This being his birth month, we couldn’t possibly let the month go by without a blog on our main man – Charles Dickens. Our Victorian celebrity gifted the world with timeless tales of love, loss, and, of course, the occasional ghostly visitation (what happy, holiday story would be the same without one?). Did you know though, that when it came to his adventures touring in America, Charles was full of wit and humor… and dismay, at our strange American customs? If not, buckle up – you’re in for a ride! (Yet another American idiom he probably would have hated!)
First on Dickens’ list of American annoyances was the peculiar trait of what he called “Yankee Doodle Dandies” – who chewed tobacco with (apparently) all the grace of a cow chewing cud. Dickens was disgusted at the sight of fully grown men spitting wads of brown gunk on the sidewalks like it was going out of fashion. He wrote about this disturbing habit, “One wonders if they mistake the streets for spittoons or simply enjoy adding a dash of rustic charm to the pavements.” Honestly? Yuck – he’s not wrong.
Dickens also couldn’t help but poke fun at what he perceived as a showy nature of American hospitality. “In England we’re content with a pot of tea and a biscuit, but in America, one must navigate a veritable maze of gilded mirrors and chandeliers just to find the water closet!” How difficult it must have been for him, trying to find his way through lavish mazes of American excess! (I have seen Downton Abbey… who is he calling excessive?!)
And of course, one can not forget Dickens’ abhorrence for general American cuisine! The man who wrote descriptions of an amazing amount of delectable Christmas feasts found himself absolutely disconcerted by our culinary creations. From “chili con carne” (delicious – did he even try it?) to an apparently confounding combination of turkey and cranberry sauce, Dickens found his stomach not in agreement with American cooking. Not to mention our sheer nerve: “One can only wonder at the audacity of a nation that serves pie without custard!”
Despite all of his reservations at our strange customs and interesting inventions (I would consider turkey with cranberry sauce an invention, after all), Dickens nevertheless had moments of true admiration for the people of the United States. He appeared impressed by the spirit of democracy that seemed openly expected and understood by all the people he met here on his travels, and he found the general optimism of our nation delightful. I suppose his final conclusion was that “America may be a land of eccentricities and culinary calamities, but it is also a land of opportunity and innovation – a place where even the most unlikely of dreams can take flight.” Hear, hear!
In the enchanted world of children’s literature, a few household names stand out to the average reader. Not many of them evoke the same sense of nostalgia and peace in us as A. A. Milne – the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. On this the anniversary of his death, we wanted to take a look at what made Pooh, the endearing inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood, and A. A. Milne unique, and how he crafted stories that continue to this day to captivate generations both young and old.
Born on January 18, 1882, Alan Alexander Milne lived a relatively peaceful childhood. He was brought up in London, attended the small independent school his father ran (fun fact: at one point H.G. Wells was one of Milne’s teachers!), and then went on to the Westminster School and to Trinity College, Cambridge where he received a B.A. in Mathematics. He was a talented cricket player and played on a couple different teams, one of which was the Allahakbarries, Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie’s cricket team (along with teammates such as Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse). To say that Milne was privileged and knew all the right people to join the literary scene was an understatement!
After his graduation, Milne wrote humorous essays and articles for Punch magazine. While working for Punch, he published 18 plays and three novels, all of which were well received (even if they did not achieve the literary acclaim that Pooh did, years later). In 1913 he married, and in 1920 his son, Christopher Robin, was born. Milne served in both WWI and later WWII, and considered himself a very proud Englishman.
After a successful career as a playwright and humorist, Milne turned to his son Christopher Robin for inspiration in his next work. Not yet called “Pooh”, Christopher Robin’s bear first appeared in Milne’s poem “Teddy Bear” in Punch magazine in 1924. He then appeared on Christmas Eve in 1925, in the London Evening News in a short story. Winnie-the-Pooh, however, made headlines in the first book about him, published in 1926, when Christopher Robin was six years old. Two years later, Milne published The House at Pooh Corner, the second book set in the Hundred Acre Wood. Throughout this time, Milne continued working on other things, and even published four plays in these “Pooh” years.
Both Milne and Christopher Robin’s relationship with Winnie-the-Pooh was strained. During his childhood years, they enjoyed a close personal relationship. However, soon A. A. Milne found himself disappointed that his childish work was overshadowing the multitude of other works he had created over the years. He hated the constant demand for more Pooh stories, and he wished to be taken more seriously as an author than he felt he was. On Christopher Robin’s part, he was relentlessly bullied at school for being the Christopher Robin, and ended up resenting his father for trapping him forever in association with the popular children’s story. We like to think that this bit of Pooh’s history reminds us that art and life aren’t always two completely separate things.
That being said, how has Pooh pulled on our heartstrings the way he has, for almost a hundred years now? We believe that the simplicity and innocence of the Hundred Acre Wood, which is an idyllic place in and of itself, serves as a safe refuge for us, even in our imaginations. The gentle humor and (often pretty profound) wisdom of the books invites all ages to enjoy them. Pooh himself reminds us of the joy of simple pleasures – from a jar full of honey to a day out with a good friend.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of A. A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh, we are reminded in an often chaotic and uncertain world to cherish moments of joy, embrace our sense of childish wonder, and hold fast to our friendships – for these are the things that will sustain us through rough times.
As the year 2024 begins, and many of us find ourselves trying to decide if this is finally the year that we are going to establish the perfect morning routine, devote our time to charity work or actually join that gym that stares us down on our way home every day, we think it’s time to take a step back and form more realistic (not to mention more calming) New Years Resolutions. So instead of buckling up to hear what society believes you ought to be doing, pour yourself a tea or a glass of wine, and let’s discuss how we can make 2024 a comfy cozy reading year instead.
1. For the love of whatever you believe in, put your phones down! All our phones seem to do these days is remind us of everything we don’t have and aren’t doing with our lives. I know it’s the toughest ask (which is why we put it first), but if we all were to take a little break from our excessive scrolling, perhaps we’d finally tackle that overly large to-be-read pile next to our beds, and feel better about ourselves before we fall asleep. The only understandable part would be if you’re an e-reader and read books on your phones. That being said, most e-readers are probably not reading our antiquarian bookstore blog!
2. Start a book club. I know, I know, I know… don’t get your pants in a twist. I don’t mean one where you are hosting ten friends once a month and having to set up an instagrammable charcuterie board (which you won’t be doing, because of the break from social media, right?). For all we care, set up the book club with your dog. Your sister. Your partner. It doesn’t have to be an endeavor to be valid! Even just setting aside one night a month to solely discuss a book with your partner or friend at dinner works! Perhaps it will keep you both accountable for reading, even if it is one chapter at a time.
3. Mix it up! Expand your horizons. You may not be a big poetry person… or perhaps you just haven’t found the right poet to read, yet! Pick one book this year that is out of your comfort zone, not something you typically find interesting. And try it. Perhaps it will remind you why you detest sci-fi thrillers. Perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised! Do your research and find a book whose subject matter doesn’t make you want to throw it out of a window right off the bat and try something new. No matter how it ends up, you’ll be glad you did. (Or you’ll send us an angry email. Which, to be honest, might be kind of cathartic and you’ll thank us all the same!)
4. Try a blind book draw. A new fad which we’re sure many of you have seen, is where the covers of books (which do influence us, make no mistake) in bookstores and the like are actually wrapped up, with only a description of the plot to nab our attention. Try it! You don’t even need a bookstore to do so. Grab a book-loving friend, privately pick out some titles for each other, and only tell the choosing person the different plots in your own words. Buy or send the books you each choose to each other!
5. Last but not least… just read. Even if it’s one page a day, one page a week. Don’t get caught up in our crazy world so much that you lose the time, ability or interest in reading. Keep your brain active with a book – not just a news headline. You’ll thank us later. 🙂
We thought we’d start off a very autumnal month like November with an in-depth look at an author read country-wide… oftentimes in the fall school semester for required High School reading! Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, continues to captivate readers of all ages, all over the country. Published in 1895, this novel doesn’t only have an engrossing (according to my sophomore year lit teacher) narrative, but it truly is an in-depth exploration of human nature, war… and an “American” experience. On this here his birthday, let’s remember what Crane did for American literature!
Before we dive into the The Red Badge of Courage, we should understand the literary movements of the time that helped shape Crane’s writing into what we see today. The late 19th century, when Crane was writing, witnessed both movements of Realism and Naturalism. Both literary trends sought to show life as it truly was… sans the idealization or romanticism of previous movements.
Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage uses realism and naturalism to show the raw, gritty reality of war. Through the eyes of Henry Fleming, a young soldier who dreams of glory but is suddenly faced with fear and confusion on the battlefield, Crane paints a pretty vivid picture of the uncertainty, fear and coldness of battle. Crane’s (almost ridiculous – oh, I’m sorry…. meticulous) attention to detail, his extremely vivid descriptions of battle, and his description of the emotional turmoil experienced by the protagonist Henry all contribute to the novel’s realism. For Crane, sugar-coating was simply not allowed!
One of the most striking characteristics of The Red Badge of Courage is Crane’s focus on the inner struggles of its protagonist. Crane goes deep into Henry Fleming’s psyche, offering readers a pretty remarkable ‘character study’. The novel watches the evolution of Henry, as he confronts fear, cowardice, and a desire for forgiveness. We get to see his journey from a self-doubting youth to a more adult, self-assured and introspective individual. During his transition, American high school students all around the country get a more comprehensive understanding of human nature.
In the world of American literature, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is considered a masterpiece of realism. Its enduring appeal lies in its (almost) too-descriptive depiction of the psychological and emotional struggles of a young Civil War soldier. Crane’s understanding of an “American experience”, coupled with his decided portrayal of war’s (extremely) harsh realities, truly fixed the novel’s place as an American classic.
Anne Rice, born Howard Allen Frances O’Brien (because her mother thought naming her “Howard” after her father would be an interesting thing to do) on October 4, 1941, was an iconic figure in the world of literature. Known primarily for her compelling (and sensual) books, Rice created a unique niche within the genres of gothic fiction and supernatural fantasy. Now that “spooky season” is truly upon us and we are desperate for thrilling reads, we honor her birthday today with a wish to explore her literary masterpieces!
Anne Rice was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her birthplace, a location steeped in history and the mysticism of the Deep South (as any who have visited the city will attest), would later serve as an influential setting for several of her novels. She became “Anne” when a nun asked her for her name at school, and being self conscious about being “Howard” (who knows why) said her name was “Anne” – a name she thought was pretty. Her early years were unfortunately marked by tragedy; she lost her mother to alcoholism in her teens and would later face her own health challenges. It was during these tumultuous years that she began to nurture her love for literature and storytelling, eventually earning herself a degree in political science from San Francisco State University.
Anne Rice’s true literary journey began in 1976 when she released her debut novel, Interview with the Vampire, to the world. Reeling from the early death of her daughter to cancer, Rice took a previously written short story and turned it into a work that captured the attention of the country. This novel, the start of her celebrated “The Vampire Chronicles” series, created a subgenre of gothic and vampire fiction that continues to captivate readers and interest writers to this day. Rice’s storytelling capabilities are evident from the first page of Interview with a Vampire – she drew her readers into a dark and seductive world where vampires exist not as monsters but as complicated and tormented “human” characters.
One thing that sets Rice apart from other writers of her time was her willingness to tackle more taboo subjects head-on. Her novels are confidently erotic (and occasionally explicit), pushing the boundaries of what is considered conventional, mainstream literature. Her fairly fearless exploration of sensuality, desire, and the general darker aspects of human nature have helped make her a household name. While Interview with a Vampire and “The Vampire Chronicles” may be her most famous works, Rice’s literary successes extend beyond her world of vampires alone. In The Witching Hour, she introduced her readers to the family of the Mayfair witches, with a saga of magic, family, and fate. She even published “The Songs of Seraphim” series – detailing layers of spirituality and focusing on angels, faith, and the battle between good and evil. The most controversial of her works must be “The Sleeping Beauty Quartet,” a series of erotic novels written under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure. These books focus on the world of BDSM and erotic fantasy, further pushing the envelope of what is considered “acceptable” in the world of literature. Her many different series showcase her versatility as a writer, transitioning her subject matter from vampires to witches to angels and erotica seamlessly, all while continuing to use her signature gothic style.
Anne Rice’s influence on literature and popular culture is undeniable. Her groundbreaking contributions to the vampire and erotic fiction genres paved the way for countless authors and even filmmakers to explore similar themes. For instance, Twilight‘s Stephanie Meyer counts Rice as a great influence! On the anniversary of her birthday, we appreciate her ability to create entire worlds far (yet close) to our own, her fearless exploration of taboo topics, and her knack for addressing pretty profound philosophical questions about life and morality all within a framework of supernatural fiction. To this day, she reminds us that literature will always have the power to both entertain and provoke.
It’s been said that old dawgs can’t learn new tricks. Well, this old dawg thought maybe he could, for despite having been in the antiquarian book trade for 3+ decades, in the hopes of learning something new, the week of August 7th, I attended the CALRBS course, PostModern Bookselling, taught by my friends & ABAA colleagues, Brad & Jen Johnson, principals in the firm, Johnson Rare Books & Archives, Covina, CA.
For those not familiar with CALRBS, the courses are taught on the lovely UCLA campus, with the classes [mainly] held in the SE&IS building on the north end, right next to the Young library. While the UCLA Guest House is close by, I chose to stay at the Tiverton, at the South end of campus, close to Westwood. It made for a nice to/from walk every day… you know, “Get your steps in”.
As with most classes of this nature, the week began with a welcome brunch hosted by Director Robert Montoya, providing all attendees there for the week [CALRBS hosted 3 other classes that week] the opportunity to meet staff & fellow attendees, followed by each class heading to their respective class room. So the 8 of us gathered in room 101, and began the week together with personal introductions… we were a rather diverse group, though as you might imagine, the majority were booksellers in some fashion or form, ranging from relative newbies, to this old dawg of 34 years standing.
Brad & Jen’s plan for the course was to demonstrate to the class that the trade has evolved from what it was just a few decades ago… that PostModern booksellers should recognize that material other than just books is worth their time & energy, and they used their personal success as an example of what is possible. For those that don’t know, Johnson Rare Books & Archives has enjoyed considerable prosperity by focusing on archives, telling the story of under-represented communities & those outside the mainstream of literary pedagogy. Further, they emphasized the practice of active bookselling [reach out to possible customers] vs that of a passive nature [e.g., list your books on ABE, and wait for a buyer].
But what about specifics of the week you ask? To the Johnson’s credit, they brought in [some by Zoom] experts from many walks of the trade & book world… To start, Monday afternoon, Kevin Johnson, principal of Royal Books & author of The CELLULOID PAPER TRAIL, led a session on movie scripts, their history, identification, etc. Fascinating! We spent Tuesday morning with Russell Johnson, UCLA Curator of the History of Medicine. For those that know Russell, you know he’s a very generous individual, and a true friend of the trade. He showed us a number of usable treasures he’s procured over the decades he’s been in his position. And Tuesday afternoon was devoted to “Born Digital”, a Zoom presentation by Will Hansen, Newberry Library, followed by buying at auctions, another Zoom session, with Joe Fay, McBride Rare Books [and one who spent a number of years with Heritage auctions, so he had intimate inside knowledge of that about which he spoke].
Wednesday was spent on a field trip to Covina, where Brad & Jen had closed their shop for the day, in order to give the class the run of it, as well as show us some projects currently in the works… perhaps most impressive was a recently acquired consignment, a binding collection of some repute [Morris-Levin anyone?], though some were taken by Brad’s archive-in-the-building, nudist camp literature [feel free to quote him material]. But perhaps the high point of the day was lunch at Brad & Jen’s go-to place, Casa Moreno. Good food, generous portions, great company! After lunch, we traipsed over to Pasadena to visit “Paper Village”, a site where a number of pickers store their finds. What a fun afternoon! I even bought a bunch of books [which Brad kindly agreed to ship back to Reno for me].
Thursday was another busy day, with 4 areas covered: “Working with Institutions”, led by Greg Williams, Special Collections Librarian for CSU Domingo Hills. “Introduction to Appraisals” by James Goldwasser, Locus Souls Rare Books. “Research Strategies for Non-Traditional Materials”, Kate Mitas, Bookseller [by Zoom]. “Non-Traditional Approaches to Photography”, Kent Tschanz, Tschanz Rare Books. While all were quite good, and James taught me a few things about appraisals I didn’t realize [or forgot], I confess, I have to give a nod to Kent as my favorite, for his enthusiasm for the subject was nothing short of infectious. I’m only sorry he didn’t have another hour or two, for he showed some truly magnificent images to the class, though many were given short shrift, or skipped altogether, due to time constraints. While not originally part of the class schedule, fortuitously, the LA Art Book Fair had its opening night that night. We all went. The crowds, of mostly young folks, was nothing short of amazing. And two of our class [Miranda & Laurelin, Amortia Fine Art Books] had a stand! We all hoped they killed it! After, dinner at a local restaurant, Manuela DTLA, fabulous of course!
Friday, our last day, but certainly not our least. It began with a Zoom session featuring colleague Andrew Gaub, Bruce McKittrick Rare Books. McKittrick Rare Books focuses solely on books from the hand-press period, and Andrew spoke on how to market & sell antiquarian books in the 21st century. Suffice it to say, despite the week’s bias toward non-traditional materials, Andrew makes a credible living selling ‘olde’ books. The next session was with two local LA librarians, Dalena Hunter & Lizeth Ramirez, who discussed the collecting of under-represented communities. And while their focus is LA, the precepts they shared can be applied to any locale. Finally, class concluded with a “Non-Traditional Materials Workshop”, where each of us was to ‘pick & catalogue’ an item supplied by Brad & Jen. Mine was a photo album & letter archive Brad had just purchased just the Sunday prior at the Pasadena flea market! Since it may soon be on the market, I won’t say too much more, other than that guy sure has an eye for great material!
The official week ended with a mixer at the Young library, typical cheese cubes & white wine, but long on new friends saying their goodbyes. It was sad to see the week end, but hey, next year brings another schedule of classes, so perhaps I’ll see you in LA the summer of 2024?
As you know, we occasionally like to highlight specific authors throughout the year. One author that everyone knows the name of, but not everyone knows any intimate details about, is Edith Wharton. In the world of literature, Wharton’s literary accomplishments have made her a household name, albeit one usually associated with high school reading requirements! But Wharton wasn’t just a skilled author… despite being born into relative privilege she was also a social commentator who wasn’t afraid to confront the injustice of the social norms of her time! A true force to be reckoned with in the early 20th century.
Edith Wharton (born Edith Newbold Jones) was born on January 24th, 1862, in New York City. Wharton’s family belonged to the upper class of New York society, giving her access and opportunity to a world of luxury, culture and high society from a young age. However, her privileged upbringing became a double-edged sword, as her access to the people and views of the upper echelons shaped her perspective on almost all aspects of her life – society, class, love, and gender roles. Her first pieces were published when she was just 15 years old, an English translation of the German poem “Was die Steine Erzählen”, for which she was paid $50. Her family did not wish her name to be published publicly, and her mother refused to allow Wharton to even read novels until she was married. Though occasionally disheartening, these obstacles did not deter young Edith, and at just 16 her father arranged for a book of her poetry to be published under a pseudonym. She also had her poems published in Atlantic Monthly, New York World, and Scribner’s Magazine. Clearly, Wharton was destined for a literary life.
Wharton married Edward “Teddy” Wharton when she was just 23. Teddy was a wealthy banker, and from the outside, it must have looked like a solid match for Edith. Unfortunately, their marriage was fraught with tension… Teddy was not interested nor supportive of Edith’s literary pursuits, and though they shared a love of travel, Teddy’s debilitating depression was eventually too much for Edith. That being said, their travels provided much inspiring worldliness for Wharton’s later works.
Her first novel “The Valley of Decision” was published in 1902, and Wharton never looked back. A few short years later she published “The House of Mirth” (1905), a novel focusing it’s plot on the life of a young high-society woman who sees her life fall apart because she doesn’t adhere to common notions of what she ought to be. Wharton used her own life experiences to criticize the upper class, highlight their insincerity and false superiority – and Wharton gained a name for herself in the literary world. In 1911 she published “Ethan Frome”, further highlighting Wharton’s ability to create evocative worlds with vivid characters, once again imprisoned by their circumstances (though the rural farmer Ethan Frome is a world away from “The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart. More works followed – “The Custom of the Country” (1913), countless poems, and of course, “The Age of Innocence”. The latter being one of Wharton’s most famous works – earning her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921. Wharton was the first female to win the award.
Wharton never slowed down. During WWI she was actively involved in relief efforts, organizing charity initiatives to aid refugees in France, and using her fame to help raise funds for the war effort. She addressed social issues and advocated for causes close to her heart – primarily those about gender roles, society and classism. Over her lifetime she produced fifteen novels, seven novellas, eighty-five short stories, books of poetry, books on design and travel. She wrote cultural criticisms, and a memoir. In 1937 she received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Yale University. She was the first woman to do so.
Wharton indelibly impacted the American literary world, and her works have reached around the globe. Her frank, descriptive and beautiful prose highlighting the complexities of human nature and the constraints of society are unbelievably realistic. One of the most interesting parts about her writing is how she was able to capture society’s issues from all walks of life – from the poor and downtrodden to the unbelievably privileged elite. Throughout her works Wharton explored the human condition with depth and sensitivity.
Wharton died of a stroke on August 11th, 1937 at a country home in France, but one only needs to pick up one of her works to be transported back in time and live a new human experience.