In April I began working a few weekend hours in a bookshop in Asheville. Having operated my own bookstore for more than 20 years and having worked in bookstores for 10 years before that, I took up this newest position as a way of keeping my rather dusty, book-begrimed hand in the business.
Well, it’s spring — a beautiful spring indeed this year — and that time on the calendar when a young man’s fancy turns to love.
Besides being what T.S. Eliot called “the cruelest month/Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” April is also National Poetry Month. To do honor to poetry, let’s look at two books that have much to do with the poem and with the poet.
Writers typically aim to give the reader a protagonist who is likeable. Most of us don’t want to spend hours of our life getting to know protagonists who leave us cold inside, central characters who are so odd or so unlike ourselves in some basic way that we end the book loathing them.
Sometimes a book touches our hearts in a very special way. In the winter and spring of 1978, having saved from our combined incomes of the previous year, my wife and I celebrated our January wedding by traveling for three months to Europe. We lived there cheaply, as young people traditionally do. With friends we shared an apartment in Switzerland for a month. In March we fell in love with Italy, staying in rooms for as little as $4 per night and exploring Rome and the southern coastline.
About 15 years ago, one frequent guest at our bed and breakfast here in Waynesville was a Mrs. Irene Harrison, wife of a well-known New York state attorney and daughter of Charles Seiberling, the tire manufacturer. Though Mrs. Harrison was 106 years old on her last visit here, she maintained an intense and often eccentric interest in politics, remaining convinced, for example, that fluoridated water involved some sort of government plot against the American people. Once, as I passed through the parlor where she and her son nightly debated current political developments, I stopped and asked her, “Mrs. Harrison, you’ve obviously seen quite a few presidents in your lifetime. Which do you judge to be the best among them?”
After reading three autobiographies in less than 10 days, I emerged from the encounter feeling much like a lover who has finally encountered the full physicality of his beloved: I’m thankful for the romp but find myself a little disillusioned, a little disappointed with some parts of the romance.
Like many of my fellow writers and readers, I am a sucker for word books. I love dictionaries — I own at least six of them, ranging from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to my own personal favorite, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary — thesauri, grammar books, and books on word origins.
Valentine’s Day is just around the bend, and for anyone with even a breath of romance in the heart — whether you’re madly in love or you’ve just gotten your heart ripped apart by some human version of Hurricane Katrina — it’s time to look at a few books that might help make romantics out of all of us.
Preschool children are normally as full of questions as a quiz show host on a fast night. They want to know who, what, when and why. They want someone to explain how and where and how much. They want to understand those things in this world which the rest of us, except for perhaps a few scientists, poets, and mystics, no longer see.