Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Clump of Hair in the Bible Book, and other Confessions from a Reading Addict

My eccentricities mount with each passing year, and I’ve just realized I can add another one to my list. It seems that I’ve started feeling sorry for books. Of course they're on the way out, especially the long-past-popular ones that never get checked out of the library. When was the last time you read a library book that still had a date stamp card inside it?  My point exactly.  These books have feelings too, you know. They can't help it that they aren't Kindles. Heck, they aren't even paperbacks, poor things.  

This new little pet cause of mine started a few years ago, and I blame Verlyn Klinkenborg. If you don’t know who that is, really you should look him up, because he’s a writer for the New York Times who produces occasional essays that are as perfect as a miniature cupcake with sprinkles, just enough and just right, every time. It all began with his essay Life, Love and the Pleasures of Literature in Barsetshire.

In it, he discusses the novels of Angela Thirkell, who wrote 29 books between 1933 and 1961, all set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire. It’s the same location where Trollope set his books, but, like my bud Verlyn, I like Thirkell better then Trollope, and quite a lot. Here is the line from his essay that really got me going,  “If you cut only the scenes that take place during tea, half of Thirkell would be missing."

Nuff said, Verlyn; you had me at “tea,” I thought, and hastily requested the first book in the series, High Rising, published in 1933. I dug in as soon as it arrived. Is there anything better for a book addict than stumbling upon a series? It doesn’t matter how fast you gobble up a story, because the characters are waiting patiently for you in the very next book, just as soon as you can get to them. 

I loved these books.  Here's one reason why:  Klinkenborg said in his essay that half the scenes take place during tea, but I’d tack on another 25% for scenes describing who is taking which guest to the train station, and who is picking up the guests who are arriving from the city for the weekend. The main railroad line at Winter Overcotes serves Shearing Junction, Winter Underclose, and Worsted. Nearby are Lambton, Fleece, Skeynes, and Eiderdown, naturally. As much as I love the train station conversations, I’m also awfully partial to the sherry party scenes as well, and when the gin-soaked lesbians, Hampton and Bent, throw a cocktail party, then I’m really in heaven. By now I suppose it’s clear that just about nothing happens in these novels. It’s also clear, I imagine, that I very much prefer it that way.  

There were some challenges in getting through the series, though. It took the library forever to dig up the books and get them to my branch, and sometimes I’d get so impatient for one to arrive that I’d skip ahead and then double back. Sometimes my online request would be met with this message: "The only copy available is located in off-site storage. The wait time is approximately six weeks.” Fine, I’d think, find it. I need to see what Hampton and Bent are up to in 1939, and I’m happy to have my tax dollars used for a such a noble purpose.

And while I was very happy --  an expanse of books I loved stretched out before me, just waiting to be read – there were some drawbacks. On the plus side, the books smelled great when I opened them – like Pepsodent and Lucky Strikes and unvarnished, irony-free optimism.  But as much as I enjoyed opening their crackly spines and letting them get their first breaths of fresh air in 50 years, I had to admit that these books looked awful. I wondered what had happened to them in that so-called “off-site storage,” poor things.

They’d been recovered in that bumpy laminate peculiar to libraries, often repeatedly. I imagine that the bestsellers got all the nice, peppy colors. Thirkell’s recoverings tended toward what might have been beige many years ago, and was now just … ugly. 

People noticed. During the course of Project Thirkell, I was visiting a friend overnight, and she peered intently at my nighttime reading.  “What is that?” she said, squinting suspiciously. And then, with a little more skepticism than I hope was warranted, she asked, “Is that the Bible?” I examined the small, liver-colored volume in my hands and summoned up as much indignation as I could manage at ten p.m. “It happens to be Pomfret Towers, and they’re just about to have a sherry party, so Good. Night.”

But of course the slur stuck, and even I began to refer to the ratty old tomes as Bible Books. Mary Katherine and Olivia were especially horrified when I opened one volume and accidentally released a big clump of hair, circa 1960, I’d guess, which was the last time the book had been checked out, according to the antique pocket and stamped card glued in its front. Olivia still asks me if I’ve found hair in any books lately. I refuse to answer, naturally.

As must happen for all addicts, the sad day finally arrived when I’d reached the bottom of my stash. I started reading bestsellers, and things my book club recommended, books that seemed to feature a lot of colorful, slender women photographed from the neck down, I assume in the attempt to make them more Universal. Also, there were a lot of photographs of the backs of heads. I missed my liver-spotted reading material, even if it drew stares in the nicer sort of coffee shops.

And then, ta da, a new source.  I read Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, from the Columbia Journalism Review. I was enthralled by Justin Peters' essay on Brazilian Adventure, written by Ian Fleming’s older brother, Peter. In April 1932, he replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.” The expedition, organized by Richard Churchyard, traveled to São Paulo, then overland to the rivers Araguaia and Tapirapé, heading towards the likely last-known position of the Fawcett expedition. Fleming’s book was published by Scribner’s in 1934.

I couldn’t get to the computer fast enough and, hurrah, the library had one copy, and it was even in the land of the living, not the dreaded off-site storage. When it arrived, it was everything I’d hoped for – funny and witty and full of great self-deprecatory British touches. There were no sherry parties, but I imagined Peter Fleming visiting Barsetshire and being very well received. Lord and Lady Pomfret might have him to tea, or perhaps Mrs. Brandon, and he would make quite an impression. Perhaps, deliciously, there could be a discussion of which train would be best for his return to London, and who should drive him to the station.

There’s no Brazilian Adventure series, but Fleming did write other books, and I’ve requested them.  I’m hoping they’ll smell of cigars and brandy, but I’ll be satisfied if they just carry the faint aroma of tea.

Finally, may I make a plea for the continued circulation of Mrs. Thirkell's series? Request one today, any one, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. The clump of hair is long gone.  And imagine how happy that book will be to have been checked out twice in one decade.

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