Archive for October, 2008

More Naked Book Lust

Yesterday we again met the Suitcases of Courage and the Sprinters della Casa for an excursion.  Last week it was sheep and this week it was Edith Wharton.  When Mrs SoC saw Dorothy reading an Edith Wharton book at one of the races this past summer, she mentioned that she was very interested in seeing Wharton’s house in Lenox before it was too late; the foundation that runs the site is hurting financially and they are worried about their future ability to keep the place going.  Because we are always interested in making pilgrimages to authors’ homes, we enthusiastically agreed to take the trip to Massachusetts.

Before we made it to The Mount, though, we had to stop at another used bookstore.  New England, bibliophiles should know, is absolutely filled with small, odd, hidden bookstores.  Some of them have more atmosphere than merchandise, while others fill the shelves with so much merchandise that the atmosphere is thinned considerably.  Some cater to special interests while other seem to have a little bit of everything.  The Berkshire Book Company in Sheffield is one of my new favorites.

The BBC fills a small red barn next to a white clapboard house on Route 7 in Sheffield.  When we arrived, the bespectacled lady sitting behind the desk told us that most of the books were on sale, with different rooms offering different discounts.  Then she warned us that the upstairs room was filled with books not alphabetized; these books were in some sort of numeric order to make internet order processing easier.  If we felt like browsing, we could have some fun upstairs, she said.

At this, I felt a little disappointed.  I didn’t think we really had the time to dig into the treasures, especially treasures arranged in some haphazard scheme.  However, I needn’t have worried.  I was in the presence of fellow book geeks, and we soon fell into our separate trances as we grazed through the aisles.

The rows of books immediately sucked me into that zone where I dreamily focus on the books, and any interruption becomes an almost unbearable intrusion.  I don’t care about the awesome first edition you just found–I’m eagerly digging through the ancient, dusty nineteenth century tomes.  What’s this?  An 1879 illustrated edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer?  And it’s only twenty bucks?  Wait!  All of the books in this room are thirty percent off!  I manfully fight the urge to dance a happy little jig right there in front of the shelves.

As we drove up to Sheffield, we passed a sign that made me laugh.  It said “You are Entering The Berkshires, America’s Cultured Resort.”  As opposed to America’s philistine resort?  I could laugh, but the Berkshire bookstores certainly carry some cultured volumes.  Where else would I find two facsimile reprints of nineteenth-century books?  One is a copy of Lydia Maria Child’s The American Frugal Housewife ($8.50, but it’s 50% off!), and the other is the 1852 gift book, The Home Book of the Picturesque, featuring an essay by Susan Fenimore Cooper.  I also came away with a paperback copy of John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure.  I know nothing about this book or the author, but it looks intriguing.  One of the cover blurbs says “If Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert had shown as much appetite for culinary adventures as he did for a certain nymphet, The Debt to Pleasure is the book he might have written.”  Who can resist that?

Now, finally, we get to The Mount.  I won’t go into great detail about Edith Wharton’s magnificent home, except to say that it is a lovely house on lovely grounds.  Check out the link I posted above for more information, and, while you’re there, think about making a donation to help preserve the place.  It is worth it.  We took a guided tour led by a guide who really seemed to know the architectural heritage as well as the philosophy guiding Wharton’s house design.  The lower floors are well-restored, but without any of the Wharton’s furniture, which has been lost or sold in the many years since the Whartons moved out.  The upper floor, though, shows the ravages of time and neglect.  There the paint is chipping and the ceiling shows water damage that occurred when a water pipe burst in the winter.  The plaster is falling away, leaving a gap-toothed view of the lath beneath.  The gardens, however, are in beautiful condition, even in the autumn, inspiring me to ponder the hours and hours of labor involved in keeping the hedges trimmed, the flower beds weeded, and the lawns immaculately mowed.  The southern wing and the large stables on the north side of the property attest to the number of servants needed to keep such a home running smoothly.  I’m sure Wharton had no use at all for a book like Lydia Child’s Frugal Housewife.

After our tour of the house, we of course browsed the gift store, where I did not restrain the urge to buy more books.  I came away with an anthology of Wharton’s ghost stories and The Writing of Fiction.  We then strolled over the grounds and contemplated the possibility of creating a commune, where we could collectively, afford to live in a grand estate that, individually, we could never, ever manage.  It sounds like a great idea, but I am haunted by images of Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists’ failed experiment in communal artistic living.  Interestingly, coincidentally, when we met earlier in the day at a diner in Canaan (the promised land–can the symbolism pile up any higher?), I noticed a truck in the parking lot with “Brook Farm” stencilled across the door.  Was fate trying to send a message?

Afterward, with thoughts of magnificent estates and communes that ironically undermine the very principles of individual wealth that produced the magnificent estates still swirling in our brains, we departed for Great Barrington, another one of those ridiculously charming New England towns.  Dinner, long conversations that ranged from books to bikes (and bikes, and bikes, and bikes) and then, finally, homeward.

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A Shout Out to the Puritans

Note to Sarah Palin and her handlers:  Ronald Reagan did not make up that line about the shining city on the hill.  John Winthrop said it first in “A Model of Christian Charity” in 1630.

Just sayin’.

Poor John gets no love.

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