March 20, 2024

Making Connections at BMW’s Banquet of Books: An Ovid’s Birthday Preview

By Stuart Mitchner

…the forgotten book, in the forgotten bookshop, screams to be discovered.

—from The Unquiet Grave

Today is Ovid’s birthday. In the unlikely event that my math is right, he would be 2067 years old. His full name was Publius Ovidius Naso, born March 20, 43 BC, and banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus in AD 8, presumably for writing (and apparently living) The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). I found a passage in Book 3 that relates to my subject if you tweak the words “path, bark, port, banquet” to fit this “undisguised” Preview Day column on the 2024 Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale:

“But let us return to our path; I must deal with my subject undisguised, that my wearied bark may reach its port. You may be waiting, in fact, for me to escort you to the banquet, and may be requesting my advice in this respect as well. Come late, and enter when the lights are brought in; delay is a friend to passion; a very great stimulant is delay.”

I know from experience that book dealers and bibliophiles waiting outside previous preview sales have experienced the “stimulant of delay,” especially in the days when a low-numbered ticket to a place near the front of the line was worth getting up for at the proverbial crack of dawn, and believe me, “passion” is not too strong a word for the book lust surging through the line the moment the doors are opened.

On Word Cycles

Certain works are innately relevant to a sale involving vast quantities of books and ephemera. Such a volume is The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (1945, Persea reprint 2005) with its postings from all over the literary/historical map, a postwar foreshadowing of the online universe. The volume was compiled and composed in the early 1940s by critic Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) under the alias of Palinurus, the pilot of Virgil’s ship in the Aeneid who fell overboard, survived three days “of the tempests and waves of the sea,” came ashore and was murdered, his body left unburied, his spirit doomed to wander the underworld.

Approaching 40 when he created The Unquiet Grave, Connolly intersperses his own musings with excerpts from Buddha and Baudelaire, Horace and Hemingway, Flaubert and Freud. Much quoted on and offline over the years is his opening sentence, from Part 1, “Ecce Gubernator” (“Here is the pilot”): “The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.”

Oblivion’s Nemesis

Meanwhile I can’t help bristling at Connolly’s claim that “all excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda, and writing for the films” are “doomed to disappointment” and that putting “our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, so it should never be undertaken.” That was half a century before the arrival of oblivion’s nemesis, the World Wide Web, which is now in danger of being consumed by AI.

Here’s another sentence from Connolly himself that accords with the ambiance of a community book sale: “Like the glow-worm; dowdy, minute, passive, yet full of mystery to the poet, and passionate significance to its fellows; so everything and everybody eternally radiate their dim light for those who care to seek; … the forgotten book, in the forgotten bookshop, screams to be discovered.”

A Sunday Visit

No book was screaming for my attention during a Sunday afternoon visit to the Stuart Country Day School gym, where BMW volunteers were busy unpacking boxes and setting up the sale, which begins today, Wednesday March 20, with a 10 a.m.-5 p.m. preview (tickets $30).

As a veteran of the great Ovidian preview sales of the 1980s and 1990s, I appreciate having behind-the-scenes access to that vast work-in-progress. It’s refreshing to be there free of the book-drugged daydreams and “great expectations” of those years. Sunday my plan was simply to make note of the books I’d have bought if I had the place all to myself — no crazed dealers or book fiends to contend with. Thanks in part to the fact that I recently received a book of poetry by Uli Knoepflmacher, the author and illustrator of Franny, Randy, and the Over-the-Edge Cat Person (Writings 2009), the first book I jotted down was Francesco Marciuliano’s I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats. I didn’t bother to look at the price. A pittance, I’m sure. But in the old days I’d have snapped it up for fun and probably dumped it before checking out because to pee or not to pee was never the question for the cats I’ve known, who loved books, would nuzzle them adoringly, and when possible, stretch out on them, sunbathing in their radiance and purring magnificently.

“Thanks to Uli”

In relatively close proximity to Marciuliano’s book were tables filled with an impressive donation from Princeton University Professor Sir David Cannadine, the Dodge Professor of History, Emeritus. The sale’s other donor of note is referred to in the BMW press release as the William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature, Emeritus, Ulrich C. Knoepflmacher, whose donation, some 35 boxes of books, had not yet been unpacked.

After deeming Knoepflmacher “one of the most influential scholars of Victorian fiction,” a statement from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty declares that thanks to Uli (“as we all know him”) “children’s literature is now seen as a serious central part of Victorian and early modern literary production.” Besides establishing the subject at Princeton, where he taught it alongside Victorian studies, Uli’s work in the field helped attract “the magnificent Cotsen Collection to Firestone Library.” How magnificent I saw for myself, having proofread the catalogue shortly before joining the staff at Town Topics in 2004.


Since I share Uli’s interest in cats and connections and need a break from Ovid and Palinurus, I’m looking at his Brain-Frolics & Other Verses (Writings 2018) and reading online about Franny, Randy, and the Over-the-Edge Cat Person, who, judging from the cover, appears to be a self-portrait of the author. A review in the Princeton Alumni Weekly notes that Uli, who received his doctorate in 1961, “sprinkles his story with allusions to classics” such as Kipling, and Randall Jarrell, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, “for whom the twins Franny and Randy are named.”

It’s only to be expected that Uli’s frolics include a poem about an “aged, yellow, ever mellow” cat named Pip that closes with the poet sharing “the blissful elongation of his purr,” while in “Egg and Ego” a “purring yellow cat” appears “Spread on the Obits page.” Among the poems that connected with my own interest in connections is “On My Son Asking for a Bedtime Story,” which ends with a reference to Coleridge: “Weavers and talkers, we lonely Marners / feed on links.” At first I thought “Marners” might be a misprint for “Mariners.” As I should have guessed, it leads to yet another connection, this one between Coleridge and George Eliot, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Silas Marner.

Oppenheimer is Here

During my visit to Collector’s Corner, where volunteers Iliana Bjorling-Sachs and Julie Steinman were happy to report that all the boxes had been unpacked, I noticed a copy of Ray Monk’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which prompted Iliana to remark at the large number of books on Einstein and Oppenheimer among this year’s donations. She was surprised that people would be giving up books so closely identified with Christopher Nolan’s Academy Award-winning film.

Claire Jacobus

Iliana and I talked briefly about the two people whose memories this year’s sale honors: Bryn Mawr graduate and longtime book sale mainstay Claire Jacobus (Class of 1954) and Shushma Frazier, who volunteered at the sale for many years. I got to know Claire when she was president of the Friends of the Princeton Public Library and a steadfast supporter of the Friends Book Sale. More than once over the years she urged me to write a column about Gene Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limber Lost. I’m sorry to say I never produced the article she was hoping for, but I haven’t given it up. All I need to do is put together a series of connections leading in that direction. Possibilities abound. Claire was born in Centerville, Iowa, lived with her grandparents in Princeton, Missouri, and worked for two years at The New Yorker. For now, I recommend Jean Stratton’s July 27, 2005 Princeton Personality profile, available in that enemy of oblivion the internet.


Note: If you check Ovid’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find his birth date incorrectly listed as March 21; it’s correctly listed as March 20 in the Wikipedia for that day, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in my original source, A Book of Days for the Literary Year. Admission to the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale is free from Thursday, March 21 (10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) through Sunday, March 24, Box Day ($10 per box), from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Hours on Friday and Saturday are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.