The Book Thing Lives

Four years ago Frances of Nonsuch Book and I went to The Book Thing in Baltimore. It’s a place where all the used books are free. Yep. Free. We even recorded part of an episode of The Readers about our trip. You can see the results of that trip and a major library clean-up here.

A few years ago there was a fire there and we worried it would be no more. It came up in a discussion recently so I looked it up and lo and behold it is still operating. So since we hadn’t been there for a while we thought we would see what had accumulated in the meantime. It’s wonderful if you are a reader looking for older, not necessarily popular books. Which, as you know, sums me up perfectly.

You would be right if you thought I already owned all of those Pyms and Sartons. But some of these will be reading copies and others will be for people who say, I’ve never read The Magnificent Spinster…
Although I already own this book in another edition, I couldn’t pass this by because it matches one of my four copies of 84, Charing Cross Road.
Not long after I found the Hanff, I stumbled across this little guy by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the ‘Q’ from the title of the Hanff’s book. I’ve never actually seen a book by him so I had to get it.
I already had a much less interesting copy of this one.
I know nothing about Edith P. Begner, but with a subtitle like that how could I pass it up.
After a quick skim, the writing in this gay novel is about as good as the cover art.

Buried in Books

When I visited a friend in the Netherlands last month I returned to a shop that I had stumbled upon on a previous visit. I knew it had only a small English section but also knew it was bursting with books and that browsing that English section would be an adventure. Given how full the store was two years ago, I was a bit worried it wouldn’t still be there. But it was, and this time I wasn’t as shy about roaming…no that’s not right…tip-toeing my way into other parts of the store. Mainly just because I wasn’t ready to leave. It was worth it, there were plenty of English books tucked away here and there and I came across an atlas that was just the kind of thing I have been looking for lately.

A fairly modest stack of five books taken from the billions in the store. But given 90% were not in English, and I had limited space in my luggage, this seemed an okay haul. More on the stack further down this post.
That’s daylight over there.
A view of the English corner. I had to move that plastic bag full of New Yorkers from 2011 just so I could put both of my feet together.
There is a certain elegance to these swirling stacks.
Remember this view when you scroll onto the next photo.
The same view 20 years ago.
I’ve had mixed success with Rose Macaulay, but the premise of this books sounded too fascinating to pass up.
It is amazing what I don’t remember from being a history major. I guess since I focused on English history I shouldn’t feel too bad about that. Lately I’ve been hankering for an atlas that shows the ebbs and flows of various dynasties in “The West” over time. This was marked at 20 euros but without me saying a word about the price he gave it to me for nine. I would have happily paid 20. Maybe he wanted to make room for new stock.
I should mention that I found this atlas roaming free on one of the piles. If I hadn’t expanded my browsing beyond the English corner, I never would have found this gem.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the publisher’s information on the cover of a book before. Particularly with their address.
On my first trip to England at the precious age of 19, I went to 17 different cathedral cities. In the subsequent years I added at least another 10 cathedrals, minsters, and abbeys, and never once did I ever come across even the name of Beverly Minster.
One of my favorite cathedrals. The inside is just as eclectic as the outside.

When the show is so much better than the book

Regular readers of Hogglestock will know how much I disliked the book Catch-22. It was one of the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the 20th century and so I attempted to read it years ago when I was making my way through that list. I got about 250 pages in and wanted to throw the book across the room. But it was a library book, so I just returned it. It was a little too satirical and madcap. Like an Abbott and Costello routine meets the satirical novels of Evelyn Waugh. But for whatever reason, I picked it up again in 2013 and managed to make my way to the end despite really, desperately, wanting to abandon it at almost the same exact point I had previously.

Fans of the novel Catch-22 seem to have been less than impressed by Hulu’s version. And TV critics seem to have found it less than perfect as well. But I thought it was great TV. And it did something that Heller’s novelĀ  didn’t do for me: it made me laugh, and it moved me more than a little.

If you have six hours on your hands, put the Heller down and turn on the TV.


I had a delightful time ignoring social media for the month of August. I was completely off Twitter, FB, and Hogglestock from about July 27th until August 30th. There were a few moments where I got kind of jittery going through withdrawal. And there were more than a few moments on our trip to Maine for my 50th birthday that I wanted to share, but overall, it was really liberating to have it removed from my life. It was nice to reset my relationship with those platforms. Part of me would like to abandon them entirely, but there are too many people (like you!) that I don’t want to lose track of.

One of these days I will post more about our wonderful week in Maine for my 50th, but for now IĀ  wanted to talk about May Sarton. Long time readers will know that I love May Sarton’s novels and memoirs and have written about her many times and evangelized about her when I co-hosted The Readers podcast. A few of Sarton’s novels, and memoirs for that matter, take place, at least partly in Maine, so it seemed appropriate that I take along at least one Sarton book.

I don’t recall if I read the blurb about A Reckoning beforehand or not. It’s the story of Laura Spelman, an 80-something woman who has terminal cancer in both lungs and decides to forgo treatment and try to meet death on her own terms. It could have been a really bad choice for someone turning 50, but so beautiful. Sad for sure, particularly as cancer seems to become more and more a subject of discussion among friends and family with each passing year, but so deeply life affirming and peaceful. I also found it unputdownable–but even that urge was rather serene and calming. Our house that week included friends and two 17-year olds and a 13-year old, games, puzzles, lots of food and Lucy. Rather than feel the usual vacation desire to hole up with the 13 books I brought with me, I found myself engaging with the ebb and flow of activity in the house. And then I would remember, oh right, I have A Reckoning to curl up with. It was like a dear friend I got to visit with when all the other hubbub died away.

It’s not a perfect book. I agree with some of the reviews on Goodreads that there was an aspect of the book that was somewhat not as well integrated as it could have been. But I was so taken with the beauty and emotion of the story, Laura’s life/death, and indeed Sarton herself, that I couldn’t begrudge any of it. It also greatly increased my already passionate connection with who I think May Sarton was. If there is one author, living or dead, who I could hug, it would be May Sarton.

As I was finishing up A Reckoning, I was also plotting our drive back to DC, via Troy, New York to visit a grad school friend. As I contemplated our possible routes, I vaguely remembered that Sarton’s grave had to either be in Maine or New Hampshire. As it happens, it is in Nelson, New Hampshire, which was rather conveniently on our way.

Nelson itself was a surprise to me. I knew it would be small, but I didn’t realize how small. Just a grass square surrounded by wood frame buildings and a church. And, except for the very nice woman in front of the church who directed us to the cemetery, the place was dead quiet late on a Friday afternoon. (Back in 2009 I came across a blogger who made a pilgrimage to Nelson. The post is still there, but sadly the pictures aren’t loading. But still worth a look here.)

We were due in Troy for dinner and still had about three hours to cover on the road, so I didn’t have much time for the visit. I had no flowers with me. Anyone who has read Sarton’s memoirs knows how important flowers were in her life. I had no stone to place on her grave, though there were a couple already placed there. I snapped a few photos and then was distracted by my carmates and my dog and the giant mosquitoes and started to head back to the car. And then I stopped dead in my tracks and realized I was letting something important slip through my fingers. I had gotten my photos for social media, but that’s all I had gotten. I went back to her grave. Withdrew from all of the stuff scrambling through my brain and let the deep quiet of Nelson take over, let the memory of the book I had just finished a day or two earlier seep into me, and had a moment to connect. It was brief, maybe only 15 seconds. I didn’t say anything, but as I touched the head of the Phoenix there was flash of emotion that was made up of love, gratitude, peace, humanity, desire, pity, despair, beauty, and hope. As if everything in life was concentrated in that one brief moment. In the end that 15 seconds was much more meaningful than a longer visit could have been. Anything longer and it would have started to turn into something artificial and contrived. No doubt, much like this post probably appears. But it was a moment. One for which I am deeply grateful.

Hoarding intervention fantasy camp

I know hoarding is a real thing and I also know that just cleaning up a place does nothing to solve the underlying psychological condition, but I am setting that all aside and risking insensitivity, so I can talk about this absolute delightful shambles of a bookstore.

If you like rummaging through second hand bookshops as much as I do, you will eventually run into situations where it seems like the book seller has hoarding tendencies. Some of these shops are exercises in controlled chaos, but with some climbing gear and a hard hat you can find your way to all sorts of interesting things. I guess these are run by high-functioning hoarders. Then there are those booksellers who seem to relish amassing stock at the expense selling anything. How they pay the bills is a mystery. I was even in one delightfully large store in the northeast of the US where the entire fiction section was entirely blocked by piles and piles of “new” stock and completely inaccessible. The owner just shrugged his shoulders and offered no remedy. I’ve encountered aged booksellers who are well beyond retirement still taking in way more books than they could ever sell and then pricing them not to sell.

What follows is a bit of a photo essay of a shop/seller on the more extreme end of the spectrum.

Coming up the stairs from the basement. The place was both magical and frightening. I normally am not claustrophobic, but I did start to imagine all sorts of tragedies where I was buried and killed by a book cave in.
So many books in rubble sacks that I doubt will ever see the light of day. I began to plot out how I would handle getting the shop organized. In a shop like this, the logistics of it are complicated by the fact that there is not one bit of space to shift books so you could get them organized.
Clearly the part of the shop beyond that “no entry” sign was once part of the selling floor. This is where the hoarding tendencies overcome any notions of being a book seller. My question is, has that been off limits for as long as that raggedy sign would suggest, or has the sign just been moving its way ever closer to the front of the shop over the years?
I would love to spend a year in total control of this shop. Each day helping the dribble of customers, and spending most of my day slowly making sense of it all. Organizing, disposing, cleaning, improving….but not so much that it loses all of its chaotic charm.


The writing pavilion at Sissinghurst

On the corner of the moat at Sissinghurst is a writing pavilion that most of us would die for.
You can see the spatial relationship between the pavilion and Vita’s tower. But the pavilion didn’t exist in her lifetime.
This illustration is taken from a book about Sissinghurst written by Nigel Nicolson, Vita and Harold’s son. The pavilion is positioned at the inside corner of the moat in the upper left of the map. The small building just below the end the moat on the left is the Priest’s House where we stayed. The rather large building with the dashed line pattern did not exist by the time Vita and Harold bought the property.
Would that not be a perfect place to write?
There was a somewhat odd collection of Vita’s books, Jane Austen, and books on archaeology. I was surprised that there was a sign that actually encouraged one to browse the shelves.
I have a passing interest in archaeology and became quite interested in paging through these. I went there a couple of days in a row near closing time so that I could look through the relatively undisturbed by visitors.
I was delighted by these foldouts and was equally amazed that they let us paw through them. I began to spin a fantasy where I was “stuck” at Sissinghurst for an extended period of time with no technology and I had all the time in the world to read every volume of these books. I fancied the idea of becoming an expert on the archaeology of Kent. Of course there would be the siren call of the thousands of books that Vita and Harold had in the long library and Vita’s study, but one fantasy at a time please.
I had to chuckle at this. They build a nice little pavilion in honor of their father, but oh, wait, while we’re at it, let’s make it a fabulous place for our own use.
A view of the pavilion from a bench in the orchard.