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A Bibliophile’s Visit to Paris

I just returned from a long weekend in Paris, and it was the first time I’d spent any time in the city in over a decade. As we strolled, sipped, and simply bathed in the glory of the city, I was moved to recall that old epigram by French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, the more things change, the more things stay the same. I think this applies especially to Parisian book culture. The famous bouquinistes, or open-air antiquarian booksellers, still manned their hunter-green stalls along the river quayside, offering passersby the pleasure of searching for literary treasure while simultaneously taking in the city sights. While I knew that this tradition had existed in Paris since the 1500s, I didn’t realize just how many bookstalls comprise this UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, over 200 booksellers operate 900 book boxes, stretching from the Pont Marie on the Left Bank to the Quai Voltaire on the Right Bank, and is touted on postcards printed by the Mairie de Paris as ‘the largest open-air bookstore in the world.’


A “bouquiniste” by the Seine, in Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After browsing the stalls, I hopped on the Métro, taking the lightning-fast Line 14 to visit my old stomping grounds, the ever-evolving Tolbiac section of the 13th arrondissement. In addition to a bustling Chinatown, this neighborhood is famous for hosting the large towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Fourteen years ago, the only things piercing the skyline here were the four glass-and steel towers of the library, and visitors unfamiliar to the area were few and far between. (For a detailed picture of the highly ambitious, intensely controversial construction of the new facility, look no further than the last chapter of Nick Basbanes’ Patience & Fortitude, where the library’s architect calls the Tolbiac site “a stretch of industrial wasteland on the banks of the Seine.”)


By savagecat [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, things do change. The area is now home to urban hipsters, boutiques, movie theaters, eco-friendly condos and floating bars. The piscine Josephine Baker, the first pool to be built in Paris since 1992 was opened across from the Bibliotheque. Best described as a pool-barge, the Josephine Baker’s glass windows look directly onto the Seine, and get swimmers as close to taking a plunge in the river without chancing their health. On sunny days, the roof retracts, and sunbathers can gaze out onto the Seine, or admire their literary patrimony soaring into the sky beside them.

So what did I bring home? A novel by Francophone writer and UCLA professor Alain Mabanckou, and another biting satire by Michel Houellebecq, who, rumor has it, also calls the 13th his home. Vive Paris!

Noepe, an Island Writing Sanctuary

Back in the early 2000s, poet and recent graduate of Emerson’s MFA program Justen Ahren returned to his Martha’s Vineyard home and found that while the island was full of writers, there wasn’t a formal space for folks to get together and share their writing experiences. So, after attending a few far-flung workshops, Ahren wondered why he couldn’t foster a literary community in his own backyard.

As we spoke at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival in early August, Ahren recalled how his  writing program took shape:  “In 2006, the proprietor of the Point Way Inn in Edgartown asked if I had any ideas for using the space in a different way, and without hesitating I suggested creating a writers residency.” The next year, the Noepe Center for Literary Arts  opened its doors. “We had two attendees that year. This year we’ll welcome 60 writers-in-residence!” he exclaimed.


The nonprofit bills itself as an inspirational sanctuary where writers attend workshops and author lectures, and offers both established and emerging writers space and time to put words to paper. Workshops are open to the public - this week, for example, husband and wife team Author Richard Zacks and ICM Agent Kristine Dahl explain how a book gets published, from conception to publication. Writers interested in the residency program apply through Noepe’s website.

Even with the island literary community well-established, a touch of wanderlust drives Ahren to keep traveling. This November he is inviting ten writers to pack their bags and meet up in Orvieto, Italy, for a weeklong workshop devoted to cultivating a daily writing practice. “I chose Orvieto after visiting the town with my daughter. It’s small enough to feel intimate, yet big enough to offer ample cultural, social and entertainment opportunities,” Ahern said.

The writing center is called Noepe after the Wamanpoag Indian name for Martha’s Vineyard. It means ‘land between the currents,’ and that’s what this place offers its visitors - a small, serene patch of solid ground in an ever more turbulent and congested publishing world.

The Gay Head cliffs in Martha's Vineyard consi...

The Gay Head cliffs in Martha’s Vineyard consist almost entirely of clay and have long been a sacred spot for the Wampanoag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Very Gorey Halloween

Halloween is still two weeks away, yet goblins, witches and faux headstones already claim valuable lawn space across the country. While the kids celebrate with silly tricks and sticky treats, why not indulge grown-ups this season with work by the marvelously gloomy Edward Gorey.

Located in the Flatiron neighborhood in Manhattan, B&B Rare Books is featuring three Gorey first editions; The Doubtful Guest, ($275) The Blue Aspic ($150) and The Loathsome Couple($100).  All three are in fine to very good condition and none will break the bank. 


Although these books aren’t for the faint of heart - unwelcome visitors, death and destruction feature prominently throughout - perhaps the most ghoulish tale is The Loathsome Couple.  It is considered a cult classic among Gorey collectors and tells such a shocking story that even the author acknowledged it as his most appalling. The murderous husband and wife couple is based on a real duo that perpetrated the chilling Moors Murders in England in the 1960’s.  Unlike in most Gorey tales, the characters in this book are caught and suitably punished. 

Another way to celebrate Halloween would be to visit the Gorey House in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. Since the author’s death in 2000, the home has been converted into a delightfully unique museum that chronicles the life, work and charitable endeavors of the master of macabre. 


The Gorey House hasn’t planned anything special for Halloween this year. (The House co-hosted a Dracula Blood Drive with the Cape Cod Hospital in 2006, but hasn’t since then.) It is currently exhibiting original artwork from The Vinegar Works, Three Volumes of Moral Instruction.

Currently featured in the gift shop is a toy theater based on Gorey’s drawings and sets for his award-winning Broadway production of Dracula. It retails at a reasonable $25.00.

Sadly, Ombledroom, the twenty-eight pound white cat who ruled the House and delighted visitors for twelve years, passed away last summer at the age of twelve. Visitors can pay tribute at to the feline’s final resting place, which is situated under a Southern magnolia tree on a patch of lawn by the house.   Happy Haunting!


A semi-regular series profiling new archives.

jc_peckham_peace_wall_003_0.jpgThis past August marked the anniversary of the London riots, the anniversary of a terrible time that saw pockets of the city razed, pillaged and plundered for reasons that still have not been adequately identified.

In the South-East district of Peckham, the damage was devastating and iconic: images of a flaming double-decker bus on the local high street became emblems of the destruction the rest of the city had sustained. 

The worst in a few brought out the best in the rest of communities all over London: the streets were cleaned, the broken glass and skeletal remains of burned out cars were cleared away early in early the morning after the riots, a massive effort organized almost entirely over Twitter. In Peckham, the boarded-up windows of a looted Poundland (the UK equivalent of a Dollar Store), went a step beyond utility: they became a public archive. Members of the local theatre, the Peckham Shed, started to stick post-it notes on the boards, decorating what they called the ‘Why We Love Peckham Wall’:

There was so much fear, anger and distress in the area in the aftermath of the rioting that we wanted to do something to remind people that lots of people really care about Peckham; that there are incredibly talented young people here and a vibrant and proud community which wants to come together to try to address the problems here. (Source)
Neighbors and passersby joined in, and soon the covered wall was featured as a zoomable, interactive images on The BBC: “Peckham isHome”; “CHANGE!”; “I feel at home here”; “PECKHAM LIVES”, and “I love Peckham”.

Luckily, the Peckham Shed also had it in mind to preserve the testimonies of locals with more than images - and thus an archive of just about the most ephemeral materials you can think of, Post-It Notes, was born.

Last month in remembrance of the riots the boards containing the post-its were exhibited outside the library in an area known as the Peckham Space.  And now, the Peckham Peace Wall has been installed, according to the Creative Review, it is based on 4,000 originals that have been digitally hand-traced and added to tiles for permanent display, designed by the local creative collective Garudio Studiage.

jc_peckham_peace_wall_009_0.jpgArchives are awfully elastic things: it’s great that something like the Peckham Peace Wall, an archive from the ashes, serves all three purposes of serious commemoration, positive reinforcement, and the literal preservation of local color and local involvement. Let’s hope to see more like it. 

The Water Babies in the 100 Greatest Books for (Victorian) Kids

Guest Blog
by Catherine Batac Walder

A recent blog post on this site linked to the 100 Greatest Books for Kids. It made me think of children’s books that were extremely popular during their time and wonder what had caused the decline in their status such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.

Around the time this list of 100 Greatest Books for Kids was published, we nipped into an antique shop in Eversley, a village close to ours, and were drawn to St. Mary’s Church right beside the antique shop, where Kingsley had been rector from 1844 until his death in 1875.

St. Mary’s Church in Eversley, the view from Charles Kingsley’s grave.

The Water Babies is the only work of Kingsley that I’ve read so far. I personally couldn’t grasp the idea of Tom, the young boy in the story, turning into a water baby as I thought this new life in the water was even lonelier at first and more unsafe than the cruelty and danger he had faced as a chimney sweep. The idea is for him to learn from his adventures but then it wasn’t his fault that he was born poor and didn’t know much as a chimney sweep. To become a water baby was, I thought, an unfair way to be taught lessons in life. At the end of the tale, he was restored to being a human again. That he didn’t remain a water baby, to me, seemed to have defeated the whole purpose of his transformation and just proved that it was better to be a land baby after all. The first few chapters were strong but it appeared as though his transformation into a water baby was only to keep the adventures going, somehow to create excitement out of the author’s desire to impart a moral fable. Tom’s adventures aren’t as fantastic as those of the hobbits or that certain boy wizard for today’s readers. There didn’t seem to be enough “action” whenever he met someone new. Kingsley (as the narrator addressing a young boy, presumably his youngest child, to whom he dedicated the story) wrote like a firm school teacher. I did enjoy the references to pop culture of that time. His thoughts I didn’t find out of date but there was just a lot of information and he dwelt too much on a single subject, almost sounding too defensive about his arguments.
Many are of the opinion that the decline in popularity of The Water Babies roots from the inclusion of the common prejudices of that time period and insulting references to other races, cultures and religion.* Apparently, most modern editions of the book have an inscription on the copyright page stating that “references that would have little meaning or purpose for the children of today have been omitted.” I haven’t read a modern edition of the book so I’m not sure which parts had been edited out. But then the tale is satirical and as in any such work, the author uses irony that in the end we’re not quite sure if he’s dismissing others or his kind. Undeniably, Kingsley had wit and humor. And if I would think of other things that were admirable about him, I would put on top of the list his niece Mary Kingsley (1861-1900) who was considered to be a woman who belonged to the twentieth century in her desire to affirm the value of different cultures. She was an explorer in West Africa and was a champion of the traditions of indigenous peoples. She challenged the prevailing assumptions of her generation through her passionate concern to understand and safeguard the tribal societies she encountered (Fuller and Fuller, The Story of Eversley Church, 2004, p.19).

Kingsley Centenary Window, the south window of the chancel, designed by Christopher Webb.

Eversley Church was listed in the Domesday Book as a possession of Westminster Abbey. What singles it out among typical English churches is its connection to Charles Kingsley. As you explore the church, you see many memorials, stained glass windows, etc. all relating to Kingsley. The crèche is called “The Water Babies Creche.” There is a stained glass window in the chancel that marks the centenary of Kingsley’s arrival in Eversley as a curate. Installed in 1942, the window shows the figure of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the heroine of Kingsley’s poem “The Saint’s Tragedy” and the figures on each side are reminiscent of the water babies. My favorite part of the church is the Sarsen Stone that was discovered there in 1940. Geologists identified it as one of the Bagshot series from about 50,000 years ago.

Grave of Charles Kingsley and his wife Fanny at the St. Mary’s churchyard. The Latin epitaph at the base reads “Amavimus, amamus, amabimus” (We loved, we love, we shall love).

Although I’m not a huge fan of The Water Babies, I now associate Charles Kingsley with St. Mary’s Church, the great changes he had made for the parish and the legacy he had left in Eversley, something that the villagers are undoubtedly proud of even to this day.

*I couldn’t find evidence of this theory about its decline in popularity. Even the “studies” I found on some sites point to Wikipedia, which doesn’t suffice. Perhaps FB&C readers could shed some light...

Many thanks to Catherine Batac Walder, a writer living in the UK, for this photo essay. She has previously written for us about Sherlock Holmes and ex-library books.

This past Friday I traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest awards ceremony and reception at the Library of Congress. So with twenty-four hours on the clock, I visited two of the biggest and best libraries in the country--which happen to be right around the corner from each other.

042523W5.jpgFirst stop: The Folger Shakespeare Library. I sauntered through Manifold Greatness, the amazing King James Bible exhibit, part of which traveled from Oxford. My favorites from the exhibit were William Blake’s biblical illustrations, a “squirrel” binding, and Queen Elizabeth I’s red velvet-bound Bishops’ bible. I toured the reading room, which is so lovely because it retains an ‘old-fashioned’ library feel (all too often scrubbed out of our state-of-the-art libraries). Tapestries on the wall, stained-glass windows, heavy wooden tables, and a bust of the Bard scanning the room. My private tour included a trip to the special collections areas, where I marveled at a collection of porcelain collectibles, costumes, and yes--the 82 folios. I only wish I had had the forethought to book a ticket for Othello, playing in the cozy, Elizabethan-style Folger Shakespeare theatre.
The Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG) follows the footsteps of our founding fathers in a 180-mile journey along a four-state region, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, from Gettysburg to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Explore the changing landscapes from rolling mountain ranges to softly plowed fields, study the architecture from colonial homesteads to regal plantations and savor the local cuisine from country cooking to wineries and fineries. The book, The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, The Official Guide to Where America Happened from Gettysburg to Monticello, by David Edwin Lillard, journals the trail in regions and towns highlighting battlefields, scenic drives, outdoor excursions, lodging, distinctive shopping and historic tours.  

The Hotel Monteleone is celebrating its 125th anniversary and since 1999 has owned the title of Literary Landmark awarded by the American Library Association, a distinction shared with only three hotels in the country. The Monteleone has long been a favorite haunt of distinguished southern authors with many immortalizing the hotel in their work. Richard Ford, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner always made 214 Royal Street their address while in New Orleans. Although you may not stay in the exact room where they penned their prose, you can definitely feel the vibes sitting at the Monteleone Carousel Bar. Join me as we toast the Monteleone and learn more about this literary legend as noted in the book, Hotel Monteleone: More than a landmark, the heart of New Orleans since 1886.

Monteleone Exterior.jpg 
I adore New York, and after reading the new issue of Fine Books & Collection highlighting the city and the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, it brought back fond memories of my fist visit with my daughter. It was just weeks before Christmas 2008 and with our love for history and the arts along with her career in advertising and mine in writing, New York was the perfect destination.

empire skycraper jungle b&w.jpg 
In New Orleans, along the banks of the Mississippi River, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB) captures the essence of southern culture and cuisine. Make it your first stop on your next trip to New Orleans and get the inside scoop on those quirky southern appetites. Packed with several galleries and changing exhibits, you’ll find stunning black & white  photographs chronicling generations of farmers and fisherman, rusted Bargs Rootbeer and Falstaff Beer signs perched inches from the ceiling, and America’s Cocktail Museum showcasing a collection or rare spirits and books including Prohibition-era literature.

But more than a museum SoFAB is a research center stocked with a 9,000 book library offering a timeline in Southern culinary culture and traditions.

tug boat and GNO bridge.jpg
poster.gifThis afternoon the 44th annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair opens in San Francisco. Music is the theme this year, but with approximately 200 A.B.A.A. exhibitors on hand, there will be plenty first editions, artists books, illuminated manuscripts, fine bindings, children’s books -- really anything you could wish for (plus, it’s a beautiful, sunny day here in SF!). For a preview of what some dealers are bringing, see my blog from last week.

San Francisco is one of America’s premier ‘book towns.’ Last year, bookseller Matthew Jones wrote a feature for us, “Go West, Book Lover,” on all the great literary stuff to do here. Today I’m taking some of his advice and poking around some shops in my hotel’s neighborhood before heading off to the fair this afternoon. With the help of Chris Lowenstein of Book Hunter’s Holiday, I experienced the legendary City Lights book shop last night. Plus, she drove me down the infamously curvy Lombard Sheet. (Thanks, Chris!).

800px-Bird_Library,_Syracuse_University.JPG As promised, though a bit late, a brief overview of my day in Syracuse. First stop: Bird Library (seen here at left; the exterior is unaltered since my undergrad days there). I met some very lovely people, including the dean of the SU Libraries Suzanne Thorin, director of library communications Pamela McLaughlin, Sean Quimby, director of the special collections research center, and Peter Verheyen, head of preservation. As I had hoped, I had the chance to talk with Peter (who is, by the way, featured in our autumn issue) about what’s going on in the book conservation lab these days. One thing that surprised me is the use of Shrink-wrap as a preservation ‘enclosure’ for older books in the circulating collection. Neat!

DSCN3053.JPG The Little Rock Public Library—known since 1975 as the Central Library of Arkansas System, or CALS—is observing it’s hundredth birthday this year, an ongoing celebration that I was pleased to participate in last week with a talk at the main library, a bustling operation that last year accommodated close to 2 million customers, some 37,400 visitors a week, and on track now to exceed that number for 2010. The figures for book circulation, 2.3 million volumes, 44,300 a week, are also up 11 percent from 2008, yet another indicator of just how essential the public library remains as a cultural institution in our daily lives.

What really knocked me off my feet on this trip, though, was the fantastic second-hand bookstore owned by CALS in downtown Little Rock, the first such public library initiative of its kind to my experience, and operated since 2001 in support of the library. Called River Market Books & Gifts, the store occupies three floors in the Cox Building, a beautifully restored machinery warehouse that dates to 1906, and includes a chic cafe, art gallery and creative center for various library programs. The variety of used books is spectacular, I must say, and because all are donated, they are offered for sale at exceedingly fair prices (and in remarkably decent condition as well.)

There’s a brand new book out there irresistibly titled Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards by Josh Wilker that is getting some terrific reviews. When my copy arrives, I’ll offer a considered response, though I have to say out front that it has all the earmarks of being my kind of book, combining as it apparently does a number of elements that resonate with so many of my own interests, not least among them the continuing splendor of our national pastime, baseball, and the idea that collecting is a metaphor for life itself.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share a baseball card story of my own, and the best part is that it isn’t one that has mellowed over the many decades since I, too, hoarded these marvelous little objects that so evocatively define a certain time and place, but one that came my way a mere two months ago during a trip my wife and I made to Mississippi, and which I wrote about in my most recent online column for Fine Books & Collections.

Jim&NAB.jpgSince length was an issue in that article--and since the topic at hand was the literary tour we had just completed--one detail I did not mention in the piece was a wonderful conversation Connie and I had one morning over breakfast with Jim Miles, the personable gentleman who so capably drove our bus from town to town throughout the Mississippi Delta over the three days of the tour. A tall, broad-shouldered, athletic man with a rock solid handshake--and clearly someone, to my eye, who had participated in organized sports back in the day--Jim smiled when I teasingly asked what position he had played as a youngster, linebacker or tackle. “Well, I did play a little football in high school,” he said amiably, “but baseball was my sport.”

And thus began the following tale:

A native of Batesville, Mississippi, Jim grew up on a farm harboring a dream like so many millions of other American boys that he might one day play in the big leagues, and he became fairly adept at throwing tattered old baseballs wrapped in electrician’s tape at targets he had drawn on the side of the family barn. “This was hard-core St. Louis Cardinals territory back then, but my favorite team was always the New York Yankees, because they won all the time,” he recalled in his easy Southern drawl. “I threw pitch after pitch at that barn, and in the game I always played in my head, it usually came down to me against Mickey Mantle in the bottom half of the ninth inning with the World Series on the line. And the way it always played out was that Mickey Mantle would hit a grand slam off me to win the game, and the series.”

Pretty odd, I thought, that he didn’t whiff Mantle in his imaginary confrontation, he served up what amounted to a gopher ball. “He was my hero,” Miles explained unapologetically. “To my way of thinking, it would have been an honor to just pitch against him.”

So now we jump ahead to the 1960s; James Charlie Miles, Jr. is a star right-handed pitcher with Delta State University, and he signs as a free agent with the Washington Senators organization. He bangs around the minor leagues for a couple of years, moves from farm team to farm team, and then one day in 1968 he is told to get on a bus and join the parent team, which was in dire need of some fresh relief pitching to help what was, historically, a club that had earned the reputation for its city as always being “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Jim appeared in just three games that year in the majors, ut one of them was played in New York City, where the young man had never been before in his life. “When I came out of the runway into Yankee Stadium, and looked around, I was dizzy with excitement,” he said, and he recalled going to Monument Park in the outfield to pay his respects at the plaques honoring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig before the game got underway. He passed most of the contest uneventfully in the bullpen, but in the top of the sixth word came from the dugout that he should warm up and get ready to pitch the bottom half of the inning.

The Senators, typically, were behind, so there was little drama involved in the outcome. But it was an opportunity for Miles to show what he had, and he wasted little time getting two men out. “Then one thing led to another,” he said, and before he knew it the bases were loaded, with none other than Number 7 himself, Mickey Mantle, then playing in what would be the final year of his illustrious career, due up next. A switch-hitter, Mantle stepped into the batter’s box from the left side of the plate, where his power was greatest, and focused his attention on the lanky right-hander standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.

“I had a sneaky little fast ball that tailed away from left-handed hitters,” Miles said, and he quickly got ahead in the count, no balls and two strikes--but not without suffering through two monster swings that seemed to take the air out of the park. “So here I am ahead in the count, and I figure I’ll try this tricky little pitch of mine, a Luis Tiant kind of twirl I had developed where I have my back to the plate for an instant before releasing the ball. I admit I was probably being a little too cute for my own good, and when I let it go I could see it was heading right down the middle of the plate, exactly where I didn’t want it to be.”

It was a grooved pitch, in other words, right in the Mick’s wheelhouse, but the funny motion, in all likelihood, caused the slugger to flinch momentarily and lay off the ball--which the umpire shockingly called strike three. “Well let me tell you I floated off the mound into the dugout,” Miles said, and it was the only time he would ever face Mantle. He returned to the Senators the following year, played for the legendary Ted Williams, pitched in a dozen games, then retired at season’s end after suffering a career-ending injury. He would spend many years in Mississippi as a coach and athletic director at a local college, winning a number of divisional championships, all the while rich in the memory that he’d had a once-in-a-lifetime moment in Yankee Stadium, living out a boyhood fantasy in ways that he could have never foreseen.

Jim Miles 001.jpgAs luck would have it, Jim had an extra baseball card along with him in the bus, which I was honored to accept as a gift. It’s a Tops 154 rookie card, issued in 1970--Miles was still technically a rookie in 1969--and features his photo on the front, above that of another Washington player, Jan Dukes. His Minor League stats appear on the back, with this spine-tingling line:

“Jim comes equipped with a sinking fast ball and good curves. Fanned Mickey Mantle only time he ever faced him.”

Such stuff as dreams are made on; and a keeper for sure.

If you find yourself driving through New Jersey and have a couple of free hours on your hands, you might consider visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, a truly remarkable concentration of material objects from the golden age of invention, and for scholars and researchers the repository of what is estimated to be five million papers and documents relating to the work of a self-educated creative genius. As national parks go, this one might not share top billing with the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Niagara Falls, but it lacks nothing in the form of illuminating the can-do spirit of the American Industrial Revolution and showcasing the marvels of gee-wizardry. Most of the 1,093 patents granted to Edison were for inventions that were developed here

edison_exterior.jpgRecently reopened after a six-year $13 million renovation that included the installation of an elevator and various interactive displays, the complex--known informally in its time as Edison’s “invention factory”--is now welcoming the public once again, and allowing visits throughout the various working spaces and laboratories, where teams of innovators once worked to develop such modern marvels as the phonograph, a fluoroscope to view x-ray images, machines to extract iron from ore, processes to streamline the manufacture of cement, cylinder recorders for office dictation, and nickel-iron-alkaline storage batteries. A motion picture projector synchronized with a phonograph that he called the kinetophone was developed here as well; it led to the opening of the world’s first movie studio, which visitors can see on the third floor, complete with an original Steinway piano used to audition show-biz hopefuls.

edison_bed.jpgBuilt in 1887, this facility was ten times larger than the one Edison had used for ten years at nearby Menlo Park, where he invented the electric light system. If you had no idea what is contained on these grounds--and if there were no signs to identify it as a national park--the temptation would be to drive right by the three-story brick structure, assuming it to be one of many nineteenth-century industrial sites so typical of the northeast.

Schooled at home as a child by his mother, Edison was a largely self-taught autodidact, and among the many fascinating holdings here is a 10,000-volume library still shelved in his personal working area. Between two book cases in an alcove off to one side is a small bed, placed there by Edison’s wife so the great thinker could take an occasional catnap. An inveterate note-taker and doodler, Edison was forever sketching away in his notebooks, of which 3,500 survive; seeing some of these, in fact, was my primary interest in a recent visit, graciously arranged and hosted by Leonard  DeGraaf, archivist for the Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

edison_bookplate.jpgThe Edison site is one of three National Park Service properties that maintains substantial collections of original manuscripts and archives, and functions as a research facility for scholars; others include the Colonial home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge, Mass., and the house of master garden architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the Boston suburb of Brookline. Also part of the Edison complex--which was presented to the National Park Service by the Edison family in 1962--is the family mansion, Glenmont, set atop a scenic hill just a couple blocks away, and open to visitors as well. Well worth a trip.

It is an axiom in book collecting that the market value of an object is not necessarily determined by what one person is willing to pay for the privilege of ownership, but by the lengths to which a determined underbidder is willing to compete for the prize in open bidding. This dynamic was in persuasive evidence last night a few miles north of West Palm Beach in Stuart, Florida, at an auction organized to benefit the Hibiscus Children’s Center, a local charity dedicated to the needs of abused and neglected youngsters.

Billed the Little Auction That Could in respectful tribute to Watty Piper’s classic children’s tale of infinite possibilities, The Little Engine That Could, the premise was centered around asking various celebrities to inscribe copies of books that had meaning in their lives. More than 80 people responded, and it was decided to offer the books for sale in two venues, online at eBay for 70 of the items in a contest that continues through Nov. 25, and last night in open competition at the historic Lyric Theater before an audience of 400 people for 14 others.

A total of $34,000 was raised last night, the most coveted item being Pop-up White House, a nicely engineered piece of movable art with illustrations by local artist Chuck Fischer--and signed by President Barack Obama; this neat little item, a unique curiosity if ever there was one, was hammered down at $6,500.  Equally robust was the $4,500 paid for a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes signed by the renowned animal authority Jane Goodall--her specialty is chimpanzees, naturally--the $2,900 for a copy of Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Struggling Upward signed by Maya Angelou, and the $2,600 bid for the copy of Harry Potter (Book 7), inscribed by the author, J. K. Rowling.

It was a great program, about as capably conceived, organized, and executed as anything comparable I have ever been associated with, and the credit for that certainly goes out to every member of the crackerjack staff of volunteers, but primarily to the guiding spirit, the co-chair of the event, Karla Preissman, who came up with the concept two years ago, and contacted every celebrity individually to participatee. A brilliant move on her part was to arrange for a tastefully mounted exhibition of the books at the Elliott Museum in Stuart, which my wife and I had a chance to visit yesterday before the evening’s festivities.

It was an unannounced visit there earlier in the week by a person who has chosen to remain anonymous that led to the preemptive bid of $850,000--that is not a typo, it is $850,000--for a copy of Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar co-signed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and his mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush.

The benefactor was said to be passionate about the goals of the Hibiscus Center, and found this a worthy way of supporting it. In one fell swoop--before the first bid went up last night--the Little Auction That Could became the Little Auction That Most Assuredly Did, all of it made possible by the enduring magic of books. An unqualified plus was the opportunity I had to speak on the program with Carl Hiaasen; the man is a fabulous speaker, and a real hoot.

Indulge me, please, as I make a connection between the recent victory in the World Series of the New York Yankees--their 27th championship--and what so many futurists perceive to be the imminence of a paperless society, and what, by extension, all that portends for the traditional book as we know it. It’s a stretch, I agree, but an amusing concept to consider all the same.

If you were paying attention this past Friday, there was a ticker-tape parade through Lower Manhattan, and unlike so many other New Englanders who chose to tune out--I have been a Red Sox fan for more than half-a-century--I tuned in. Yes, I wanted to see the MVP, Hideki Matsui, riding in the lead float, I even wanted to see that amiable turncoat, Johnny Damon (I am actually very fond of the man), rejoicing in the triumph with his ebullient teammates. But what I wanted to see most of all was how New York City was going to handle the matter of the ticker tape at a time when there is no ticker tape.

The reason for that, you see, is quite simply that there are no more stock tickers, there haven’t been any for about thirty years or so, the only ones that survive are now museum pieces, and the only ticker tape available these days is a custom-order curiosity that sells online for $40 a spool. But there was a parade in Lower Manhattan through the Canyon of Heroes on Friday, all right--the 205th such celebration since the whole tradition got started on October, 29, 1886, that one to salute the newly dedicated Statue of Liberty--and there was plenty of paper filling the air. What it was, according to press accounts, was a half-ton of confetti packed in 400 bags and trucked in by a group known as the Downtown Alliance to be distributed among employees in the financial district who now get their stock quotations from computers.

When the confetti ran out, according to a piece in the New York Post, some dull-witted revelers began tossing rolls of toilet paper, which is fine enough, I suppose, as long as its unspooled and not likely to cause a concussion if it hits someone on the street, but not so bright were the financial records and other confidential office materials that went out the windows along with it. Among the fifty tons of debris collected by sanitation workers were pay stubs and trust fund balance sheets. Some of the documents came from the Liberty Street financial firm A.L. Sarroff, including client accounts, with Social Security numbers and detailed banking data. “They’re records that should have been shredded,” said firm founder Alan Sarroff. “An overzealous employee threw them out the window. He was reprimanded.”

So--a half-ton of confetti, and fifty tons of office paper, a ticker tape parade doth make. There’s still plenty of cellulose, in other words, to fill the void, and a good deal of it, apparently, remains necessary to the conducting of business. And the future of the parade itself? Like the traditional book that so many of us prefer, it’s in no immediate jeopardy of falling out of favor either. Why? Simple enough, in both instances, because people like it. All you need to mount a procession through in the city that never sleeps is a legitimate hero to honor. Good luck on that score; if you’re going to toss out the office records in jubilation, though, make sure you shred them first.
The last couple of weeks have been pretty busy for me, starting off with a keynote address in Columbus, Ohio before the Ohio Preservation Council on the occasion of the group’s 25th anniversary--the theme for the event was irresistibly titled “A Celebration of Paper--followed in quick succession by presentations in Worcester, Mass., to benefit the Worcester Public Library and the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

There were very nice audiences in attendance at each of the events, all of them reaffirming for me my abiding conviction that book people are the greatest. I was pleased to learn in Worcester that the main branch last year had more than a million people use their services, quite a testament in a city whose population is somewhere in the neighborhood of 180,000 people. If there is any municipal service anywhere that gives its residents more bang for their taxpayer dollars than the library, I’d like to know what it is. Doesn’t matter if you’re a senior citizen, an elementary school student, an immigrant looking for help, or a just casual reader interested in reading the new Dee Brown blockbuster, the library is there, doing it’s job--and with no lobbyists, either, pleading its case to the politicians who vote on budgets. I was one of three speakers--Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, and historian Russell McClintock were the others--and we helped raise enough money to keep the library open on Sundays through the rest of the fall. Pretty cool.

The story was much the same in New York. The Mid-Manhattan branch is situated directly across Fifth Avenue from the main research library--the magnificent building featuring Patience and Fortitude, the wonderful lions carved of pink Tennessee marble, at the front door--and is six floors of activity, with public programs mounted pretty much every week-night, all of them free and open to everyone. Hats off to Cynthia Chaldekas, senior librarian there, and coordinator of all these events. A class act all around.

I would be remiss, finally, if I did not mention the great time I had last Sunday participating in the day-long program of activities organized by Hand Papermaking magazine, which included an introduction to the remarkable collection of papers from all eras and every continent--some 40,000 specimens all told--gathered over the years by Sidney Berger, a noted bibliophile and writer of books about books, who is also director of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Sid’s wife, Michele Cloonan, is dean of the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Services, one of the top programs of its kind in the country, and an enthusiastic collector of paper and type specimens in her own right.

Also on the agenda was a visit to the International Paper Museum in Brookline, Mass., established by Elaine Koretsky, one of the outstanding scholars in papermaking history, justly celebrated as the Dard Hunter of her generation. I wrote a piece for Fine Books & Collections magazine two years ago about a trip I took to China with Elaine and a group of paper pilgrims, our goal to see paper as it has been made for more than two thousand years in the place where the skill was invented; it’s on my website in the travelogue section, with a bunch of photos I shot; check it out.
gorey_sign.jpgNothing is more entertaining than a visit to the home of a favorite author, especially when the house in question once belonged to the unrepentant bibliomaniac and pack rat Edward Gorey, who died nine years ago at 75, and left behind a veritable treasure trove of odds and ends. His rambling, 13-room cottage on 8 Strawberry Lane in Yarmouthport, Mass.--just off the Old King’s Highway (also known as Route 6A) on Cape Cod--is now a museum, chock full of “stuff” such as antique cheese graters, bottles, sketches, the trademark beaver skin coat, various cloth creatures--including one of the original Figbash-- made and stitched by hand, toys, and of course a few of the 35,000 books Gorey had acquired during his lifetime, and which helped inform his extraordinary body of work.

ombledroom.jpgThere are imaginary bats and cats, of course (including one real feline in residence, aptly named Ombledroom, pictured here), some bugs and slugs--the full Gorey oeuvre is in evidence, and altogether makes for a delightful way to spend an hour, either solo or with kids, it doesn’t matter, since everyone is welcome, and like the man’s great body of work itself, there is something for everyone. A nice touch is the scavenger hunt each visitor is invited to participate in; there are twenty-six objects from “The Ghastlycrumb Tinies” hidden in plain view in each room on the tour, there to be discovered by one and all. During my most recent trip there last week, I learned that Gorey’s enormous library of books--they had been kept in an adjoining barn--had recently been shipped off to the West Coast, where they will take up residence at San Diego State University, quite a nice turn of events, since the library there is already home to the archives of the writer Peter Newmeyer, who collaborated with Gorey on a number of wonderful books.

gorey_door.jpgRick Jones, a Gorey friend who is now director and curator of the Edward Gorey House, told me that an interesting detail regarding the books is that their former owner wrote in every one when he read it, how long it took, and whether he read it again. With regard to the curiosities, Jones had this wonderful observation: “One cheese grater is a cheese grater; for Edward, a group of them became a work of art.”

Nothing worthwhile ever happens in a vacuum. Authors say it all the time, because it’s true: there is no greater satisfaction than the knowledge that something you have written has found an appreciative readership, and if you’re really lucky, to have touched a person’s life in some tangible way. Writers are inspired to soldier along and spend years on dreams and ideas that they hope ultimately will find their way between hard covers, and then cross their fingers, waiting for the response.

Reviews from critics, of course, are one of the key vital signs of the business--and it would be disingenuous of me in the extreme to suggest that I don’t await their appearance with keen anticipation--but what matters the most, by far, is what readers “out there” feel about your work. Letters, emails, people you meet at public events, comments that have been posted on  blogs--all provide a means for dialogue. But I have to tell you about an event I attended last week at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) just outside of Cleveland that has left me weak in the knees.

BasbanesProject.jpgAbout a year ago, I was contacted by Kevin Hoskinson (at right, with yours truly), a professor of English at the college, with news that one of my books, “Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World,” had inspired the formation of a student essay program, to be called “The Books That Stir Us: The Basbanes Project.” If something like that doesn’t get your attention, nothing does. Using the stories related in EBIR as a model, Hoskinson had invited submission of thousand-word essays centered on a basic premise: “What one book has contributed most to the story of your current life.” Hoskinson secured funding for the project, and was able to offer $500 prizes for three winning entries, selected on a blind submission basis by a panel of judges.

Basbaneswinners.JPGA total of fifty-seven essays were turned in, with books ranging from “Who Moved My Cheese?” and “The Diary of Ann Frank” to “The Lord of the Flies,” “The Road Less Traveled,” and the Bible.  I had the singular pleasure to be present last week at the awards ceremony, called a “celebration of books, learning, and of students.” The winners--pictured here with NAB--were Sara Davidson, for “Ishmael,” by Daniel Quinn; Tristan Rader, for “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper; and Benjamin Willets, for “The One Straw Revolution,” by Masanobu Fukuoka.

The names of all the participants, and their books, are posted on the project website, along with links to the texts of their essays, which I hope you all take some time to check out. They’re wonderful, and I agree with Kevin, I wish we could have given cash awards to everyone. The festivities included the showing of a fabulous video produced by the college’s marketing and broadast media coordinator, Ron Jantz, which I hope will be available for general viewing soon.  A very special day, all around--one made all the more memorable by an evening a few of us spent the night before at Progressive Field for a Red Sox-Indians game (won in the 10th inning by Boston on a Jonathan Van Every home run.)
By pure coincidence, it has been my good fortune to participate in the re-dedication of two libraries recently, the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M in March--which I wrote about in this space a couple of weeks ago, and which will be the subject of my next Fine Books & Collections column--and the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Ill. just last week. Especially heartening in both instances is the fact that each institution has made clear an unequivocal belief that books as we know them still matter a great deal, and that the library remains the center and soul of their universities.

At SIU, the commitment involved the appropriation of $56 million five years ago to take a building that had been built in the 1950s and make it suitable for use in the twenty-first century, quite a courageous stand for a publicly supported institution to make at a time when so many others feel that computers are the only way to go. The 235,000-square-foot structure is the central repository for the university’s three million volumes--SIU is an Association of Research Libraries (ARL) member--and maintains an extensive battery of terminals and laptop connections to satisfy all electronic needs. Fully accessible to the 25,000 enrolled students, the library also serves the general public, giving the taxpayers a mighty bang for their buck.

An attractive building located at the virtual crossroads of the campus, the Morris Library has been newly fitted with common rooms that make it particularly inviting as a gathering place; there is a coffee and food gallery, of course, but also eleven nicely appointed group study areas that are ideal for reading and contemplation. During a walking tour provided by Dean of Libraries David Carlson, I was especially taken by what he called the “time out” room--a soundproofed cubicle where students can take a break from tedious routines without annoying others.

Carbondale is in the extreme southern section of the state, just 96 miles from St. Louis, 330 miles from Chicago. To be expected, special collections are strong in the history of the Middle Mississippi Valley, but there are outstanding holdings too in American philosophy, twentieth-century world literature, British and American expatriate writers of the 1920s, the Irish Literary Renaissance, and freedom of the press and censorship issues. Rare Books Librarian Melissa Hubbard provided a nice introduction to some of her favorite items, including a Kelmscott Chaucer, several of the nine first-edition copies the library has of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and a few incunables that any curator would be pleased to have in the vault.

In anticipation of my visit to SIU, Gordon Pruett, editor of Cornerstone, a quarterly publication  of the Morris Library, did a lengthy Q&A with me that was published in the current edition of the magazine on pages 4-5 and 11; click here for a PDF.

All in all, it was a very busy trip, but there was still time for a whirlwind visit to the local second-hand/antiquarian book store, a terrific place called The Bookworm, conveniently located at the Eastgate Shopping Center on East Walnut Street, owned and operated by Carl and Kelly Rexroad. I found three books from their stock of 50,000 volumes that added to the weight of my suitcase, and thank them for the terrific job they did to make for such a successful signing following my public talk.
I had the pleasure this past week of visiting Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and speaking at ceremonies held in Cushing Library marking the acquisition of the university’s four millionth book, an auspicious event for a dynamic program that for the past ten years has been embarked on a remarkable program of establishing itself as one of the outstanding research centers in the United States.

don_quixote.jpgBecause a noteworthy event such as this demands a fabulous book, the title acquired for the occasion was an exceedingly rare copy of the 1617 Barcelona edition of “Don Quixote.” Part one of the world’s most consequential work of fiction had been published separately, in 1605, part two in 1615; this edition marked the first time the two parts had been issued together, and appeared in print just a year after Cervantes’s death. To give you an idea of just how scarce this edition is, it is the only perfect copy held in any North American library, making it more scarce, in fact, than the Gutenberg Bible, with copies in twelve American institutions. At Texas A&M, it joins a collection of one thousand other editions of “Don Quixote,” along with a substantial archive of digital images, and contributes mightily to the mission of the university’s Cervantes Project, which has received support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The four millionth book ceremony was part of a double celebration, the other being the tenth anniversary of the reopening of the Cushing Library as repository of the university’s rare books and special collections, and to showcase, with a splendid exhibition and a terrific catalog, both called “A Decade of Promise,” the new acquisitions that have been made over that period. I plan to write at length about the arrival of Texas A&M as a major player in the world of rare books in a forthcoming Fine Books & Collections column, but I do wish to note here the essential role of the Friend--with a capital ‘F’, as I said in my remarks--in this process.

Making this milestone possible was Sara and John Lindsey, A&M Class of 1944, who purchased the book for the university; they also purchased for the library the two-and-a-half millionth book, a Kelmlscott Chaucer of 1896, and the three millionth book, a first issue, 1855, of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and contributed to the purchase of the one millionth and two millionth volumes as well.

Libraries require a lot of elements to achieve greatness, not least among them administrators with foresight and librarians with vision, but never, to my knowledge, have they been able to accomplish anything of substance without the help of their friends--excuse me, their Friends--and that applies at every level of participation. Those with modest means--but eager all the same to help preserve our literary patrimony--can participate in other ways, such as the Adopt-a-Book program sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. It’s all for a great cause.
I recently read a blog item in Down East magazine speculating on why it is that Maine, that big, craggy, irresistible coastal state in Northern New England, is “so bookish.” By that, the writer, Paul Doiron, says he means “the whole literary shebang,” to wit: “the bookstores and reading groups and vast hosts of library volunteers,” not to mention a vibrant community of writers, Stephen King being the best known contemporary voice in a long tradition of accomplishment that has included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kenneth Roberts and Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Doiron speculates that this passion for books and reading might have something to do with the long winters, which I know, as a person who went to college in the Pine Tree State (Bates, ‘65) can be formidable. But there is also something wonderfully complex in the Maine character, I think, that savors a good story, and maintains an enduring respect for things in print. (One response on Doiron’s blog offered this: “It’s dark. It’s cold. There’s a lot of empty space and the mind wanders. The options? Read, write or drink a lot. In really tough winters, sometimes we go for all three.”)

What has made me think about all this was a quick trip my wife Connie and I made this past week up to Bar Harbor for a bit of research, a pleasant getaway that allowed us to enjoy a leisurely drive home along U.S. 1, visiting one second hand bookstore after another, six by my count, over one forty-mile stretch between Trenton and Searsport, all of them open for business, which is saying something, since there is still scattered snow on the ground despite the official arrival of spring, and most of the summer tourist attractions still off-season.

ChickenBarn.jpgBrowsing was pretty much the order of the day for me, though I was nonetheless impressed by the numbers and the variety of the offerings. One place I would certainly put on the must-visit list for anyone trekking Down East is Big Chicken Barn Books & Antiques in Ellsworth, a perfectly appropriate name for a converted chicken barn one hundred yards long, three stories high, and filled on the first floor with every manner of antique and knick-knack, and lined on the second with 120,000 books, magazines and pieces of ephemera. The place was bustling when we stopped by Saturday afternoon, so there was little time to chat at length with owners Annegret and Mike Cukierski, who opened this splendid curiosity twenty-three years ago, and have every intention of keeping it going, what with son Chad now fully involved in the operations. There’s lots of stuff in here on Maine, a healthy section of regional history and literature, and remarkable runs of magazines and periodicals. The owners say this is the largest book store in the state, and I don’t think this is a case of hyperbole. It is easily the longest book gallery I have ever seen--a football field, one end to the other, and a fabulous chicken sign out front.

Book Wine.jpgWe had great fun, too, at Country Store Antiques, Books & Wine, just outside of Bar Harbor in Trenton, a pretty spacious operation in its own right, with a fine variety of offerings, including a full floor devoted entirely to 50,000 books. I especially enjoyed schmoozing with owner Vicki Landman, a former county librarian in Maryland, now a full time books and antiques seller in her native state. I told her of my interests in the Maine paper industry, and she suggested a number of titles that might be useful, and gave me the names of some people to contact for more information. “Hey, I’m a librarian,” she said.

We didn’t get a chance to stop at Harding’s Rare Books further down the coast in Wells, a lot closer to my home in Central Massachusetts, and always a favorite stop of mine whenever I’m in the area. Any booking odyssey to Maine has to include a stop here--with ample time set aside for serious examination of each and every one of the fourteen rooms. Founder Doug Harding has been in the business here since 1960, and is a widely respected professional in the trade. (I got my deathbed edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” from him twenty-five years ago, a lovely copy in mint condition, and my collection of Winslow  Homer wood engravings has been greatly enriched by my many visits here over the years as well.) For those who need a navigational fix, Wells is 48 miles south of Freeport, home of L.L Bean. There are many splendid places to stop for lobster in between. 

NAB BH.jpgFinally, if I may, how about a picture of yours truly in Acadia National Park, courtesy of CVB, to prove that one does not live entirely by books alone (at least not all the time):

Happy booking!

With wind chills well below freezing, it is still off-season on Cape Cod, but you’d never have known it by the splendid turnout at the Sandwich Public Library Sunday afternoon for the latest in a series of author appearances and events centered around a comprehensive celebration of the book.

Inspired by the Big Read program introduced a couple years ago by Dana Gioia, the director of the National Endowment for the Arts (and a subject of a recent column I wrote for Fine Books & Collections), the initiative in Sandwich has improvised by focusing on more than one book for community reading, and organized a continuing program centered around one basic theme, in this instance books that have touched people’s lives.

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