And I Quote

A random selection of books and authors, some famous, some forgotten
I’ll never be able to read all the books I want to read, or even all the books I have. But I go on buying more just the same. This page, a ragged supplement to Favorite Books & Authors, is where I keep track of my findings. Below are notes on a wide range of titles, including publication information, excerpts and quotes, as well as my first impressions — sort of a notebook, reading log, and review page rolled into one.
                                                                                                                — William Michaelian

The Mrs. Dalloway Reader
by Virginia Woolf, et. al.
edited by Francine Prose
Harcourt (2003)

I found this book in the bargain section at Borders. For a long time, I’ve been meaning to read something by Virginia Woolf, and this classy hardcover priced at $2.97 was impossible to resist. It contains Woolf’s story, “Mrs. Dalloway’s Party,” as well as the entire text of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel she based on the story. Also included are diary entries and letters by Woolf relating to both works, and a selection of “essays and appreciations, critical reviews, and commentary by writers famous and unknown.” Represented here are Francine Prose, Katherine Mansfield, Margo Jefferson, James Wood, Mary Gordon, Elaine Showalter, Michael Cunningham, E.M. Forster, Daniel Mendelsohn, Sigrid Nunez, Deborah Eisenberg, and Elissa Schappell. So not only do we have Woolf, we have samples from a dozen other writers. Here’s an excerpt from one of Woolf’s diary entries:

Wednesday, 16 August, 1922

I should be reading Ulysses, & fabricating my case for & against. I have read 200 pages so far — not a third; & have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters — to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this on a par with War & Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood. Being fairly normal myself I am soon ready for the classics again. I may revise this later. I do not compromise my critical sagacity. I plant a stick in the ground to mark page 200.

Manet by himself
edited and translated by Juliet Wilson-Bareau
Time-Warner Books UK (2004)

This 223-page paperback is printed on heavy gloss to highlight the work of the Impressionist painter, Edouard Manet. The artist’s background is given in a fifteen-page introduction. Scattered throughout the book are Manet’s letters, snippets of conversation recorded by others, and dozens of his paintings. The following note was addressed to Émile Zola on 9 February, 1871:

I was pleased to have not just news but good news from you. You haven’t been wasting your time. We’ve been having a hard time of it in Paris these last few months. I only heard yesterday of poor Bazille’s death and am deeply upset about it. Unhappily, we’ve seen many people dying from all sorts of causes here. At one point your house was lived in by a family of refugees, on the ground floor at least. All the furniture was put in upstairs rooms and I don’t think there’s too much damage for you to worry about. I’m leaving shortly to join my wife and mother who are at Oloron in the Basses-Pyrénées. I can’t wait to see them again. I’ll be passing through Bordeaux and may come and see you. I’ll tell you what can’t be written. . . .

Edouard Manet

A Great Improvisation
Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

by Stacy Schiff
Henry Holt (2005)

I picked up this volume for two unscholarly reasons: it’s a beautiful hardcover printed on pleasantly aromatic paper in an appealing typeface, with endpapers taken from Benjamin Franklin’s 1779 cashbook, and it was on sale for only $4.99. Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in biography, and Saint-Exupéry, a finalist for the prize in 1995. This is from the dust jacket:

“In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France.” So begins a dazzling narrative account of Benjamin Franklin’s French mission, the most exacting — and momentous — eight years of his life.

When Franklin embarked, the colonies were without money, munitions, gunpowder, or common cause; like all adolescents, they were to discover that there was a difference between declaring independence and achieving it. To close the gap Franklin was dispatched to Paris, amid great secrecy, across a winter sea thick with enemy cruisers. He was seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French. He was also among the most famous men in the world. . . .

One thing I like about the book is its seven-page “Cast of Characters” at the front, which contains mini-biographies of forty-six players in the drama of those times. I like this one about Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg:

(1709-1779) Kindhearted and excitable physician and writer, translator and publisher of Franklin’s works in 1773. First contact for American emissaries in 1776. So vocal an America advocate that the abbé Morellet finally inquired what colony precisely Dubourg hailed from.

The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
edited, with a biographical introduction, by Brooks Atkinson
foreword by Tremaine McDowell
The Modern Library (1940, 1950, Random House)

I bought this used 930-page tome especially because it contains Emerson’s classic essay on Henry David Thoreau. Here’s a sample:

His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. It was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for exact truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary even than he wished. Himself of a perfect probity, he required not less of others. He had a disgust at crime, and no worldly success would cover it. He detected paltering as readily in dignified and prosperous persons as in beggars, and with equal scorn. Such dangerous frankness was in his dealing that his admirers called him “that terrible Thoreau,” as if he spoke when silent, and was still present when he had departed. I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.

And here are a few sentences Emerson took directly from Thoreau’s unpublished manuscripts:

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

“I put on some hemlock boughs, and the rich salt crackling of their leaves was like mustard to the ear, the crackling of uncountable regiments. Dead trees love the fire.”

“How did these beautiful rainbow-tints get into the shell of the fresh-water clam, buried in the mud at the bottom of our dark river?”

“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. Atheism may comparatively be popular with God himself.”

The book, of course, contains much more. Included are Emerson’s first and second series of essays, his English Traits, a number of his poems, and essays on Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Carlyle.

Essays — Second Series
by R.W. Emerson
Henry Altemus, Philadelphia (1892)

This little volume is still in excellent condition, 115 years after it was published. Its 245 pages are only slightly brown to the margins, and its simple reddsh-brown cover is securely attached and shows only minor wear along the edges. The price: only $4.50 at one of our local used book stores. The book contains eight insightful essays: “The Poet,” “Experience,” “Character,” “Manners,” “Gifts,” “Nature,” “Politics,” and “Nominalist and Realist.” The essays are followed by “New England Reformers, a lecture read before the society in Amory Hall, on Sunday, 3 March, 1844.” Here’s a taste of the first essay, “The Poet”:

Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things, whether wholly or partly of a material and finite kind. Nature, through all her kingdoms, insures itself. Nobody cares for planting the poor fungus: so she shakes down from the gills of one agaric countless spores, any one of which, being preserved, transmits new billions of spores to-morrow or next day. The new agaric of this hour has a chance which the old one had not. This atom of seed is thrown into a new place, not subject to the accidents which destroyed its parent two rods off. She makes a man; and having brought him to ripe age, she will no longer run the risk of losing this wonder at a blow, but she detaches from him a new self, that the kind may be safe from accidents to which the individual is exposed. So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs - a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time: a fearless, vivacious offspring, clad with wings, (such was the virtue of the soul out of which they came), which carry them fast and far, and infix them irrecoverably into the hearts of men. These wings are the beauty of the poet’s soul. The songs, thus flying immortal from their mortal parent, are pursued by clamorous flights of censures, which swarm in far greater numbers, and threaten to devour them; but these last are not winged. At the end of a very short leap they fall plump down, and rot, having received from the souls out of which they came no beautiful wings. But the melodies of the poet ascend, and leap, and pierce into the deeps of infinite time.

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Penguin Books (2002)

I found this rugged paperback with deluxe rough-cut edges for sale in the tiny Friends book shop at our local library. Although the Poetry and Classics sections occupy only three short shelves, turnover is such that I rarely leave without a volume or two. And since the used books are donated, prices are low — in this case, only two dollars.

I read Anna Karenina and War and Peace about twenty-five years ago. Both are great books. Having enjoyed the robust Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent, I didn’t want to miss their rendering of Tolstoy. In fact, my plan now is to re-read all of my favorite nineteenth century Russian authors, in as many P-V translations as there are available.

On the first page of Richard Pevear’s introduction, there is an appropriate, insightful quote by Yeats:

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,
but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

The following paragraph is taken from Part II of the introduction itself:

The fate of Tolstoy’s heroine was suggested to him by a real incident that occurred in January 1872, a few miles from his estate. A young woman, Anna Stepanovna Pirogov, the mistress of a neighbouring landowner and friend of the Tolstoys,, threw herself under a goods train after her lover abandoned her. Tolstoy went to view the mangled body in the station house. It made an indelible impression on him.

After the introduction is a “List of Principal Characters,” with a useful “guide to pronunciation stresses, with diminutives and variants.” Several pages of notes follow the novel itself, which famously begins,

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Penguin Books (2002)

This book meets the same physical description of Anna Karenina (see above) and was purchased for the same price at the same place. Originally published by the Viking Press in 1952, it was re-released in 2002 as a John Steinbeck Centennial Edition. Just opposite the copyright page, there is a beautiful little note to Pascal Covici, friend and senior editor at Viking:

          Dear Pat,
          You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?”
          I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.”
          “What for?”
          “To put things in.”
          “What things?”
          “Whatever you have,” you said.
          Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts — the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
          And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
          And still the box is not full.

I’ve had this book about a year, but haven’t had time yet to read it. My son says it’s quite good, which I’ve assumed all along, having read The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Travels With Charley, and other Steinbeck works. The man cared about people, and he cared about making good art. Below are the first two paragraphs of East of Eden. They remind me of my own childhood in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer — and what trees and seasons smelled like — how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

Selected Poetry of W.H. Auden
“Chosen for this edition by the author”
The Modern Library (1958, Random House)

I like this quote on the title page:

From bad lands, where eggs are small and dear,
          Climbing to worse by a stonier
Track, when all are spent, we hear it — the right song
          For the wrong time of year.

And this entire poem, which starts at the bottom of Page 23 and finishes on Page 24:

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse’s flowers will not last;
Nurses to their graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbours, left and right,
Pluck us from our real delight;
And our active hands must freeze
Lonely on our separate knees.

Dead in hundreds at the back
Followed wooden in our track,
Arms raised stiffly to reprove
In false attitudes of love.

Starving through the leafless wood
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountains lovely head
Whose white waterfall could bless
Travellers in their last distress.

Just after the table of contents, there is a note by Auden that says, “The poems in this volume are arranged more or less in the chronological order of their writing: the first dates from 1927, the last from 1954. Some of them I have revised in the interests of euphony or sense or both.”

There is also an index of poems in the back, as well as an index of first lines, in which we find such gems as Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle and So an age ended, and its last deliverer died.

Twelve Short Novels
selected by Thomas B. Costain
Double Day and Company (1961)

I do buy the occasional anthology — the grab-bag aspect appeals to my gambling nature, I suppose. It’s a great way to discover new writers, and to sample the work and styles of those already on my festering to-read list.

This 798-page doorstop contains Young Joseph by Thomas Mann; The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thorton Wilder; The Duel by Joseph Conrad; The Old Maid by Edith Wharton; Father Sergius by Leo Tolstoy; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; Good-bye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton; Prisoner of the Sand by Antoine de Saint Exupéry; Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan; The Lost Sea by Jan de Hartog; Father of the Bride by Edward Streeter; and The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck. A short biographical note precedes each offering.

Of these books, I’ve previously read only the one by Wilder. It’s a very nice tale, told in a form of simple, direct English which sounds to me almost as if it has been translated from a Spanish folk tale: One evening Manuel tore open the flesh on his knee against a piece of metal.

In Mr. Costain’s less-than-exciting introduction, in which he discusses the different classifications of fiction and their relative lengths, he asks at one point, “How short can a story be?” then goes on to quote a one-sentence story cooked up by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan: Late the next morning, as they breakfasted together in his apartment, a tear stole down her cheek.

And here is a delightful image-rich passage taken at random from The Lost Sea:

The terrifying thing about frying flappers was that they seemed to come to life again. They would curl up and arch their backs as if in a horrible dream of life, but after a minute or so they would give up, stretch themselves quiveringly in the attitude of death and turn into food. . . .

The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la Vallée) and Other Stories
by Honoré de Balzac
translated by James Waring
preface by George Saintsbury
illustrated by D. Murray-Smith
The Gebbie Publishing Co., Ltd., Philadelphia (1898)

This is one of two books for which I paid only a dollar apiece at a library book sale. The pages are untrimmed, and the book is in fine condition. The “other stories” are “Another Study of Woman,” “The Great Bretêche,” and “A Man of Business.” At the beginning of his preface, Saintsbury says

“The Lily of the Valley” has considerable importance in the history of Balzac’s books, and not a little in that of his life, independently of its intrinsic merit. It brought on a lawsuit between him and the “Revue de Paris,” in which the greater part of it was published, and in which he refused to complete it. As the actual suit was decided in his favor, his legal justification is not matter of dispute, and his adversaries put themselves hopelessly in the wrong by reviewing the termination of the book, when it appeared elsewhere, in a strain of virulent but clumsy ridicule. As to where the right or wrong lay, independent of questions of pure law on one side and pure taste on the other, it is not so easy to come to any conclusion. Balzac published an elaborate justification of his own conduct, which does not now appear with the book, but may be found, by any one who is curious, among the rejected prefaces which fill a large part of the twenty-second volume (the third of the “Euvres Diverses”) of his Works. It is exceedingly long, not by any means temperate, and so confused that it is difficult to make head or tail of it. What is clear is that the parties went on the dangerous and unsatisfactory plan of neither complete performance of the work before payment nor complete payment beforehand, but of a per contra account, the author drawing money as he wanted it, and sending in copy as he could or chose. Balzac seems to allow that he got into arrears, contending that if he paid those arrears the rest of the work was his own property. But there were complicating disagreements in reference to a simultaneous publication at St. Petersburg; and, on the whole, we may fairly conclude in the not very original terms of “faults on both sides.” The affair, however, evidently gave him much annoyance, and seems to have brought him into some discredit.

Anyway, it goes on, and it’s all very interesting — at least it is to me. Here’s a brief passage from the novel itself:

He went toward her, thrusting out his white, wolf-like face, that was really hideous, for his yellow eyes had an expression that made him look like a ravenous animal coming out of a wood. Henriette slid off her chair on to the floor to avoid the blow which was not struck, for she lost consciousness as she fell, completely broken.

Selected Stories of Bret Harte
by Bret Harte
Puritan Publishing Co., Inc., Chicago

This is the other book I picked up at the aforementioned sale (see previous entry). It too is old, but I don’t know how old, because there is no copyright information. It contains twenty-one stories, and includes titles such as “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” “Miggles,” “The Right Eye of the Commander,” “A Lonely Ride,” and “Brown of Calaveras.” Before the stories, there is a short biography of Harte written by one Arthur Zeiger, M.A. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” begins this way:

There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement. The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but “Tuttle’s grocery” had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room. The whole camp was collected before a rude cabin on the outer edge of the clearing. Conversation was carried on in a low tone, but the name of a woman was frequently repeated. It was a name familiar enough in the camp—“Cherokee Sal.”

From Arthur Zeiger’s introduction:

Bret Harte never really knew the life of the mining camp. His mining experiences were too fragmentary, and consequently his portraits of mining life are wholly impressionistic. “No one,” Mark Twain wrote, “can talk the quartz dialect correctly without learning it with pick and shovel and drill and fuse.” Yet, Twain added elsewhere, “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive.”

The Outing
a story by Dylan Thomas
J.M Dent & Sons Ltd., London (1982)

“The Outing” was first published in 1955, in the volume A Prospect of the Sea, under the less-than-descriptive title “A Story.” I found this book — actually, it’s a little pamphlet six inches wide by four and three-quarters wide — in the poetry section of a used book store I like to visit in downtown Salem. The edition, presented as “An Aldine Paperback,” was first published in 1971, then reprinted in 1972, 1974, 1978, and 1982. Everything about it is charming: the author’s poetic prose, the old-style typeface, and the dark and densely intricate drawings. The paragraphs aren’t indented; there is an extra space between them instead. The first few are a perfect example of what I find so appealing about the writing:

The Outing: A Story

If you can call it a story. There’s no real beginning or end and there’s very little in the middle. It is all about a day’s outing, by charabanc, to Porthcawl, which, of course, the charabanc never reached, and it happened when I was so high and much nicer.

I was staying at the time with my uncle and his wife. Although she was my aunt, I never thought of her as anything but the wife of my uncle, partly because he was so big and trumpeting and red-hairy and used to fill every inch of the hot little house like an old buffalo squeezed into an airing cupboard, and partly because she was so small and silk and quick and made no noise at all as she whisked about on padded paws, dusting the china dogs, feeding the buffalo, setting the mousetraps that never caught her; and once she sleaked out of the room, to squeak in a nook or nibble in the hayloft, you forgot she had ever been there.

But there he was, always, a steaming hulk of an uncle, his braces straining like hawsers, crammed behind the counter of the tiny shop at the front of the house, and breathing like a brass band; or guzzling and blustery in the kitchen over his gutsy supper, too big for everything except the great black boats of his boots. As he ate, the house grew smaller; he billowed out over the furniture, the loud check meadow of his waistcoat littered, as though after a picnic, with cigarette ends, peelings, cabbage stalks, birds’ bones, gravy; and the forest fire of his hair crackled among the hooked hams from the ceiling. . . .

Well. Anyway. I hate to stop. A companion to this volume, Holiday Memory, was on the shelf beside it at the book store. I think I’d better go back and see if it’s still there.

signed, Malraux
by Jean-François Lyotard
translated by Robert Harvey
University of Minnesota Press (1999)

I have no idea why this biography was withdrawn from the library, but for purely selfish reasons I’m glad it was. The 326-page hardcover is in fine condition, has a clean dust jacket with a picture of Malraux pensively smoking a cigarette and one of Lyotard on the back flap, and is nice to have around for occasional random reading.

From the front flap:

André Malraux (1901-1976) was a swashbuckling character — a self-invented adventurer, a onetime smuggler of artifacts, a fighter in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance, an artist and thinker. He has come to epitomize the committed writer, one who not only wrote about revolution but who, when necessary, laid down his pen to pick up a gun. In this incisive and evocative account, Jean-François Lyotard goes beyond the facts and legends about Malraux. Lyotard’s project is to get under Malraux’s skin, tracing the interactions among art, literature, politics, sexuality, and ideology that led to his emergence as a cultural icon.

From the back flap:

Jean-François Lyotard (1925-1998) was one of the principal French philosophers and intellectuals of the twentieth century. His works include Postmodern Fables, The Postmodern Condition, The Differend, Heidegger and “the jews,” and The Postmodern Explained, all published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Robert Harvey is associate professor of French and comparative literatures at SUNY Stony Brook.

And this is how Lyotard sets the stage at the very beginning of the first chapter:

The slim young woman with violet eyes veiled beneath a capeline had enveloped him in her own bereavement on that day in March 1903. And, from the hearse heading down by way of Place Clichy, the little guy could look out with his big peepers and see a hackney coach going by, a bearded man in a derby, an omnibus, bareheaded errand girls with their basket on their arm, a white percheron hauling milk cans, ditch-diggers with their trousers held up by Zouave’s sashes, steaming piles of horse manure, a cabriolet automobile, quarry stone facades decorated with nymphs, haberdashery signs and those of café concerts. All these sights were bounced about by the conveyance, and he felt that none of this agitation was real, that all was but decor, farfelu cinema. Maman’s bosom smelled sweet of quality soap. She spoke to him of things bleak. Sunken in dolefulness, he sat with his nose crushed up against the window.

In the notes section in the back of the book, it says

Farfelu is one of Malraux’s favorite words. The adjective, which he restored from obscurity to fairly widespread usage, means whimsical, eccentric, bizarre, fanciful. Used nominally, it designates a sort of quixotic adventurer. For an in-depth discussion of the term and Malraux’s use of it, see Vandegans, 117-19. Trans.

Tropic of Capricorn
by Henry Miller
Grove Press, New York (1961)

This book is ghastly. Well, maybe not ghastly, but certainly a disappointment, considering all I’ve heard about Miller’s supposed Lost Generation brilliance. He was a capable writer, to be sure; but after a hundred-some-odd pages of his self-centered, disinterested blather, I still felt he was going nowhere. The first paragraph:

Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos. From the beginning it was never anything but chaos: it was a fluid which enveloped me, which I breathed in through the gills. In the substrata, where the moon shone steady and opaque, it was smooth and fecundating; above it was a jangle and a discord. In everything I quickly saw the opposite, the contradiction, and between the real and the unreal the irony, the paradox. I was my own worst enemy. There was nothing I wished to do which I could just as well not do. Even as a child, when I lacked for nothing, I wanted to die: I wanted to surrender because I saw no sense in struggling. I felt that nothing would be proved, substantiated, added or subtracted by continuing an existence which I had not asked for. Everybody around me was a failure, or if not a failure, ridiculous. Especially the successful ones. The successful ones bored me to tears. I was sympathetic to a fault, but it was not sympathy that made me so. It was a purely negative quality, a weakness which blossomed at the mere sight of human misery. I never helped any one expecting that it would do any good; I helped because I was helpless to do otherwise. To want to change the condition of affairs seemed futile to me; nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men? Now and then a friend was converted: it was something to make me puke. I had no more need of God than He had of me, and if there were one, I often said to myself, I would meet Him calmly and spit in His face.

The Complete Works of O. Henry
by O. Henry
foreword by William Lyon Phelps
Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., New York (1937)

They’re all here — hundreds of stories compressed into a dense 1,653-page hardbound volume weighing several pounds, organized by collection: The Four Million, Sixes and Sevens, The Voice of the City, and The Trimmed Lamp, just to name a few. Poor O. Henry. Sad O. Henry. Drunk, desperate, poignant, sincere, observant, street-wise, humorous, sometimes predictable, and on the verge of making a comeback O. Henry. From the foreword:

. . . There is poignancy in his pathos; desolation in his tragedy; and his extraordinary humor is full of those sudden surprise that give us delight. Uncritical readers have never been so deeply impressed with O. Henry as have the professional jaded critics, weary of the old trick a thousand times repeated, who found in his writings a freshness and originality amounting to genius.

The opening paragraphs of O. Henry’s “The Cop and the Anthem”:

On his bench in Madison Square Soapy moved uneasily. When wild geese honk high of nights, and when women without sealskin coats grow kind to their husbands, and when Soapy moves uneasily on his bench in the park, you may know that winter is near at hand.

A dead leaf fell in Soapy’s lap. That was Jack Frost’s card. Jack is kind to the regular denizens of Madison Square, and gives fair warning of his annual call. At the corners of four streets he hands his pasteboard to the North Wind, footman of the mansion of All Outdoors, so that the inhabitants thereof may make ready.

Soapy’s mind became cognizant of the fact that the time had come for him to provide against the coming rigor. And therefore he moved uneasily on his bench. . . .

Here Lies
by Dorothy Parker
The Literary Guild of America, New York (1939)

This 362-page hardcover contains 24 of Parker’s short stories — all “excepting a few which she did not wish to retain among her collected prose.” After reading several, my general feeling is that while the stories are pleasantly and nicely written, they lack originality and substance. Still, there are some good moments, as this one that crops up about five pages into “A Telephone Call”:

If he doesn’t telephone me, I’ll know God is angry with me. I’ll count five hundred by fives, and if he hasn’t called me by then, I will know God isn’t going to help me, ever again. That will be the sign. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five. . . . It was bad. I knew it was bad. All right, God, send me to hell. You think You’re frightening me with Your hell, don’t You? You think Your hell is worse than mine.

And this one at the very beginning of “The Waltz”:

Why, thank you so much. I’d adore to.

I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be him. He’d be well down among the last ten. I’ve seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night. Just think, not a quarter of an hour ago, here I was sitting, feeling so sorry for the poor girl he was dancing with. And now I’m going to be the poor girl. Well, well. Isn’t it a small world?

Wine from These Grapes
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Harper & Brothers (1934)

This is the thirteenth edition of Wine from These Grapes. The date given above is actually the copyright date. This particular volume was given as a Christmas gift to someone (the name is hard to read) from “Gordon” in 1940. So we know that there were thirteen editions in six years’ time.

The collection contains forty-eight poems. It’s printed on laid stock similar to the standard Knopf editions of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and his other works. I like many of the titles: “October—An Etching”; “In the Grave No Flower”; “Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”; “Apostrophe to Man”; “How Naked, How without a Wall.” And here is “Lines for a Grave-stone” in its entirety:

Man alive, that mournst thy lot,
Desiring what thou hast not got,
Money, beauty, love, what not,

Deeming it blesseder to be
A rotted man than live to see
So rude a sky as covers thee,

Deeming thyself of all unblest
And wretched souls the wretchedest,
Longing to die and be at rest:

Know that however grim the fate
That sent thee forth to meditate
Upon my enviable state,

Here lieth one that would resign
Gladly his lot to shoulder thine.
Give me thy coat; get into mine.

Book of Sketches
by Jack Kerouac
with an introduction by George Condo
Penguin Books (2006)

At the moment, I am 118 pages into this collection of spontaneous sketches scribbled by the restless author between 1952 and 1957, which were “Printed Exactly As They Were Written On the Little Pages in the Notebooks I Carried in My Breast Pocket 1952 Summer to 1954 December............ (Not Necessarily Chronological)”

Okay. I don’t know why it says 1952-1957 on the title page. Oh — I see. It says on the flap that he typed the notebooks into manuscript form in 1957, along with a handful of sketches he had written that year. So that question is answered.

In this book, which is small and almost square and contains 413 pages, the type weaves back and forth on the page to show the pattern Kerouac’s handwriting followed in the notebooks. Odd use of capitals, underlining, abbreviations, and doodles are preserved. Most lines are just a few words long, and there are breaks to show where he jumped from one page to the next. A few pages are written in French.

Here are three lines I love, at the top of Page 61:

Rain nails kiss
the dance of the shiny

Prior to that, he has been watching a storm build (I’ll be lazy and dispense with the ragged left margin):

ant pauses to rub
its threads on a
spine of leaf —
the fly solemnly
jumps from the
to the
screen hook — as
breezes rush into
the house from that
perturbed West

Hitchhiking, watching, listening, remembering, lamenting, trying to sober up — it’s all scattered through these pages. There are moments of great poetry here, music, jazz, rhyme, rhythm. And it’s obvious too when Jack is bored, just thumping and waiting for the next great horn player to step in.

Holiday Memory
by Dylan Thomas
illustrated by Meg Stevens
J.M Dent, London (1972)

So, then: I did go back to the book store (see entry for The Outing, above), and, sure enough, this copy was still there. So I paid $3.50 for it and brought it home. This edition, though, is in hardcover, and the illustrations are printed in color — a kind of purplish red, I guess it is. Whatever — they would have been better in black and white, as is proven by the one illustration on the back flap of an old man snoozing against his thermos while his shaggy dog gazes off into the distance. Delightful.

A scene from the carnival grounds:

Draggled and stout-wanting mothers, with haphazard hats, hostile hatpins, buns awry, bursting bags, and children at their skirts like pop-filled and jam-smeared limpets, screamed before distorting mirrors, at their suddenly tapering or tubular bodies and huge ballooning heads, and the children gaily bellowed at their own reflected bogies withering and bulging in the glass.

Well — Mr. Thomas could certainly turn a phrase, couldn’t he?

The Overcoat and The Nose
by Nikolai Gogol
translated by Ronald Wilks
Penguin Books (1995)

“We have all come from under ‘The Overcoat.’” — Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I paid a mere fifty cents for this pocket-sided double dose of Gogol — forty-five cents less than the original cover price. And I know it fits in my pocket because I took it with me twice to read while I was waiting for our old van to be fixed. To keep it out of the rain, I tucked it into the inner pocket of the old black Hungarian sport coat I bought at Goodwill for $12.95 seven years ago to wear to a wedding. Old books, old vans, old coats — what a life. Thank goodness, then, for Gogol. From the back cover:

Nikolai Gogol was born in the Ukraine in 1809. Vladimir Nabokov wrote of his work that “after reading Gogol one’s eyes may become gogolized, and one is apt to see bits of his world in the most unexpected places.” He died in 1852 after subjecting himself to a severe regime of fasting. “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” are two of Gogol’s finest works. “The Nose” is a masterpiece of comic art, and “The Overcoat” is considered one of the greatest short stories ever written.

Well, it is good. Both are, in fact. By the way — the front cover sports a painting by Paul Cézanne, Portrait of the Painter Achille Empereur, c. 1869. It is of a little man sitting on a high-backed flowery chair, his slippered feet resting on a tiny stool, one long bony hand resting on his left knee, the other dangling its fingers like limp noodles near the arm of the chair.

From “The Overcoat”:

Mrs. Petrovich herself failed to notice Akaky Akakievich as he walked through the kitchen and finally entered a room where Petrovich was squatting on a broad, bare wooden table, his feet crossed under him like a Turkish Pasha. As is customary with tailors, he was working in bare feet. The first thing that struck Akaky was his familiar big toe with its deformed nail, thick and hard as tortoiseshell. A skein of silk and some thread hung round his neck and some old rags lay across his lap. For the past two or three minutes he had been trying to thread a needle without any success, which made him curse the poor light and even the thread itself. He grumbled under his breath: “Why don’t you go through, you swine! You’ll be the death of me, you devil!”

And from “The Nose”:

Ivan Yakovlevich, like any honest Russian working man, was a terrible drunkard. And although he spent all day shaving other people’s beards, he never touched his own. His frock-coat (Ivan Yakovlevich never wore a dress-coat) could best be described as piebald: that is to say, it was black, but with brownish-yellow and grey spots all over it. His collar was very shiny, and three loosely hanging threads showed that some buttons had once been there. Ivan Yakovlevich was a very phlegmatic character, and whenever Kovalyov the Collegiate Assessor said “Your hands always stink!” while he was being shaved, Ivan Yakovlevich would say: “But why should they stink?” The Collegiate Assessor used to reply: “Don’t ask me, my dear chap. All I know is, they stink.” Ivan Yakovlevich would answer by taking a pinch of snuff and then, by way of retaliation, lather all over Kovalyov’s cheeks, under his nose, behind the ears and beneath his beard — in short, wherever he felt like covering him with soap.

Perhaps this would be a good place to mention that Yakovlevich, a barber who one morning found Kovalyov’s nose in a roll his wife had baked, also ate onions with his breakfast. Eh?

Favorite Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
introduction by Henry Seidel Canby
illustrated by Edward A. Wilson
Doubleday (1947)

This is a nice, basic, hardbound collection of Longfellow’s poems. It includes, of course, several favorites of early generations: “The Song of Hiawatha,” “A Psalm of Life,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “Evangeline.” Here is the closing paragraph of Mr. Canby’s introduction:

A gentle man, with sentiments stronger than his passions, and ambition continuing his genius, highly cultivated, not strongly intellectual but truly aesthetic, with a fondness for melancholy and a nostalgia for the past — that is one view of Longfellow. Yet — and this is what makes him interesting and made him successful — also a writer of incredible literary energy, pursuing the best in craftsmanship, a mind intensely sensitive, not so much to life as to the feelings about life which we call literature. Also, again, the best representative of young America seeking Old World culture, one of the most articulate romancers of our past and of all pasts which seemed to him romantic. No Shakespeare, no Dante, no Emerson in height, no Walt Whitman in prophetic intuition, nevertheless, he did enough in being Longfellow definitely to enrich his times and our literature.

I haven’t read Longfellow extensively, but this seems a pretty fair description. His poems strike me as sturdy and well made, but soaring moments are few and far between. They create instead an atmosphere and feeling of reverence, and leave no doubt that Longfellow cared deeply about his subject matter. Here is the opening verse of “My Lost Youth”:

Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
And a verse of a Lapland song
Is haunting my memory still:
“A boy’s will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”

Lines such as these have a very pleasant cumulative effect. In fact, they make me want to put another log on the fire and smoke a pipe. But since it’s summer at the moment, and since I haven’t had any pipe tobacco in the house for several years, I will type in the first few verses of “Haunted Houses”:

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are a haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

Haiku Harvest — Japanese Haiku Series IV
translated by Peter Beilenson and Harry Behn
decorations by Jeff Hill
The Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, New York (1962)

I found this appealing little hardcover in the used book store the other day — or maybe it found me, because I was in the store only a couple of minutes when it jumped from the shelf and into my hands. At least I believe it happened that way.

I was impressed by Harry Behn’s foreword, which I will quote here in its entirety, since it is so informative and reflects so strongly the spirit of the

Of all the haiku I have read — in English, since I know hardly a word of Japanese — the three previous collections from Peter Beilenson’s press, and his pen, in my opinion are the best, by far the best, translations. He brought each picture to instant life. He did not cloud nuance with words. And yet each poem is fully at home in our own language. Each has its own inner music, with the least alteration of content, no forced sentiment or emotion, no mere cleverness. Tenderness, irony, exuberance vision, a listening, and always beauty — he sensed in each of these qualities a dialogue between this world and the world of the spirit, and he conveyed both image and echo.

Having so admired his three books of over six hundred haiku, when asked to complete the fourth, I was hesitant. I could only try to do what he would have done. Following his way of work, I read all the translations I could find, recited Henderson’s phonetic Japanese versions for sound, absorbed Atasaro Miyamori’s literal couplets and his sensitive notes, finally bursting out with what seemed the inevitable; what I felt the poet might have said in English.

In doing this job reverently in Peter’s stead, I am grateful for the pleasant company of his friends, Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki, and other of those old Haijin who spoke with such beautiful, evocative simplicity.

This should have been Peter Beilenson’s book. He had just come to Basho’s joyous shout about bringing a snowball in by the fire, when he died.

The poems themselves are all rendered in four lines, using only capital letters. There are four poems on each page, and the outer margins are decorated with scenes from nature about an inch wide — a dragonfly here, birds there, a pond, a cloud, a moon, a road. Very nice. And the poems themselves are a delight. Here, quickly, are a couple of favorites — the first by Masahide, the second by Issa:

Since my house
burned down, I now own
a better view
of the rising moon

You fleas seem to find
the night as long
as I do.
Are you lonely, too?

Selections from the Poems of Thomas Gray
edited by A.M. Van Dyke, M.A.
American Book Company (1898)

I picked this up on the same day and at the same store as noted in the preceding entry. The price: only three dollars. Condition: quite good. Pages: eighty. The introduction begins with this intriguing information:

Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London, December 26, 1716. His father, Philip Gray, was a scrivener and broker, a man of violent temper and jealous disposition, with some symptons of madness. He abandoned his family, and died abroad, leaving but little of his reputed wealth.

His mother was Dorothy Antrobus Gray, most touchingly described by the poet, in the inscription placed on her tombstone, as “the tender mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her.” The other eleven children died in infancy. . . .

After the introduction, which runs ten pages and ends with the sentence “His life was a luxurious, thoughtful dream,” there is a one-page chronological outline of Gray’s life. He died on July 30, 1771, at the age of fifty-five.

The book itself is replete with footnotes — to the point that they often dominate the page, and make this reader, at least, want to brush the numbers out of the verse. I did try smudging them with my thumb, but to no avail. Here is the first verse of one of Gray’s most famous poems, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Leaves of Grass
1855 Edition

by Walt Whitman
Lowe & B. Hould Publishers (Borders imprint, no year given)

This book will likely end up with its own page in Favorite Books and Authors later on, but since I haven’t had time to thoroughly study it yet I’ll go ahead and list it here. It’s a beautifully printed hardcover that measures five and three-quarters inches by seven and three-quarters. Page count: 155. Price: 6 dollars. This volume contains Whitman’s preface to the 1855 first edition, the twelve untitled poems he first gathered and presented as Leaves of Grass and a sixteen-page prose piece called “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.”

Here are a few lines from the end of the last poem:

Great is goodness; I do not know what it is any more than I know what health is . . . . but
     I know it is great.

Great is wickedness . . . . I find I often admire it just as much as I admire goodness:
Do you call that a paradox? It certainly is a paradox.

The eternal equilibrium of things is great, and the eternal overthrow of things is great,
And there is another paradox.

Great is life . . and real and mystical . . wherever and whoever,
Great is death . . . . Sure as life holds all parts together, death holds all parts together;
Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life.

Walden or, Life in the Woods
by Henry David Thoreau
Castle Books, Edison, New Jersey (no year given)

I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake the neighbors up.

Ah, yes. I’m thoroughly enjoying this bargain hardcover volume, which I picked up a few weeks ago at Borders. It includes a photograph of the 1854 title page of the original Ticknor and Fields edition, a wonderful photo of Thoreau taken in 1856 at the age of thirty-nine, maps of Concord, Walden Pond, and their surroundings, and photos of two of Thoreau’s chairs and his writing table.

Thoreau’s prose is as clear as Walden Pond itself — a body of water observed more carefully and appreciated more deeply, perhaps, than anyone before or since. As seen in these pages, his life was a lesson in frugality, simplicity, and individuality. No social more goes unchallenged — what he accepts, he accepts only after careful thought and consideration.

Is Thoreau boring? How can a man be boring if he is rarely, if ever, bored himself? Was he a hermit? Hardly. From the pricless beginning of Chapter 6, “Visitors”:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. . . .

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head. . . .

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
and other Travel Sketches

by Matsuo Basho
translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Penguin Books (1966)

Just inside the front cover is a mini-biography of Basho:

Basho, the Japanese poet and diarist, was born in Iga-ueno near Kyoto in 1644. He spent his youth as companion to the son of the local lord, and with him studied the writing of seventeen-syllable verse. In 1667 he moved to Edo (now Tokyo) where he continued to write verse. He eventually became a recluse, living on the outskirts of Edo in a hut. When he travelled he relied entirely on the hospitality of temples and fellow-poets. In his writings he was strongly influenced by the Zen sect of Buddhism.

Basho’s life and the history of haiku are the subjects of Yuasa’s fascinating introduction. Several pages of notes follow Basho’s travel sketches, which bear wonderful names, such as “The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton,” “The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel,” and the title piece, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

Basho lived fifty years. His portrait on the front cover depicts him as an old man. And, throughout the book, he refers to himself that way. Here is the beginning of the first piece, “The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton”:

Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the August of the first year of Jyokyo among the wails of the autumn wind.

Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart.

After ten autumns
In Edo, my mind
Points back to it
As my native place.

On his long journeys (there are maps at the back of the book), Basho admired nature, knew privation, fear, joy, loneliness, and companionship, and approached them as rare flowers he felt privileged to behold. And that, it seems to me, is the essence of haiku, and of Basho’s brief time here on earth.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
by William Blake
Dover Publications, New York (1994)

I couldn’t resist this beautiful little book. It was produced from a rare facsimile of Blake’s hand-printed text and full-color illustrations. From the back cover (paper, 43 pages, $4.95):

Once regarded as a brilliant eccentric whose works skirted the outer fringes of English art and literature, William Blake (1757-1827) is today recognized as a major poet, a profound thinker and one of the most original and exciting English artists. Nowhere is his glorious poetic and pictorial legacy more evident than in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which many consider his most inspired and original work.

The heavy glossy paper in this edition brings Blake’s art to life. Reading the text requires a bit of patience. But there is also a full transcription at the end of the book. Below is the transcription of Plate 15, “A Memorable Fancy,” with Blake’s spelling and punctuation intact:

     I was in a printing house in Hell & saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.
     In the first chamber was a Dragon-Man, clearing away the rubbish from a caves mouth; within, a number of Dragons were hollowing the cave.
     In the second chamber was a Viper folding around the rock & the cave, and others adorning it with gold, silver and precious stones.
     In the third chamber was an Eagle with wings and feathers of air; he caused the inside of the cave to be infinite; around were numbers of Eagle like men, who built palaces in the immense cliffs.
     In the fourth chamber were Lions of flaming fire raging around & melting the metals into living fluids.
     In the fifth chamber were Unnam’d forms, which cast the metals into the expanse.
     There they were reciev’d by Men who occupied the sixth chamber, and took the forms of books & were arranged in libraries.

by Herman Melville
with an afterword by Nigel Cliff
Barnes & Noble Books, New York (2004)

I found this little beauty the other day at a used bookstore. It’s hardbound, and its 768 pages are trimmed in gold. I’m rich! And it only set me back $3.50. The top was quite dusty; I’m sure no one has read it before. Like a thin-paged bible, it even has one of those narrow ribbon markers. This captivating etymology appears on Page 13:

Supplied by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school

The pale usher — threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.

Whale Sw. and Dan. hval. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan. hvalt is arched or vaulted. — Webster’s Dictionary

Whale It is more immediately from the Dut. and Ger. wallen; a.s. Walv-ian, to roll, to wallow. — Richardson’s Dictionary

On Page 14 is the word “whale” in the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, English, French, Spanish, Fegee, and Erromangoan languages. And here are Melville’s memorable opening words from the beginning of Chapter 1:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. . . .

Three Lives & Tender Buttons
by Gertrude Stein
with a new introduction by Diana Souhami
New American Library (Signet Classic), New York (2003)

For an inexpensive paperback, this volume is quite tastefully done. The front cover even boasts a reproduction of Picasso’s 1906 painting of Stein. Here is the first paragraph of Souhami’s introduction:

Gertrude Stein was a humorous, down-to-earth woman, hospitable and wise, with a love for ordinary comfortable living. She liked good food, friendly conversation, walking the dog (Basket, a large white poodle), driving down French country lanes in Auntie (her model-T Ford), holidaying in Italy, eating wild strawberries for breakfast and and honey cakes for tea. Bravig Imbs, an American writer friend, said of her that she had the most engaging and infectious laugh he had ever heard: “It began abruptly at a high pitch and cascaded down and down into rolls of unctuous merriment. It was straight from the heart.” In life Gertrude was grounded and pleasant. By contrast, in her writing she broke all rules of narrative progression, structure, form, style and especially sense.

Three Lives contains the stories of “The Good Anna,” “The Gentle Lena,” and “Melanctha.” The abstract Tender Buttons contains three sections: “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” Here is the intriguing first entry in “Objects”:


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Half-hours with the Best Authors
Biographical and critical notices by Charles Knight
Fifty-two illustrations by William Harvey
Frederick Warne and Co., London, Bedford Street, Strand

I could either spend the next half-hour trying to describe the curious, almost choking, tangy-musty smell that emanates from the pages of this old book, or telling a bit about its contents. I paid three dollars for it recently “as is” in a little used bookstore that was flooded several years ago when an old water main broke nearby, tragically destroying a good many beautiful old books. Clearly, this volume wasn't among the victims; rather, it attained its powerful smell elsewhere, the slow hard way. It’s definitely old, but the copyright page is missing. A sad loss; but, other than a few loose pages, this old yellowed hardcover is still in pretty fair condition.

Half-hours with the Best Authors contains quite an assortment of intriguing writing samples, ranging from Bolingbroke to Hallam to Crabbe to Macaulay to Boswell to Cowley to Hardy to Shakspere (their spelling; Shakespeare himself, I’ve read, spelled his own name in several different ways), Knowles, Litton, Byron, Coleridge, Fitz Stephen, Wordsworth, and so on and so forth.

The introduction to Douglas Jerrold’s “A Gossip at Reculvers” might be another clue to the age of this book:

Douglas Jerrold is a name still familiar in every mouth. A book has been dedicated to him as to “the first wit of the present age.” Those who have seen him in private life will feel that this is not mere friendly exaggeration. Those who know him through the veil of anonymous writing understand that a good deal of the long-continued success of a periodical work, at which all could laugh and few were offended, may be ascribed to his inexhaustible possession of that “infinite jest,” of those “flashes of merriment” which “set the table in a roar.” . . . He died in 1857.

New English Dictionary
“John Bull” Edition
Odhams Press Limited, London (1932)

From Page 135, under bull (1): John Bull: The English people personified; an Englishman.

There. Now that that’s done, I can say that I found this lovely 1,300-page tome at a local thrift store, at the ridiculously low price of $1.95. The cover is a leathery-looking dimpled black vinyl. The dictionary was edited by Ernest A. Baker, M.A., D.Lit., Director of the University of London School of Librarianship, and Lecturer in English, University College, London. The edition was printed in Great Britain in March 1932, by the Greycaine Book Manufacturing Company Limited, Watford.

After the regular definitions, there’s a section titled “Foreign Phrases and Words in English Literary and Legal Use” that looks quite interesting. Basta! [It.] Enough! Stop! . . . I see lots of Latin here, and French, and some Italian, but no Basque and Armenian, so it can’t be much of a dictionary. Fama nihil est celerius [L.] Nothing travels more swiftly than scandal.

The Foreign Phrases section is followed by one called “Pronunciation of Proper Names,” about ninety-eight percent of which I have never heard anyone say, probably because they didn’t know how to pronounce them.

Next comes “Abbreviations, Signs, and Symbols,” then a section for weights and measures and a table for Centigrade-Fahrenheit conversion. Finally, there’s a “Supplement,” Comprising words coined, introduced, or brought into popular use during the Great War.

Well. It’s a dictionary. What else can I say? — except that when a guy is as ignorant as I am, he needs all the help he can get.

Songs from Robert Burns
by Robert Burns
Collins’ Clear-Type Press, London and Glasgow

Ah, what a treasure. This 64-page pocket-sized book with rough-cut pages, marbled leather cover, and marbled endpapers is in pretty good shape for its age. Unfortunately, no printing date or other publication information is given. But the book looks old and smells old, and there’s a lovely inscription in a style of handwriting one just doesn't see anymore. It goes like this:

Chère -
     If you should choose
to read the thots from out
this book, think not of its
weight in terms of silver,
nor of gold, but rather,
in terms of Friendship,
with its words
breathing sweet
emanations of the heart
more subtle than a
summer breeze at eventide.

That inscription alone was enough reason to bring the book home. Here’s another reason, from Page 30:

John Anderson My Jo

John Anderson my jo, John,
    When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
    Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
    Your locks are like the snaw;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
    John Anderson my jo!

John Anderson my jo, John,
    We clamb the hill thegither,
And monie a canty day, John,
    We’ve had wi’ ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
    And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
    John Anderson my jo!

The Oresteia
by Aeschylus
translated by E.D.A. Morshead
introduction by Rex Warner
illustrated by Michael Ayrton
The Heritage Press, New York (1961)

One of these years, on a cold, tempest-laden night, I will build a raging fire and read this book. This impressive oversized volume contains the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Furies. Michael Ayrton’s haunting full-page illustrations transcend the book’s physical dimensions and seem much larger than really are. Here are the first and last paragraphs of the Introduction:

The Oresteia of Aeschylus was first performed in Athens in the spring of 458 B.C., some two years before the poet’s death. At this dramatic contest the trilogy won the first prize. Ever since then it has been regarded by all sensitive critics as one of the most (if not the most) magnificent and powerful achievements of man in drama.

Indeed there are innumberable “meanings” in the Oresteia. They are set forth both plainly and mysteriously in human terms. The supreme greatness of Aeschylus lies in his ability to combine elements which appear to be opposites. He is both realistic and allegorical, simple and involved, modern and ancient; a believer in man, whom he knows, and in God “whoever he may be.”

This is the first verse of Agamemnon, spoken by the Watchman:

I pray the gods to quit me of my toils,
To close the watch I keep, this livelong year;
For as a watch-dog lying, not at rest,
Propped up on one arm, upon the palace-roof
Of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know
The starry conclave of the midnight sky,
Too well, the splendours of the firmament,
The lords of light, whose kingly aspect shows—
What time they set or climb the sky in turn—
The year’s divisions, bringing frost and fire.

There is also a “Note on the Translation” by E.D.A. Morshead, and he furnishes some more notes after the trilogy.

The Road Not Taken and Other Poems
by Robert Frost
Dover Publications, New York (1993)

I love these Dover Thrift Editions and have picked up several over the years. Best of all, I’ve noticed lately at one of our larger used bookstores downtown that there is a new infusion of Thrift Editions. This is right up my alley — actually, the place is on an alley, and I’ve met some interesting people there — because I usually have only a few dollars in my wallet, and the Thrift Editions cost only a buck or two. This particular volume was a dollar and a half.

Well — just about everyone has heard of Robert Frost and his lovely title poem, which ends thus:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It says on the back cover that the book is a republication of Mountain Interval, originally published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, in 1916. Interesting. That’s good to know. A few of the poems included are “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” “In the Home Stretch,” “Meeting and Passing,” “Putting In the Seed,” “A Time to Talk,” “The Hill Wife,” “The Exposed Nest,” and “The Sound of Trees.” Here is “House Fear” in its brief entirety:

Always—I tell you this they learned—
Always at night when they returned
To the lonely house from far away
To lamps unlighted and fire gone gray,
They learned to rattle the lock and key
To give whatever might chance to be
Warning and time to be off in flight:
And preferring the out- to the in-door night,
They learned to leave the house-door wide
Until they had lit the lamp inside.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Other Poems
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Dover Publications, New York (1992)

This eighty-page Dover Thrift Edition is the republication of selections from The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published by Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press, London, in 1917. The front cover boasts a detail from the great Mariner artwork done by Gustave Doré.

Since I’ve already quoted from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on the main page of Favorite Books & Authors, here instead is the first verse of “Frost at Midnight”:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not,
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
by Henry David Thoreau
Dover Publications, New York (1993)

This ninety-six-page Dover Thrift Edition is a “selection of essays reprinted from original sources.” Included along with the title essay are “Life without Principle” (on self-reliance and individualism), “Slavery in Massachusetts” (an attack on government condoning slavery), “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (in defense of the radical abolitionist), and “Walking” (pleads for wilderness conversation).

Here are the opening lines of “Civil Disobedience”:

I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. . . .

The Vision of Sir Launfal, The Cathedral, Favorite Poems
by James Russell Lowell
Houghton, Mifflin and Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge (1876)

I admit it: I bought this book because it’s old, and because it fits the inside pocket of the black sport coat I found eight years ago at Goodwill. At a glance the poetry seems harmless, pleasant, and on the boring side. Here is Verse VII of Part Second of the title poem:

As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face,
A light shone round about the place;
The leper no longer crouched at his side,
But stood before him glorified,
Shining and tall and fair and straight
As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,—
Himself the Gate whereby men can
Enter the temple of God in Man.

The book does contain some nice illustrations. Sir Launfal appears to be about the age of Coleridge’s ancient mariner, but he definitely lacks the mariner’s purpose and demented gaze. Too bad!

by Émile Zola
Introduction by Burton Rascoe
Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1925; third printing)

It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Zola, whose steady workmanlike habits resulted in a mountain of “realistic” and very readable novels, such as The Earth, L’Assommoir, and Germinal. From the first paragraph of the introduction:

In any appreciation of Emile Zola it is well to admit first of all that he was lacking in taste, discrimination, selection, vision, a sense of form, indeed, in almost everything we have come to deem requisite in an artist. But, having admitted so much, we must also be prepared to acknowledge that he was a man of a kind of genius, a conspicuous and in many ways a great novelist, and that he exerted a profound and lasting influence upon the development of literature. Thus it comes about that even while execrating him, critics have paid tribute, if only by the heat of their disparagement, to the peculiar and particular genius that was his. . . .

From the opening of Chapter Two:

The next morning at ten o’clock, Nana was still sleeping. She occupied, in the Boulevard Haussmann, the second storey of a large new house, the owner of which was content to let to single ladies, in order to get his plaster dried. A rich merchant from Moscow, who had come to spend a winter in Paris, had installed her there, paying two quarters’ rent in advance. . . .

The book itself is a lovely hardbound volume printed on laid stock with rough-cut edges. It would look nice on a little bedside table in a painting, near an empty glass and a crumpled handkerchief or a pair of soft white gloves.

Collected Poems 1909-1962
by T.S. Eliot
Harcourt Brace & Company (1991)

This 221-page hardcover volume (picked up at a used bookstore for $9.95, according to a little tag I just found) contains Eliot’s Prufrock poems (1917), The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), and much more. From the inside flap:

In this volume, one of the most distinguished poets of our century selected all of his poetry through 1962 that he wished to preserve.

An event of major literary significance, Collected Poems 1909-1962 was published on T.S. Eliot’s seventy-fifth birthday. It offers the complete text of Collected Poems 1909-1935, the full text of Four Quartets, and several other poems.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, widely honored for his poetry, criticism, essays, and plays, T.S. Eliot exerted a profound influence on his contemporaries in the arts as well as on a great international audience of readers.

He also corresponded and eventually had dinner with Groucho Marx — an unlikely match if there ever was one.

The first verse of “Preludes,” from Prufrock and Other Observations:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

And the memorable opening lines of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The Earthly Paradise
A Poem, Part IV
by William Morris
Longmans, Green, and Co., London and Bombay (1903)

Like so many others, I found this nice little 400-page hardcover at the Friends of the Salem Public Library bookstore. Noted as the “Author’s Edition,” the book is divided into three sections: December, January, and February. These are followed by an Epilogue and a bit of italicized verse called “L’envoi.” Here’s the first verse of “December”:

Dead lonely night and all streets quiet now,
Thin oe’r the moon the hindmost cloud swims past
Of that great rack that brought us up the snow;
On earth strange shadows oe’r the snow are cast;
Pale stars, bright moon, swift cloud, make heaven so vast
That earth left silent by the wind of night
Seems shrunken ’neath the gray unmeasured height.

by Sylvia Plath
foreword by Robert Lowell
Harper & Row, New York (1966)

The first paragraph of Lowell’s foreword:

In these poems, written in the last months of her life and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself, becomes something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created—hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another “poetess,” but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines. This character is feminine, rather than female, though almost everything we customarily think of as feminine is turned on its head. The voice is now coolly amused, witty, now sour, now fanciful, girlish, charming, now sinking to the strident rasp of the vampire—a Dido, Phaedra, or Medea, who can laugh at herself as “cow-heavy and floral in my Victorian nightgown.” Though lines get repeated, and sometimes the plot is lost, language never dies in her mouth.

That’s quite a line, “language never dies in her mouth.” And here is Plath’s poem, “Poppies in October” — still alive now, long after her suicide:

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

And isn’t it interesting how different the poem would be if it had ended with a question mark instead of a period.

The Oxford Book of American Verse
chosen and with an introduction by F.O. Matthiessen
Oxford University Press, New York (1952, third printing)

Lucky me — I paid only $1.95 for this 1,132-page hardcover at a local thrift store. And I’ve found several appealing tidbits, such as Trumbull Stickney’s four-line “Dramatic Fragment,” which I included in this entry of my blog, Recently Banned Literature, as well as e.e. cummings’ ‘next to of course

‘next to of course god america I
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?’

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

The book also includes a long list of “the usual suspects” — famous names like Auden, Frost, Pound, Whitman, Eliot, Tate, Dickinson, Longfellow, Emerson, Jeffers, Moore, Robert Penn Warren (for some reason I just couldn’t leave it at “Warren”), Hart Crane — not Stephen Crane, whose poems I come across every now and then — Robert Lowell (to distinguish from Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell, who are both represented), Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier — well, I guess there’s no use listing them all. H.D., Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg . . . Wallace Stevens . . . William Carlos Williams . . . Anyway. Here’s Ezra Pound’s “A Pact”:

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.

Back to Favorite Books & Authors
I Read, Therefore I Am
Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
80 pages. Paper.
Cosmopsis Books
San Francisco

Signed copies available

Main Page
Author’s Note
A Listening Thing
Among the Living
No Time to Cut My Hair
One Hand Clapping
Songs and Letters
Collected Poems
Early Short Stories
Armenian Translations
Cosmopsis Print Editions
News and Reviews
Highly Recommended
Let’s Eat
Favorite Books & Authors
Useless Information
Flippantly Answered Questions
E-mail & Parting Thoughts

More Books, Poetry, Notes & Marginalia:
Recently Banned Literature

A few words about my favorite dictionary . . .

Top of Page