If we can read a man by the books he reads, here’s an exercise in oblique autobiography, an annotated list of the books I purchased on Tuesday from Henderson Books in Bellingham, Washington. My Virgil and driver was Stephen Pentz, proprietor of First Known When Lost, who found, among other things, a lovely edition of John Clare’s poems edited by Edmund Blunden. My finds:
Aldo Buzzi: Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels.
[From “Chekhov in Sondrio”: “One has the idea that Tolstoy was born before Dostoyevsky, while in fact he was seven years younger: it was only that he aged more. Until the age of eighty he always went on horseback. His last horse was called Delirium. He knew horses better than anyone else. He spoke to them. He could read the tiredness in the eye of an old horse. He wrote the best story about a horse: `Kholstomer.’”]
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Inquiring Spirit: A New Presentation of Coleridge from His Published and Unpublished Prose Writings (edited by Kathleen Coburn).
[A phrase from Table Talk referring to Samuel Johnson: "his bow-bow manner."]
Edward Dahlberg: The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg.
[From Chapter 28: “Don’t listen to anybody who seriously alludes to scientific literary criticism, for it is an idle blab. The best advice to be given the reader is to abide by this sentence in one of Chekhov’s letters: `I divide literary works into two classes: those I like and those I do not like.’ Go through Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace, Dryden’s essays, La Bruyère’s The Characters and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Imbibe what is useful to you, and you will forget the rest anyway.”]
D.J. Enright: Man is an Onion: Reviews and Essays.
[Signed by Enright and inscribed “From DJE to W & LV Nov. ’72.” A label on the facing page reads “Leila Vennewitz 6400 Larch Street Vancouver, B.C.” There’s a story there.]
D.J. Enright: A Mania for Sentences.
[From “Lifting Up One’s Life a Trifle: “There are times when one finds oneself engaged in championing an author, and even finding it hard to do effectively, while knowing full well how comically gratuitous one’s efforts are.”]
Richard Holmes: Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage.
[“Whenever modern biographers set out on the long journey of research and writing, somewhere behind them walk the companionable figures of these two eighteenth-century presences, talking and arguing through a labyrinth of dark night streets, trying to find a recognisable human truth together.”]
Charles Lamb: Essays of Elia.
[My third copy but I couldn’t resist. Slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes, published by Donohue, Henneberry & Co. of Chicago. The bookplate shows five cupids hold a banner with the name J. Vila Blake and the Horatian tag “Aere pernnius” (“more lasting than bronze,” the approximate color of the book’s pages).]
Janet Lewis: Poems Old and New 1918-1978.
[In her introduction Helen Pinkerton writes: “To have seen and understood so much that is central to human experience and to have contained the understanding in enduring poetry is Janet Lewis’ art.”]
Janet Lewis: The Trial of Soren Qvist.
[The first sentence: “The inn lay in a hollow, the low hill, wooded with leafless beech trees, rising behind it in a gentle round just high enough to break the good draft from the inn chimneys, so that on this chill day the smoke rose a little and then fell downward.”]
William Maxwell: The Outermost Dream: Essays and Reviews.
[From Maxwell’s “Note”: “Reading is rapture (or if it isn’t, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door). A felicitously turned sentence can induce it. Or a description. Or unexpected behavior. Or ordinary behavior raised to the nth degree. Or intolerable suspense, as with the second half of Conrad’s Victory. Or the forward movement of prose that is bent only on saying what the writer has to say. Or dialogue that carries with it the unconscious flowering of character. Or, sometimes, a fact.”]
L.E. Sissman: Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman.
[From “Nocturne, Central Park South":
“It is amazing how the heart locks out
All interference and clear-channels galaxies
Into one-chambered worlds. Doubt
Is the house dick and time whistles taxies.”]
L.E. Sissman: Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s.
[From “The Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf”: “A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.”]
Only the Coleridge anthology and Janet Lewis’ novel I haven’t read before. Two of the twelve volumes I already own and three others I’ve owned in the past. All I intend to read or reread. All, because they are good books, remain inspirations to readers and writers. Enright says in his “Author’s Note” to A Mania for Sentences: “As for language, it is a bad workman who blames his tools.”
ADDENDUM: There is a story behind the Enright/Vennewitz book signing, though not the one I expected. Leila Vennewitz translated into English the works of Heinrich Böll. A reader in Dallas sends this obituary.