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Monday, July 18, 2016

How We Live (Hint: We Are Not Minimalists)

Friday farm market haul

“Weekend”? It begins with the farm market on Friday morning, but otherwise Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in the summer, are much like other days of the week. We come to Northport, David to his studio and gallery, I to my bookstore, and we live our public lives, surrounded by art and books. The way we live at home is not entirely different, since there too we are surrounded by art and books. Our home life is just a little quieter and calmer than days in the bustling summer village.

Minimalism is not our style, but we cannot be called hoarders, either (We recycle on a weekly basis), and I like to think – this gloss actually occurred to me as I began composing the sentence – that we live according to Aristotle’s golden mean. Be that as it may, we are happy to live as we do. Original art and attractive prints and other objets d'art vie for wall space with fully loaded bookcases.

Tables are a different matter.

“We just can’t be trusted with horizontal surfaces,” David once remarked. Certainly, we cannot be trusted to keep those surfaces empty. I survey the house and find stacks of books on every table.

Is this so bad? Books are not dirty dishes, after all. Clutter is not squalor. (You may quote me, you with similar tendencies.) And to my eye, a house with no books in sight looks like a house where no one lives. (Our house certainly looks lived in.)

About four days ago I began reading (finding it on a table on the front porch) Letters From Russia, by the Marquis de Custine, Astolphe Louis Léonor, a Frenchman born in 1790, who wrote his impressions of a trip he made to Russia in 1839. One aspect of this book that fascinates me is how many criticisms the author made of the country under the czars that sound identical to those later made later under the Soviets: an unwieldy, overgrown petty bureaucracy seemingly designed to harass rather than help petitioners; constant rewriting of history with each shift in political power; governmental discouragement of travel, either into (by foreigners) or out of (by citizens) or within (by anyone) the country; the nonexistence of detailed maps (which goes along with keeping each Russian in his place and keeping foreigners from straying far from carefully policed urban centers); almost complete lack of concern for individual life at every level of society; and constant preoccupation with what should not be said.

Seventy-seven pages into Letters From Russia, however, fascinating as it was, I was distracted by Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo, when a neighbor brought two bags of books to the bookstore, each book with her little one-phrase summary. Inside Boo’s book, Bobbie’s note read: “This book ought to be required reading!” Curious, I opened to the first page and then could not stop. I keep reminding myself the book is not a novel. These are real people. This is the way they live. That children survive and grow to adulthood in such conditions is astonishing.

So then I could not stop reading that book - except when, after avidly turning pages all evening at home, the next morning I left it on one of the porch tables. And so, next day at the bookstore, during a quiet lull, I picked up The Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls, author of the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle. The Silver Star. It is no criticism to say that this novel clearly owes much inspiration to the author’s actual life. A writer’s experience, after all, is her raw material. The Silver Star could easily be one of those adult-YA crossover books, too, because I’m sure teens would find the story as captivating as adults.

So, nineteenth-century Russians, poverty-stricken garbage pickers in an Indian slum, and the fatherless daughter of an unstable mother were some of my companions over the summer weekend. Not my only companions, of course, and reading isn’t all I did, either, but it is a big part of the way we live. After a busy day in Northport and a leisurely supper on the porch, David and I enjoy settling down with our books, our sweet, patient little dog girl at our feet. We never lack for beautiful objects to regard, books to peruse, or conversation about our rich life, filled with art, literature, friends, and good, fresh food.

Beet greens to steam


alexiswittman said...

Such a good life you have!

P. J. Grath said...

It is, Alexis. It really is.

Dawn said...

I am still in Brooklyn, catching up a bit. Though it's after midnight, David's quote made me laugh out loud. "We can not be trusted with horizontal spaces." So true at my house as well. Thanks for the chuckle!

P. J. Grath said...

I figured some of my friends would be able to identify, Dawn. Am wondering if you have happened across (or sought out) Greenlight Books in Brooklyn.

Unknown said...

Yes to all! I'm constantly flitting from book to book like this. I was just marveling at the odd mix currently threatening to topple off my nightstand, all in varying stages of being read.

P. J. Grath said...

But Maiya, here's the really funny part. I finished THE SILVER STAR and went back to BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, reading it in lulls between customers on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and was almost to the end when one family bought several new books, and I must have inadvertently slipped the book I was reading in the bag with their purchases, because after they left I could not find it on my desk or anywhere else. So I went back to LETTERS FROM RUSSIA, finished that, and now, while awaiting another copy of BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL, I have started an old novel by Conrad Richter, A SIMPLE, HONORABLE MAN -- found on a porch table under a stack of magazines!

Dawn said...

I didn't see Greenlight Books...though while we were walking somewhere we noticed a used bookstore with stop piled high in a window. Not as in a display. Just piles of paper and books set against a dusty window. You couldn't see inside. We didn't venture in. I went just now and looked up Greenlight...this was definitely not that!

P. J. Grath said...

That certainly was NOT Greenlight! (And it's not Dog Ears, either, as you know.) I've never been to Brooklyn but used to follow Jessica's blog, back before she had the bookstore, before she married and had a daughter. Here is the Greenlight story: