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Continual Feast: Books and Life and the Life in Books

Stuart Mitchner

The annual Friends of the Library Book Sale begins at noon on Friday of next week. Soon I will be busy helping transform the new library's Community Room into a well-stocked used book shop with a wide-ranging array of hard covers and paperbacks gleaned from the many thousands of books that area residents have donated in the past year.

Jan Karon's A Continual Feast (Viking $24.95) is a facsimile of a journal kept by Father Tim Kavanagh, the central character in the novels comprising Karon's Mitford series. I'm using it for this week's review largely because of the way its wide-ranging array of quotes from from Shakespeare and the Bible to Yogi Berra and Groucho Marx relates to scale and character of next week's "here-today, gone-tomorrow" book sale. Written in what is meant to represent Father Tim's own hand, the journal also contains enough personal trivia to reveal something about the character of the person jotting it all down. One of the quotes, from novelist and longtime New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard, sums up my sense of the book sale as a reflection of a community of donors similar to Ik-Joong Kang's mixed-media wall mosaic outside the Community Room that I wrote about in last week's art review: "The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait." Book donations, especially substantial ones from a single library, bear out both Broyard's observation and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's concept of a library as "a living world."

Father Tim's selections in A Continual Feast are worthy of the title and justify the subtitle's promise of "words of comfort and celebration." Like the hints of personal history that show up in the donated books I see every week, there are also glimpses of the journal keeper's everyday life in the form of recipes, grocery lists, reminders ("change oil, rotate tires"), gardening notes and favorite flowers, and puzzled notations about familiar computer messages ("Yr server has unexpectedly terminated the connection? server cannot be found?"). Jan Karon uses the last of the seemingly trivial list of "snow dates" that ends the journal to express the spirit of her Mitford books: "3/14 Alleluia! Narcissus pushing up through fresh snow."

The unguarded spontaneity expressed in that entry reminds me of the odds and ends of personal history that turn up when you're sifting through donations of books that in one way or another suggest the taste, temperament, and idiosyncrasies of the owners. Odds and ends? Here are some I could put in my version of the library mural: birth certificates; packs of playing cards and antique tarot cards; a bag of runes; a Depression-era condom still in its cardboard package (found between the pages of Tom Jones); costume jewelry; dog bones; plastic Jesuses and Buddhas; a flute in its case; jigsaw puzzles; not to mention sea shells, love letters, Dear John letters, birthday cards, report cards, and post cards from all over the world. You also often find airline boarding passes (lots of these, used as bookmarks in paperbacks); ticket stubs from long-ago Broadway plays (and more than one collection of long-ago Playbills); exotic bookmarks (some made of elegant fabric, others from bookstores dating back to the 1920s); and bookplates. Sometimes you even see original artwork, sketchbooks of European scenes, and elegant little watercolors on cards no larger than the tiles in the "Happy World" mural. Imagine opening a musty old atlas to find a pastel portrait of the 90-year-old donor as a beautiful young woman. Imagine countless photos, snapshots of babies, dogs, cats, homes, back yards, family scenes, friends, parties, the whole happy-sad human comedy, and no names, no captions. That's only an off-the-top-of-my-head sampling. The list could go on for pages.

After 15 years of wading through this tide of personal effects, you realize books are magnets and receptacles, whether someone grabs something to use as a book mark or something they don't know what else to do with except to hide or randomly stash it between the pages of a book. Certain between-the-covers stowaways present some issues. You find yourself in the role of protecting some anonymous donor's privacy. The issue is not a matter of personal honesty, as in the hypothetical case where a donor has unknowingly given the library a book worth thousands of dollars (something that has never happened, by the way). It's when a volume turns up glowingly and lovingly inscribed to one person from another, presumably both still in the community, still patrons of the library. "To my beloved so-and-so who changed my life forever, here is the book that literally saved my soul. Treasure it always." Half a year after the date on the inscription, the beloved recipient has donated the treasure to the library, perhaps because that seemed a kinder, gentler option than selling it. But you have to wonder what if the inscriber sees it for sale or, worse, what if the donor doesn't even realize that the fulsomely inscribed volume got mixed in with the donations? All too often books are donated in haste, when people are moving or downsizing and simply want to get them out of the house.

Whose Notebook is This?

One thing that made me select A Continual Feast as a starting point was seeing Father Tim's name and address written in the upper right corner of the endpaper, just as it would be if it were really someone's journal ("If found, please return to Timothy Kavanagh, 107 Wisteria Lane, Mitford"). For a second I thought it was the real thing. In fact, the real thing showed up the other day and in a way it is the true subject of this review because of the quality of the writing it contains, because it is anonymous, and because its appearance suggests the whole mysterious, random, harmoniously chaotic process endemic to the phenomenon of book donations. This object, which landed in the library's donation bin a little less than two weeks ago, is a small softbound black Gap notebook containing around 150 lined pages filled with the owner's thoughts and observations but no owner's name. Reading around in it, I don't feel as guilty as I would if these were a lot of callow or pretentious or painfully personal ramblings. But this is someone with a poet's sensibility, an eye for nature, and real talent. What troubles me is the clear possibility that this is not a donation but an accident, and that the person who kept this journal is missing it and needing it and wondering what happened to it. Knowing how I would feel if I misplaced something like this, I'm hoping that if I mention it here someone may come forward to claim it.


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