Notes from Away: The Letters of Others
Thursday, September 29, 2016 11:22 AM
NEW YORK. Not much news here, except to say that last year we bought a small apartment in the 70s between Columbus and Amsterdam. The contractors (Polish immigrants all, speaking Polish at work, but excellent English with us) did a great job fixing it up, and installing some bookshelves. But we had no books.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching for part of each year in Shanghai.
So I took my backpack and the subway downtown to The Strand bookstore with its “18 miles of books.” Its name always reminds me of the lines from T.S. Eliot: This music crept by me upon the waters/And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street/O City, city I can sometimes hear. And so on.
Anyway. I don’t know if you have been there, but The Strand has floors and floors and shelves and shelves of books, many worthy ones published years ago and no longer in print, many handsome hardbacks, most only lightly used, and all for very reasonable prices, on every subject under the sun. Intimidating. So much has been written.
In this world of books lying all before us, what to choose?
I decided we would start our apartment library with three collections of essays — by John Updike, and Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal: on books, on art, on theater, on history, on politics — because a book of essays, prominent near the reading chair in the living room, or open face down on the nightstand in the guest room, can be dipped into, at any spot, for a few minutes. Wherever the book falls open, a great talker starts to speak on a topic that the listener-reader-guest has never considered so attentively before. And so the room, and the bookshelves, would begin to be inhabited by brilliant conversation and be less lonely.
When I said that our bookshelves were empty before, that is not exactly true. Before leaving Maine, I had made a special trip to Belfast to visit Old Professor’s Bookshop. What a wonderful place. There among its unstintingly thoughtful collection I found “The Letters of EB White.” I wanted his humane and sprightly and rueful and ironic presence, and his reminder here of that other Brooklyn — in Maine — to preside as a household god of the democratic voice on our bookshelves
And in Shanghai, there is the prosaically but accurately named Foreign Language Bookstore. It must have every single Penguin title, and every classic author published in English. There I found, just yesterday, and bought, two beautiful Vintage paperback volumes: the selected Diaries, and the selected Letters, of Virginia Woolf.
I dipped into the books, and matched up some dates. In April 1927, just after completing her book “To the Lighthouse,” she and her husband Leonard visited Italy, and she wrote long letters to her sister Vanessa Bell back in London.
9 April (from Rome): “Obviously the country round is far the loveliest in the world. I don’t myself care so much for the melodramatic mountains here, which go the color of picture postcards at sunset; but outside Rome it is perfection — smooth, suave, flowing, classical, with the sea on one side, hills on the other, a flock of sheep here, and an olive grove.”
14 April (from Sicily): “Last night we explored Syracuse by moonlight. But how am I to describe without boring you, particularly as you won’t have drunk a bottle of wine, and be half tipsy as I was — the bay, the schooners, the blue sky, with the white pillars, like paper, and the clouds crossing, and the people sauntering, and a man on stilts — no it can’t be done. One’s mind is such a hotch-potch of different things, always on the bubble.”
And then, in the Diary, on her return to London, she wrote, this time just to herself:
Sunday 1 May: “We came back on Thursday night from Rome; from that other private life which I mean to have for ever now. One is nobody in Italy: one has no name, no calling, no background. Altogether I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed one month so much…. I wish I were not so ignorant of Italian art, literature and so on. However, I cannot now write this out, or go into the great mass of feeling which it composed in me.”
Well, I will never know her, or her “Bloomsbury set,” and my life and upbringing and travels and readings are far different from hers. But it is a privilege to listen to her thoughts, and a guilty delight to share in the gossip of another era, to see other ways of being friends, other ways of expressing love, other sensibilities to catalyze one’s own.
So next time you visit the New York apartment, or for that matter the Rockport Library, those are some of the people you might meet.
Thus concludes my letter.