Book Notes: The Library

Some of you may remember that I moved last summer. The settling in continues, but a milestone has finally been achieved. I thought I would update those of you who have asked.

‘How are the bookshelves doing?’

These bookshelves were too tall, as we went from nine foot ceilings to standard ceilings. Although it broke my heart, the bookshelves had to have a foot sawed off…it was that or not use them at all, which was unacceptable. Some of these shelves are double-stacked, to make up the difference. And I did have to cull some books. (ugh)

Yes, you are seeing two sets of Britannicas. Ever since I was little, I wanted a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. (I was not into dolls) Eventually I acquired the famous 19ll set (which you see on the left, the handy ‘small’ edition) and a set of 1938. These are more than curiosities or anachronisms to me; they provide a wealth of fascinating information.

For example, in the 1938 edition, a small, insignificant paragraph given to Hitler, but pages of tiny print devoted to The Hittites. What Hitler did might seem more relevant to today’s reader than what the Hittites did, but, eventually, all those blustery types disappear into a footnote and a fragment of dust.


So here you see….the process and transformation. The real transformation is interior….me, that is.

I feel at home now.

The Discover Challenge for the last week had to do with mixing media; I love the new Canva app, and have used it often. Here is a favorite quote, using a photo of my library. When it comes to book quotes, there is an embarrassment of riches, but I think Wilde’s comment has some truth to it.



Novel, But Not Original


We all know what ‘original recipe’ means. It means a recipe that has been passed down from someone’s momma to someone’s momma until it passed to someone’s son who figured out how to patent it and start a chain of fast food restaurants.bookshop

A recipe involves a formula, a pattern, which would appear to contradict the idea we have formed of ‘original’.

But is there an original pattern for a novel? Is there even an original novel, widely recognized as such, from which sprang the seminal pattern?

These are the sorts of things I wonder about before my life gets more orderly with a plate of scrambled eggs.

To unlock, in a scholarly way, the mysteries of a term such as ‘original novel’, that would appear to be both contradictory and redundant at the same time, is a question I would defer to James Harbeck of sesquiotica, a brilliant blog on word origins. A professional editor, the creator of ‘word tasting notes’ he even manages to make the subject entertaining.

And to unlock the the mystery of what actually qualifies as ‘the original novel’, as in the first novel ever written, you would soon find yourself in a morass of conflicting opinions and ideas that would take you everywhere from The Sumerian Shakespeare to eighteenth century political satire.

In the meantime, my eggs are getting cold, so…Curious Word devotees, here you go:

Original: Comes from the word we know as orient, oriental, meaning East. To the ancients, the east was the source—the origin—of both light and life.


In an interesting connection to our word novel—novel in the modern sense of a structured story with written words—we have the ancient Hebrew word qdm, which also meant east, or ancient.

Who was Cadmus, according to the Greeks? The originator of their alphabet and writing. The original writer, as such.

From wiki:


‘Cadmus’ name is of uncertain etymology. It has been connected to Semitic qdm “the east” and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) “to shine”.

Did our original writer write novels?

Novel: comes originally from ‘nova’ meaning new star. This provides an interesting link to the Greek word above, kekasmai, ‘to shine’.

Our current use of it, however, comes via Latin, from the word nouus, and nouellus, and finally to novella, a short or middle length story…which the English took and shortened novella into novel and increased the length of the story. Funny how they did that.

All of this still keeping the meaning of ‘something new’, something born.

Linked to the ancient origin of novel is ‘novelty’, and this is, as some argue, why the novel has never been given proper credence as an art form. The Greeks dismissed it as such, giving a Muse to Poetry, Music, Art, and the like. To the novel there has been given no star-like brilliance.

Novelists still are aching to shine.

Margaret Kennedy, in her fascinating little diatribe on the subject of novels, called The Outlaws on Parnassus, writes:img_6383

‘There is…very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to critical comment for elucidation. He is less likely to feel all this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in an expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.’

Therefore the origin of story-telling, and eventual novel writing…is as old as the first baby being rocked at a cradle. Something new, something born…

In other words, the original novel came from someone’s momma. (Thanks, mom.)

Realize: Unbelievably, a Poem

If Realize
were a perfume
it would be subtle
some might say dull
as though you could
enter or leave a room
and no one would

but oh what fun
its sister scent
The Aha Moment
is having
all bursts of light
and sparkling
you see her there
by titillated

Can we even glimpse
that other cousin
all distant incense
and seizures
of other-worldly
quickly bored, recently

Such comets leave
exhausting effluvium
and make one think
no, perhaps Realize
is good
even if rather

Then comes Wonder
to whisper in your ear
she leaves you breathless
with her strange perfume
no poor relation, this–
you follow her,
completely alive
unknowing but
now knowing


The Cinderella of Flowers

“Like fairy sausages.” — Through The Woods

At long last, I bring thee catkins.

I’ve been waiting for the catkin season to begin. My woodland walk the other day yielded, at last, a few sightings, glimmering from a hazel tree. I have been longing to see them in the wild since reading H.E. Bates’ nature book Through the Woods, and his lovely, evocative descriptions.

Well, perhaps his likening them to ‘fairy sausages‘ is not so lovely, but it is captivating. And strangely evocative. I’m not sure why, given the fact that fairies don’t exist. And if they did, as we imagine them in their wee, weightless, frolicsome days of dancing hidden in tall grasses, does it not seem even more fanciful that we would come across them devouring greasy, heavy sausages with a side of mustard?


Unlikely…yet ‘like fairy sausages‘ seems so right a description of these lovely pendulous flowers.

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I just love the splendid geometry of the design in their tightly budded state. I hope to go back and photograph them in their opening stages through the winter.

(And thank you and your nature books, H.E. Bates, for opening my eyes to this seasonal wonder.)

A side note, given my Curious Word tendencies…Catkins and pussywillows have more in common than inflorescence. A pussywillow is a catkin; a catkin not necessarily a pussywillow; it depends upon which tree or shrub it blooms from. But both names reflect the fact that children loved these manifestations of nature, and gave them names that reflected their endearing quality. Catkins means ‘kitten tails’, from a Dutch word, and pussywillows because they resemble the soft, strokable fur of a kitty.

Or a sausage, if you’re hungry.

As mentioned, my earlier post on H.E. Bates also featured the gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Agnes Miller Parker; one of which I show here.


Unfinished Business, Literarily

Whether they are readers or writers, the unfinished book can really haunt a person. In my case, I always feel this nagging need to go back and finish Grandma Called it Carnal.

At the time, I simply couldn’t go on reading it. It is highly unusual for me to leave a book unfinished. Especially one by an author that I think writes splendidly. And, for the record, Grandma called everything carnal. She even called the excessive consumption of beet greens carnal. Grandma Griswold is the reason I put this book down, unfinished.

Who is the author? Bertha Damon, and her book of memoir is described as:

‘Her experiences being raised in a Connecticut village by an eccentric grandmother who combined Victorian notions of propriety with a great admiration for Henry David Thoreau and an aversion to modern inventions.’

I should have loved this book. But, truth is, with all due respect to Bertha Damon and her obvious love for her grandmother, this lady was rather disturbing. All that Puritan rigidity, a self-denial that seemed in reality more of a focus on herself than a love for others, became a bit much.

‘The funeral drew to our house a flock of forbidding-looking paternal uncles and aunts from Connecticut, who seemed very big and tall and gloomy. The aunts wore black, hardhearted dresses, with beads and passementerie glittering all over to make it all worse. They looked around and said, ‘They seem pretty comfortably fixed; but she never was a good housekeeper.’ Finally they noticed me.’

When little Bertha’s mother dies a painful death, Bertha and her sister go to live with their Puritan Thoreauvian grandmother. They cannot show any signs of grief, nor are they ever hugged. Bertha soon adopts a sweet old dog and finds comfort, but her grandma ‘disposes of it’,  for breaking the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’. Then the old cow had to die, for ‘fornicating’, apparently.

So Grandma Griswold got jettisoned, and I laid aside an otherwise fascinating memoir. Now, with my winter reading plans being tucked away, this book is coming back out.

Bertha Pope Damon was quite a well-known personality in the Berkeley University social climate in the 1920’s and ’30’s, and, except for this memoir that goes as far as the end of her childhood, there is tantalizingly little to be found out about her.

In the book/transcript ‘Recollections and reminiscences of life in the Bay Area from 1920 onward’ (available online) Berkeley scholar and professor Benjamin Lehman mentions Bertha Damon several times. Often, it is an intriguing comment about how beautiful she was, how witty, how articulate, and how interesting people loved to gather around her because she, herself, was so interesting.

This, as a side note, provides an timely connection to my recent ‘Week of Reading Carlyle’, as Benjamin Lehman was a Carlyle scholar at Berkeley. He, as he puts it, ‘grew up reading Carlyle’. The evenings of entertainment and conversation he describes at Bertha Damon’s lovely hillside home in San Francisco—where writers, musicians, dancers and academics gathered—sound reminiscent of the legendary entertaining at the Carlyle table.

Ernst Bacon, the famous composer, dedicated two pieces of music to Bertha. Significantly, they were named, respectively, ‘Alone’, and ‘I’m Nobody’. (this would have merited Grandma Griswold’s approval, I’m sure, although she might have been suspicious of Ernst).

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

‘To hide your own crying was the Griswold way of feeling grief. To ignore another’s crying, the Griswold way of curing it.’ — Bertha Damon

Later, she would write that her grandmother felt very badly about those early days, and the truth is, Bertha Damon loved her grandmother very much. She also owed her a great deal. Bertha Damon was an extremely accomplished and talented woman, yet was not considered ‘educated’, in the classic sense. The kind of reading and memorization and mental calisthenics that Grandma Griswold demanded of her two granddaughters was astounding.

The Berkeley academic community welcomed Bertha into their midst, and as Professor Lehman wrote:

‘There was also in Berkeley in those days the divorced wife of a professor of aesthetics named Bertha Pope [later Damon]… [she] was a beautiful and vivid presence…and gathered around herself people who enjoyed a certain spaciousness of life….she was a great contribution to our community.’

Here’s the odd thing: For a woman who was this popular in what you might call an advanced social circle, which we can only imagine Lehman means by ‘a certain spaciousness of life’, a woman who even took road trips with a young, up and coming photographer named Ansel Adams, there are no pictures of her circulating out there. So to put a face to this ‘beautiful and vivid presence’ at this point is impossible.

‘She spoke so well herself of so many things and was so great a wit that we were all delighted periodically into uncontrolled laughter. The evidence was clear that she could write if she wanted to.’ — B.H. Lehman

She did write. Her book A Sense of Humus, (1943) focused on her adult life with gardening as a basis. It became very popular, and was even reprinted into other editions. (in Britain it was published as Green Corners, 1947.) The chapter about her dog, Ruffled Paws—quite serious and moving—also became part of various anthologies. It becomes particularly affecting when you think about the beloved dog that she lost in childhood. (but then I’m obviously a soppy hearted dog owner, so…you’ll understand the humus from which these sentiments spring)

A review of A Sense of Humus is to follow.

‘She valued everything, delighted in everything…she had a kind of gaiety of mind.’ — Benjamin Lehman

For more about Bertha Damon, read the excellent write up on wikipedia by Ann Harlow, and read more about the California art and culture scene of this period on her blog here.

And yes, literarily is a word. A Curious Word, actually.

The Dandiacal Body

Since this has been my Week of the Carlyles—immersed in letters, books, and the valiant effort of trundling my tiny brain over the rugged crags and valleys of Carlyle’s monumental Sartor Resartus, (The Tailor Re-tailored) the word ‘stylish’ caught my attention.


Everyone has style, whether they know it, embrace it, love it, or cultivate it. You may not like your style, and even wish to change it, but inevitably it returns like the prodigal, all sheepish, bedraggled, and larger than life. Style is not bought; it is not something that comes from a shop, or by following a fashionista. It has more to do with your DNA than the era you live in–although environment certainly influences it.

But not everyone is stylish. Stylish, as a concept, is fluid, it conveys an idea of the moment, a whim of makers, movers and shakers in the fashion world. (“Tomorrow, my dear,” say the style mavens, “that color will be so passe and only fit to adorn a garden hybrid….”) and let’s not even attempt to recall the ‘stylish’ Big Hair of the 80’s….

Around our house we have the expression ‘it’s so out it’s in’. So much of our style had to do, in our youthful days, with loving anything retro, and now it’s ‘in’. It’s just our bodies that aren’t as with it, so the dream of stylish still eludes one. But oddly enough, so my hair stylist tells me, silver hair is ‘in’. Leave it to the Baby Boomers to create a new reality.image

The attempt to be stylish can either make you shine as a natural talent, or make it evident that you are really out of touch with who you are.

In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle’s most famous work—in which he borrows from an eighteenth-century concept of linguistic style depicted as types of  clothing—he includes a chapter which amused me by his use of the word dandiacal. Carlyle was known for his creative and rough word coinage, and this choice specimen is now going into my Curious Word repository. Regarding the stylish pretensions of the dandy, he writes (in satire, of course; all of this is satire):

‘Your silver or your gold he solicits not; simply the glance of your eyes. Do look at him, and he is contented.’

Under the heading ‘The Dandiacal Body’, Carlyle lists, in mockery, seven Articles of Faith. They are all confusingly amusing, in a way, and no doubt reference certain elements unique to the early eighteenth century of which we are now ignorant, but I will repeat only number seven:

7. The trousers must be exceedingly tight across the hips.’

As Carlyle was known, both tongue in cheek and respectfully as the Sage of Chelsea, this bit of satire, written in 1836, does look to the future, does it not?

And—at the risk of making Carlyle turn in his grave, I include a bit of Ogden Nash whimsy, that expresses Article 7 on the style of trousers in a slightly different way:

‘Sure, deck your limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance —
Have you seen yourself retreating?’

The desire to look good and be stylish at the same time is often a wish in excess of reality.

For more on The Carlyles At Home, read here.