Nighttime temperatures in the teens, and don't even say the words "wind chill"!


What next? Well, can any January, even January-in-November, be complete without a power outage? Our lights went out Tuesday morning at 6:15. I was up working so went right on task to light the candles, light the stove, and pour the coffee into an insulated carafe. David got up to install the heavy velvet drapery between dining and living room. It was getting light by then, and power was back on by afternoon, so we didn’t need to fill and light the kerosene lamps. Yet.

Inside My World of Books

We did get to Northport on Tuesday, where lights and furnaces were on everywhere, including up at school, and everything was business as usual. Okay, way slower than usual, but we were here, and again Wednesday, and I’m here again today. This week I’m impatiently awaiting a couple of book orders, one from a regular distributor and another from one of my favorite publishers, David R. Godine in Boston. Surely the big brown truck will stop today, and Dan will burst through the door with boxes for me.

On Wednesday I watched the snow through the front bookshop windows, snow flying horizontally up Waukazoo Street, and picked up and looked into various interesting volumes from the array of used books in front of me on the counter.






More Surprises On the Way to Northport

Besides new and used books on the counter and shelves and new books on the road to me this very minute, I have another happy bookstore surprise in the works. We will, after all, have another author event before the close of 2014. It will be sometime in December and will involve two guests -- but more than two titles by these two guests for customers to purchase and have signed.

These mystery-for-now guests have been to Dog Ears Books before and are always welcome, so stay tuned, because I’ll have names, titles, and time and date soon. We’re not going to drag out this mystery for very long....

As for right now? The sun has broken through! Spirits are soaring!

Look! Shadows!!!



Monday, November 17, 2014

Enlightenment vs. Proust – and Other Oppositions



Don’t allow events to leave impressions inside of you. -      Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself (New Harbinger/Noetic, 2007) 
Singer’s following sentence in the book reads, “If you find yourself thinking about them later on, just let go.” I’m reading these sentences early on Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after putting up a long post on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (well, Swann’s Way, the first volume of RTP), and while much of what I’m reading in Singer’s book is a message coming to me at exactly the right time, just when I needed it, I can’t help pausing over certain bits and asking, Really? I mean, had Proust been enlightened throughout his entire life, we would not have his work at all, would we? Some people (and you know who you are, S.C.!) might think that a good thing, but others of us can imagine only deprivation, had Proust never written.

Singer’s basic message is that we human beings are all psychologically paralyzed by fear, by what we perceive as threats to our ability to control the world of our experience. We react by constructing what we think are protections, but those self-protective reactions actually function as walls requiring constant, vigilant monitoring, and thus we become our own prisoners. This is undeniable for most of us, I think, and I don’t fault the author for repeating his message in different form from page to page and chapter to chapter. I for one certainly need the repetition. It isn’t by hearing or reading this message once that I’ll see how to relax my guard and stop trying to control situations that threaten my sense of psychological well-being!
You will get to a point in your growth where you understand that if you protect yourself, you will never be free. It’s that simple. Because you’re scared, you have locked yourself within your house and pulled down all the shades. Now it’s dark and you want to feel the sunlight, but you can’t. It’s impossible. If you close and protect yourself, you are locking this scared, insecure person within your heart. You will never be free that way.
In our household, we refer to the constant, endless, sleepless chewing over of unresolved issues or fears for the future as “squirrel-caging.” It goes nowhere but around and around and around. It’s wildly counter-productive, and it’s painful, too – paradoxically, since its psychological object is to defend against pain. Let go of those thoughts? Escape the squirrel cage? Good idea!

Of social situations, Singer writes:
When you approach the edges [of the cage you have built to protect yourself] you feel insecurity, jealousy, fear, or self-consciousness. You pull back, and if you are like most people, you stop trying. Spirituality begins when you decide that you’ll never stop trying.
This can be interpreted also, I think, to say that “Freedom begins...” or “Growth begins....” Leave behind insecurity, jealousy, fear, and the kind of self-consciousness that stands in the way of forward movement and growth? Yes, I would like to do that, and this book has given me some tools with which to begin the task.

One thing I can’t help wondering, though, is where justice fits into all this.

Obviously, an acquaintance who hurts my feelings by failing to failing to grant me the attention I desire or feel I deserve is not doing me an “injustice,” and such an interpretation is clearly one I need to let go of, to let pass through me and evaporate in thin air, rather than clinging to it pointlessly. But what of true injustices that exist not only elsewhere on the globe, in far distant countries, but within our own communities? And what of very real and important issues threatening the future of the earth for generations to come? None of this, as far as I can see, is addressed  from the high spiritual ground of detachment and spiritual enlightenment. Seeing the world as nothing but energy and determining to “let it all go” – I can’t help thinking that while this might a sanity-saving strategy for people who feel absolutely powerless (cultural origins of religions and philosophies are always worth paying attention to: where did the idea of enlightenment arise, and what were the social circumstances surrounding it?), it can also be a convenient abdication of social responsibility on the part of materially comfortable, physically and politically safe Westerners whose only experiences of fear have been psychological and self-generated.

The emphasis on achieving endless, uninterrupted happiness strikes me as not only unrealistic but even a repulsive goal, given certain very real and horrible human (but inhumane) situations.
If they starve you and put you in solitary confinement, just have fun being like Gandhi. No matter what happens, just enjoy the life that comes to you.
When I reached these sentences, I wanted to ask the author: What if you’re not put in solitary confinement but thrown in among violent criminals and gang-raped, are you supposed to “have fun” with that? If not only your house but all your family are blown to smithereens by incendiary bombs, are you supposed to “have fun” with that? To my mind, this admonition to “have fun” with whatever happens is a slap in the face to those who suffer not through negative self-talk but through the violence of others. I would also argue that neither Jesus nor Gandhi nor Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced “nonresistance.” What they practiced and taught was “nonviolent resistance,” which is entirely different and which does address issues of justice.

And if everything in existence and process were already as it should be, what would be the point of changing even ourselves?

As a philosopher, argumentation is part of who I am, and critical thinking is not something I want to give up. While I can see that putting energy into defending my own poor little psyche is clearly a waste of time, I cannot and do not want to say the same of putting energy into opposing injustice, violence, and destruction of the natural world. “We must cultivate our gardens,” Candide says gently at the end of Voltaire’s tale. Indeed. Inconsequential as our tiny planet is in the midst of interstellar space (an image the book repeatedly asks us to contemplate), it is our only home, the nurturing environment in which our flesh and blood evolved, and it requires our active care.

Then there is art, and there is memory. Without memory, there is no art, and probably without art only very short-lived memories.

Our intrepid Ulysses group’s Fearless Leader feels that immortality consists in being remembered and that he, both as a lover of music and as a musician, participates in the immortality of Beethoven. In the same way, all of us who loved and read Swann’s Way may be said (if you accept our FL’s view) to participate in the immortality of Proust. What a privilege! To walk, in imagination, along that blossoming hawthorn hedge and tarry alongside the beautiful waterlilies in the private park of the Guermantes way! To feel in our own hearts, as we call up magical place names in our own lives, an echo of what the name ‘Balbec’ meant to young Marcel! I know that for several of my readers far from Leelanau County on this cold November morning, ‘Leelanau’ itself is one of those magic names.

“Don’t allow events to leave impressions inside of you”? Be empty of memories? Those beloved images of the past? Wouldn’t that truly be to lose time, to lose one’s very life?

I would be overjoyed to escape my foolish psychic walls but never to give up justice, art, and memory.

Doubtless, veteran seekers after enlightenment will tell me I’ve misinterpreted and misrepresented the practice. I’m open to that possibility. But I also reflect that no religion or philosophy or system of thought ever devised by mankind was completely free of contradiction, so even within my interpretation I can choose to embrace the contradiction in the idea of enlightenment, and I can let go of what I want to lose while holding onto what I value. It may not be everyone’s way, but it is mine, and I am free to choose.

The book, anyway, is worth reading and a potential springboard for wide-ranging discussion. I’d love to be a fly on the wall, listening to what other people would say!



Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reality and Realities, Close to Home and Faraway





Being Myself

It’s easy to tell when Bruce isn’t around. When I’m expecting him in for a spell at desk and counter, I have to clean up my act. He likes a neat desk, and if he comes in and finds a mess, he’ll clean it up himself, and then how will I find all my stuff? But Bruce is gone for the whole month of November, and I’ve been reveling in what looks like a complete letting-go of standards. Ah, but if you were to look under desk and counter, where messes usually get stashed “temporarily” and then end up accumulating for months on end, you’d see a much neater story. It's dark under there, though, so imagine it for yourself.

Dealing with the Onset of Winter

Does it look cold? It’s cold. Roads have been, in those immortal words of broadcasters, “ice-covered and slippery,” although we did not get anywhere near the two feet that dumped all at once on Lake Superior, far to our north. I wonder.... Sometimes it's easier to go into four-wheel-drive and get through deep snow than to stay on a slippery road and negotiate a thin, greasy skin of the white stuff. But we get what we get, and this past week we got slipper roads.

The Nineteenth Century Pulls Me In

Roads were so slippery, in fact, that our intrepid little band of readers, shrunk from nine down to six when Proust was selected for November, then to five when one of the six had a schedule conflict, numbered in the end only four around one of the round tables at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern. We were sorry not to have the others with us, but we were a congenial quartet nonetheless.

Quite honestly, if I had to choose between the 18th and the 19th century, without knowing what my place in society would be or even what country I’d land in, I think I’d take my chances with the 18th century, or about a hundred years before la Belle  Époque in France or the Gilded Age in the United States. Those overblown years leading up to the First World War have little appeal to this country mouse. But then there’s Proust, isn’t there?

“What made him different from literature that came before?” our Fearless Leader asked. 

We four agreed that Proust’s long, sensuous, voluptuous descriptions and microscopic attention to details of nature and the slightest nuances of human gesture or glance was worlds away from Voltaire, the last French writer whose work we read. Remembrance of Things Past is almost the antithesis of Candide. In Voltaire the events come fast and furious, piling up one on top of the other, whereas in Proust very little happens at all, but the moments are examined and stretched out like hours. And that makes sense, since Proustian time is very much Bergsonian time:
And besides, even from this point of view, in mere quantity, in our lives the days are not all equal. As they travel through the days, temperaments that are slightly nervous, as mine was, have available to them, like automobiles, different “speeds.” There are arduous mountainous days which one spends an infinite time climbing, and downward-sloping days which one can descend at full-tilt singing.
Now you know that’s true, whether or not you have a “nervous” temperament. You've experienced it yourself, time dragging or racing by.

We also addressed the question of the main theme of the work. It’s too easy to say (as I originally did) “time and memory,” though, and here I dug deep down to a Bergsonian and phenomenological conclusion that convinced me, whether or not my friends were convinced, but I probably won't lay that all out today.

Over and over, in the first section, “Combray,” young Marcel is hungry to get behind the world of his senses, to some deeper reality he believes is hidden.
...[S]uddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on a stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come take and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover.
He believed that a “philosophical subject for a great literary work” would have to solve this mystery, but
...I would feel I did not have the tranquility I needed at the moment for pursuing my search in a useful way, and that it would be better not to think about it any more until I was back at home....
And then, back at home, he would think of other things, avoiding the “arduous task,” and so the images would accumulate, guarding their secrets, until one day on a drive he asks for a pencil and writes a description of the teasing images of the disappearing and reappearing church steeples marking the progress of the carriage drive. And
...at that moment, when ... I had finished writing it, I was so happy, I felt it had so perfectly relieved me of those steeples and what they had been hiding behind them, that, as I myself were a hen and had just laid an egg, I began to sing at the top of my voice.
So writing is a key – but not the complete answer.

In the central section of the volume, “Swann in Love,” Swann realizes that much of the value he places on Odette, as well as his interpretations of her actions and utterances, comes not from her but from himself. So what about her that he knows or believes is real? Again, is the real something hidden behind appearances?

All of us loved the final section, “Place-Names: The Name.” The first name we encounter here is that of Balbec. Nothing is less like his Combray bedroom in his grandmother’s house, the narrator tells us, than his hotel room at Balbec, and at the same time nothing is less like Balbec itself than the Balbec he pictured in imagination, long before seeing the place. The name ‘Balbec’ to him was a storm at sea plus Gothic architecture. He wanted to see a storm at sea because it would be pure nature, not fashioned by man, therefore “more real” than even he himself.

When his parents began planning a trip to northern Italy and said that he might go, too, for Easter holidays, his dreams altered.
From then on only sunlight, perfumes, colors seemed to me of any value, for this alternation of images had brought about a change of direction in my desire, and ... a complete change of tone in my sensibility.
To ‘Balbec’ were added the magical names of ‘Venice’ and ‘Florence,’ brought forth out of abstract Space to become specific places, determinately situated, and differentiated from abstract Time, in that days passed in one could be passed nowhere else. – That is, if one were to go to Balbec, Venice, Florence, or anywhere else. But the young, nervous boy who was the narrator in childhood becomes ill from overexcitement and cannot leave Paris. His excursions will be limited to the public garden on the Champs-Élysées, too well known to contain magic. Until he hears 
"Good-bye, Gilberte, I’m going home, don’t forget we’re coming to your house tomorrow after dinner.” The name Gilberte passed close by me, evoking all the more forcefully the existence of the girl it designated in that it ... addressed her directly; thus it passed close by me, in action so to speak....
The name called through the air is described as a “cloud of precious color,” Proust going so far as to name the color – heliotrope – and now young Marcel’s life takes on a new focus. Away from Gilberte, he can think only of seeing her again, but in her company he is frustrated, feeling that the Gilberte he plays with in the park, with other children, is not the Gilberte he loves, the one of his dreams.

He becomes obsessed with everything relating to her hidden life, the life she lives away from him – the name of the street where she lives, the name of her father, Swann, the old woman in the park (whose name for a long time he does not know) to whom the girl speaks in so friendly a manner. But eventually he realizes that Gilberte feels no answering concern or need for him, that he is “the only one who loved.” His love is not a reality they share. 

Since Swann’s Way is only the first volume of Proust’s multi-volume work, it is not to be supposed that even the last achingly poetic page of this book will completely answer the question of theme. What we do find there is the narrator, visiting the Bois de Boulogne years later and finding it so changed – the women’s hats and dresses all different, automobiles in place of horse-drawn carriages -- as to be meaningless to him, saying: “The reality I had known no longer existed.” The time he had known is now lost, le temps perdu, but we know that the final volume of the work is called in English, Time Regained, so this is not the end of the story.

The story is – forgive the term – intensely metaphysical. What is reality? What is the relationship of names to reality? Where does the real exist? And does it pass out of existence with the passing of time? If not, how can it be accessed?

But by now I fear I’ve lost not only time but readers. Time to stop. Past time to stop.

Other Books

I'm posting this on a cold Saturday afternoon, the happy, laughing morning crowd all dispersed now. The sun is not present peeking out, either, so to close on a warm note I'll include photos of a few new books.






Monday, November 10, 2014

I Turn For Relief: The Comforts of Baking and Re-Reading


Feeling overwhelmed by time’s fullness and breakneck speed may be brought on by a crowded calendar, concerns of business, or any number of activities, even by reading itself. The consumption of too many books and book reviews and political articles in succession, particularly with a felt obligation to have something intelligent to say about each one, culminates every now and then in a crash. The system, as it were, goes down.

Baking

And so, tired of thinking and have nothing to say, of days passing without inspiration, I turn to the most spotted, dog-eared pages in my oldest cookbook. Comfort! A pan of brownies in the oven smells delicious in the evening, and nothing brightens a grey, cold November morning like hot oatmeal muffins dripping with butter. And now, it being a cold, grey, wet, windy November morning as I draft this post and wait for my oven to preheat, I’m thinking I might as well include a couple of recipes I’ve adapted over the years from the Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedic Cookbook, edited by Ruth Berolzheimer. (My mother used the 1950 edition of this cookbook, and I received my own copy of the 1964 edition in 1966 and used it until it fell to pieces, to be replaced by a 1967 copy.) Admonitions are my own additions, as should go without saying, but I’m saying.

OATMEAL MUFFINS

Sift together (or mix well together, as I do, with a wire whisk):
2 cups flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill)
1 T baking powder
2 T sugar
½ tsp. salt

1 egg
2/3 cold cooked oatmeal (see below)
1 cup milk

Beat the egg well, and add to it the cold cooked oatmeal and milk, mixing ONLY until dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened. DO NOT OVERMIX! Here you do not want an electric mixer or food processor or even a whisk but simply a spoon or fork. Also, DO NOT USE INSTANT OATMEAL OR “QUICK” OATS! You might as well eat a bowl of sugar! What you want is either whole or steel-cut oats (Bob’s Red Mill has both), and the thing to do is to cook twice the amount you want for breakfast the day before, and to save time that morning you will put the oats and water to soak in the top of a double boiler the night before, and to save even more morning time bring the oats to a boil the night before, leaving them covered for morning reheating.

Bake muffins in a HOT oven, 425 degrees, for about 25 minutes. The recipe makes a dozen muffins. OVEN TEMPERATURE IS CRUCIAL FOR MUFFINS! Few things from an oven are more disappointing than muffins with raw middles. You want them brown and crisp on top, fluffy inside, and baked clear through.

CHOCOLATE BROWNIES

4 oz. melted dark baking chocolate (NOT “baking squares”)
½ cup melted butter (use other shortening at your own peril)
1 cup flour
(Salt and baking powder are really not necessary.)

4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler and stir until shiny and smooth. Mix dry ingredients together with a whisk as you did with the muffin batter in the other recipe. Add sugar gradually, beating until very light.

Add melted chocolate-butter to sugar-egg mixture and then stir in dry ingredients. Spread in a shallow baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.

My modifications to the original cookbook brownie recipe include doubling the amounts of chocolate, shortening (and always using butter for “shortening”), eggs and sugar and eliminating salt and baking powder, resulting in a chewy rather than a light, cakelike brownie. The key here, again, is making sure that the brownies are baked all the way through. Test with a clean knife or toothpick. If it comes out gooey rather than clean, give the brownies another 5 minutes and test again. You should have a crunchy top and a rich, dense brownie.

I baked brownies from this recipe on Friday night and took them to the bookshop on Saturday morning. There were no complaints from browsers or customers.

Reading

I’ve been a re-reader all my life and cannot comprehend people who say they never re-read. To me, that would be like meeting a pleasant, interesting person, having a wonderful conversation, and never wanting to see that person again. In grade school, I read all the Walter Farley books over and over, along with The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, The Borrowers, Palmer Brown’s The Silver Nutmeg, and my mother’s old copy of Anne of Green Gables, to name only a select few. To be honest, I still enjoy revisiting these favorites, but in more recent decades I’ve added to this list all of Jane Austen’s novels, but especially Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Maggie-Now, my favorite Betty Smith books; the beginning and end (not the middle volumes, which bore me to tears) of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat, Thoreau’s Walden, of course; Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; and, the most recent addition, Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, which I have read four times and expect to re-read for the rest of my life.

Re-reading for me has all the advantage of “escape,” with the added comfort of familiarity. The characters and their worlds are old friends, and I enter once again into their lives and adventures. Even knowing how things will come out in the end, I vicariously re-experience all the confusions and doubts, hopes, fears, and excitement of the people in these books. And yet, always, somehow, there are a few lines that strike me as if I’m reading them for the first time. The time never feels wasted or the experience repetitious.

Because I’m currently re-reading Proust on assignment for a group discussion coming up soon, it was Jane Austen I turned to at dark 3 a.m. one recent morning. Never feeling a need to justify a re-reading, I did however think this time that it would be worthwhile going through Pride and Prejudice again in preparation for a December discussion of Longbourn, which I’ll also re-read again with pleasure before our group meets.

Here is a passage often quoted:
Upon the whole, therefore, she found, what has been sometimes found before, that an event to which she had looked forward with impatient desire, did not in taking place, bring all the satisfaction she had promised herself. It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present, and prepare for another disappointment.
“Don’t wish your life away!” my mother always warned me, from my earliest childhood, when I “couldn’t wait” for time to bring around some longed-for event. How many modern self-help books counsel readers not to believe that happiness depends on some conditional “if” event, like falling in love or winning the lottery? The passage is perfectly familiar, as is its sense. But in my most recent reading I was suddenly struck by the last four words: “prepare for another disappointment.” How much dry irony Austen packs into those four simple words, as if anything wished for will disappoint! Is this Eliza Bennett’s skeptical wariness or the author’s own?

Much, much – I often think far too much! – is made of the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Finishing the novel this time, I read the afterword by Henry Hitchings with my own skeptical, wary eye. I nodded approvingly over everything he had to say about Jane Austen and David Hume’s philosophical writings on reason (once, back in graduate school, before the tsunami of writings on Austen, I had thoughts of writing something on that subject myself but could not bring myself to read her work with the analytic, academic rigor such a project would demand, because one does not want to analyze love, and I love Jane Austen), but as for what he says of the famous first sentence, I was less than satisfied, as usual.
The novel’s opening sentence is one of the most celebrated in English literature. It alerts us, quite subtly, to Austen’s powers of irony. ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged,’ she writes, ‘that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ This seems straightforward, but ought to prompt two questions: is this alleged ‘truth’ really acknowledged ‘universally’, and ‘must’ an affluent man always be ‘in want of a wife’? Austen is not endorsing the view that all affluent men should marry; instead she gently mocks the notion that there can be universal truths, and at the same time she mocks the shallowness of her contemporaries.
Close reading, literary criticism – call it what you will, it has never satisfied me and still does not. So this time I set about trying to figure out and articulate for myself what that sentence is doing, and it strikes me that there is both more and less going on there than the critics would have us believe. Make no mistake: this is one of the best, most successful first lines ever penned in a work of fiction. There is genius in it. And yet, has it ever seemed “straightforward” to any reader? How obtuse and thick-headed would such a reader have to be? Of course the tone is mocking, and the mockery is obvious! That’s why we laugh! But are we really meant to be led by this sentence into reflections on universal truths? Is this the direction Austen would have us go? 

My questions are rhetorical, as I’m sure is obvious, and no is the answer I would convince you is correct. My claim is that it is self-interest in general and the character of Mrs. Bennett in particular that Austen mocks in her opening sentence. Then, move along, move along! We’re entering the world of a story!

As Hitchings says elsewhere, Austen is always, first and foremost, in service to the story she is telling. Any “feminist and revolutionary notes,” and so surely any epistemological or metaphysical considerations, are a lesser priority. The opening sentence introduces the concerns of a particular social group, but most pointedly it introduces one member of that group. The mocking tone calls into question self-interest unwilling (or perhaps unable) to recognize itself. Just as Mrs. Bennett protests that she forces herself out into society only for the sake of her daughters, so she needs to present those daughters as potentially answering the “need” of eligible bachelors. Mrs. Bennett’s almost complete lack of self-awareness is paired with a very high level of self-interest, and it is Mrs. Bennett who is introduced on the first page of the novel, her entrance prepared by two information-rich sentences. Character and story, story and character. How much Austen compresses into a very few words, and how easy it is to overload those simple words with philosophical freight!

Agree or disagree? Why?

Commuting between Proust and Austen, as I did for several mornings and evenings, I was struck anew by the lack of description in Austen’s work (so rich in Swann’s Way!) but also the economy of expression throughout her work. Wherever not necessary for the explication of character or the forwarding of plot, details are omitted, as in this passing reference to the wedding between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas:
The wedding took place; the bride and bridegroom set off for Kent from the church door, and everybody had as much to say or to hear on the subject as usual.
We already know what the bride and groom respectively looked for in marriage, and in future chapters we will see them at home, quite satisfied, so of the wedding itself nothing more need be said.

Re-reading is a comfort and an escape because the work and characters are familiar, but it’s important for me to re-read books rich enough to show me something new each time through.

I began writing this post while the oven was preheating for oatmeal muffins and finished it up with chicken broth simmering on the stove, redolent with plenty of garlic and celery. Homemade noodles, cut thick, were already dancing in my head as wind and rain whipped tree branches outside our old farmhouse.

Happy baking – and happy reading!