All in all the most useful volume I ever found at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, which begins with a $25 preview Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m., is “a compendiun of literary lore” called A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), edited by Neal T. Jones. According to the title page, it includes “Notable Quotations, Scores of Birthdays, Myriad Marriages, Some Romances (& Quite a Few Deaths) — All Relating to the Literary Life — Profusely Illustrated with Photographs, Paintings, & Drawings.” It’s a source I keep within reach as I look ahead to each coming Wednesday. Even when I have a clear-cut subject in mind, I like to see what gems the little book has to offer for the date in question, and this week it’s March 18. For instance, this day in 1728 John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift that because of his play The Beggar’s Opera he is “lookt upon at present as the most obnoxious person in England.” That remark seems appealingly in character for the author of Trivia or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poetical survival guide concerning pickpockets, wig thieves, overflowing gutters, falling masonry and emptied chamber pots, with advisory couplets like “Let firm, well hammer’d Soles protect thy Feet/Thro’ freezing Snows, and Rains, and soaking Sleet.”
On the same page, here’s The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who died at 54 on March 18, 1768, a reminder that I’m way overdue for a rereading of Tristram Shandy, which got me through the winter of my first year on my own in New York. I still have the deceptively damaged copy of Sterne’s masterpiece that turned up at Bryn Mawr a decade or so before the millennium. There it was, or I should say, there they were, two battered volumes from 1832, torn asunder, like siblings forced apart by the welfare fates, one at either end of a table that had been plundered by dealers and collectors who wanted nothing to do with such shabby specimens. If the crazed table-sweepers had had time for a closer look, they’d have seen that each volume was immaculate within, good as gold, complete with Cruikshank illustrations that are curiously out of tune with the text of a work that was centuries ahead of its time. Of the three copies of Tristram Shandy I own, the most precious, however, is the relatively recent one that kept me company on West 87th in Manhattan, a well-underlined and asterisked volume edited by James A. Work, chairman of the English Department at Indiana University when I was a student there.
But the The Book of Days has more to say about the Rev. Sterne, who, on the Sunday following his 1741 marriage to Elizabeth Lumley, “shocked his parishoners by discoursing upon the fifth chapter of Luke: ‘we have toiled all night and taken nothing.’”
It had to happen that the writer of this column, who has from his late teens claimed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a literary fairy godfather, would end up living in the same town as Princeton University Press, publisher of the Bollingen Edition of the Works, a treasure of mind, spirit, and heart, most of it available for purchase in Collectors Corner at Bryn Mawr. This last vein of gold mined from the library of the late Peter Oppenheimer, who shared my interest in S.T.C., offers access to the critical, theological, and philosophical writings and intimate notebook musings and marginalia of one of the most fascinating performers to strut and fret his hour on the literary stage. The first time I opened Volume 1 of the Notebooks at random I came to this unintended haiku about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down and hurt himself. I caught him up angry and screaming, and ran out of doors with him. The moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!”
What I felt as a father when chancing upon this passage was a more intimate version of the excitement I knew at a highly impressionable age when chancing upon “Kubla Khan.” What gave the fragment of verse its in-the-moment immediacy was the story behind it, the poet waking from a dream, writing down the lines, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. And is it mere “magical thinking” to suggest that something of this poetry of happenstance evokes the possibilities in force when a vast congregation of books from who-knows-where is assembled under the same roof?
“My mother tied a ribbon in my hair the day she took me to the public library for my first card. I wore my best dress and I was nervous.”
In respect of the subject of bookish congregations, this column about the area’s largest and longest-running book event is dedicated to the memory of longtime Princeton resident Barbara Freedman (1928-2015), who was for three decades the driving force behind the relatively small but ever-flourishing Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.
The army of volunteers called upon to unload and arrange Bryn Mawr-Wellesley’s estimated 85,000 volumes came to mind when I was reading Barbara’s essay on volunteerism, wherein she rejects her mother’s advice (“If you’re going to do something, get paid for it!”) and finds that volunteers need not resemble the “earnest, hat-bedecked matrons” in Helen Hokinson’s New Yorker cartoons. As far as I know, BM-W’s volunteers are hatless, and include a fair number of men, as is true at the Friends of the Library sale.
It’s odd to think that after 25 years working together, always in the context of the library book sales, annual and ongoing, Barbara never spoke to me about her favorite authors. Clearly she was well read, having done some writing of her own, with op-ed and travel pieces in the New York Times, in addition to planning and working on several novels. When I asked her son Jonathan about his mother’s taste in reading, he mentioned a fondness for mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, whom Jonathan and his parents got to meet during a family bird-watching vacation in California (the author and his mystery writer wife Margaret Millar being active in birding and conservation circles). Thinking to use Macdonald to link Barbara with Bryn Mawr, however obliquely, I searched the mystery table, one of the few that had been set up when I visited Princeton Day School Saturday. Surprised to find nothing by the prolific creator of the Lew Archer series, I asked one of the BM-W organizers about it and was assured that the boxes and boxes of mysteries still to come contained a stash of Macdonalds.
Meanwhile I decided to look a little deeper into the man’s life and guess who I found there? It seems that in 1951 Kenneth Millar earned a PhD at the University of Michigan. The mystery writer’s dissertation was titled The Inward Eye: A Revaluation of Coleridge’s Psychological Criticism.
Quaint and Curious
The subject of last year’s Bryn Mawr column was the outrageous market value of certain volumes by Edgar Allan Poe and here he is again, in The Literary Year, which gives March 18 1842 as the birth date of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, author of L’Apres-Midi d’une Faun, and yes, translator of the poetry of the ever-present Poe.
I like to think that when Poe was writing “The Raven” he was within arm’s reach of a library or at least a few shelves brimming with “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.” Keeping that term in mind, I’ve scanned a list just sent to me by BM-W’s Fran Reichl, and here are some Q and C items spotted at random that will be for sale in Collectors Corner this year, beginning with a bound run of Graham’s Magazine, where some of Poe’s most famous work first appeared; Salvador Dali’s Les diners de Gala; Andy Warhol’s Wild Raspberries cookbook; Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues; Tiffany Million’s Guide to Meeting Exotic Dancers; the Villas of Pliney from Antiquity to Posterity by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey; The Best Sex I Ever Had by Steven Finz; The Trials of Eve by Pnina Granirer; Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment by Philip Nord; Mrs. Tuthil’s I Will Be a Gentleman: A Book for Boys, and (we have to stop somewhere), The Springtide of Life by Algeron Swinburne, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
A Little East of Kansas
One last entry for March 18 in The Literary Year concerns the birth of novelist John Updike on that day in 1932, in Shillington, Pa. I don’t know what Barbara Freedman thought of Updike’s work, but she’d surely approve of the way he imagines his intended audience, as quoted in A Book of Days: “When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”
Barbara Freedman’s library memory is from her NY Times article “Are Libraries Doomed to Dry Up and Blow Away?” A plaque in the Friends bookstore at the Princeton Public Library remembers Barbara as founder of the Friends Book Sale: “a True Champion and Friend of the Library.”
The image shown is the frontispiece for The Book of Days, from a poster created by N.C. Wyeth for the Children’s Book Council in 1927.