“What you’re searching for, among
These histories, these poems, these illuminated guides
To the soul, or the soul’s companions . . . these compendiums
Of fossils, stars, speeches, journeys when the world
Was a path through forest or waves against painted eyes
On the bow of a wooden ship plying the Aegean,
Is a single line of calm.”
Allen movingly defines not the book collector’s but the reader’s quest. We in the latter category assay a book’s worth by its literary quality, not market value, though cash is never to be scorned. For some of us, books are not trophies. What they contain is all together more important, rare and complicated. Allen hints at the romance of an independent bookshop, its unhomogenized strangeness often reflecting the sensibility of the owner. One of the first acquaintances I made in 1985 after moving to Schenectady, N.Y., was Bill Healy, owner of Bibliomania, when his shop was located on Jay Street, a block from Schenectady City Hill. In aggregate, I probably spent several weeks in Bill’s company in those nineteen years, browsing and chewing the fat. I sold him more books than I ever bought. In the early nineties, when money was more than customarily tight, I gave up many volumes I wish were on my shelves again, including first editions of Joseph Mitchell’s first four books. Bill was always generous and probably padded some of his checks because he knew times were tough. Steven Millhauser once expressed concern after finding my first edition of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson (1977), with my name on the bookplate, in Bill’s shop.
I was saddened to learn that Bill succumbed to the times in 2008, closed his storefront and moved to strictly online sales. Nostalgia is always dubious, I know, but I remember the layout of Bill’s shop in plaintive detail and regret never again being able to sit on a box of old volumes next to his desk and talk about books, jazz, kids, the Adirondacks, whatever.
About that “single line of calm,” here’s an example from Thursday, to compliment Allen’s own. I’m reading Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns (Ignatius Press, 1998) by George William Rutler, the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in New York City. Of the poet and hymnist William Cowper (1731-1800), who wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Rutler says: “For all his burdens and melancholia, he was not without a sense of the droll.” Epigram as epitaph.