Some 30 years ago or so, William Styron — the acclaimed author of novels like The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice — visited the University of Virginia, the setting for some of his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness. I was living in Charlottesville and decided for the first and only time in my life to stand in line and have an author sign a book for me.
We Americans are noted for our ignorance of world geography.
Few of us, I imagine, could distinguish Iraq from Iran on a map of the Middle East. Few of us could inform some inquisitive soul of the terrain of Afghanistan, though we have now spent years fighting wars there. Most of us, one would hope, could locate Mexico on a map, but what about Ecuador or Bolivia?
As some readers of this column may know, I have spent the past six weeks in Europe, specifically the British Isles and Italy. Below is an accounting, by way of lists and some short reviews, of books carried here, bought here, read here, and left here.
When we think of American writers living and working overseas, most of us turn to those authors who lived in Paris. We recollect Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, that fine account of his life in Paris in the 1920s; we imagine Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald making the rounds to such bars as La Rotonde and Les Deux Magots; we conjure up Gertrude Stein; we think of Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Co., later brought back to life by George Whitman. We think of Henry Miller drifting in Paris in the 1930s and of writers from the 1950s and 1960s like James Jones and James Baldwin.
It is not yet ten o’clock on this Saturday morning in late June, and already Rome’s Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna below the steps are crowded with tourists, hucksters, and shopkeepers. After nearly a week of visiting ruins, marble-decked churches, and museums crammed full of antiquities and art, I am taking a vacation from my vacation and have walked this piazza to visit the house where John Keats died in February of 1821.
With literary tours, literary pub crawls, monuments, plaques, and museums, Scotland honors her writers.
Haworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England.
It’s 4:30 in the morning, Sunday June 18, and I stood a few moments ago on the cobbled street outside the Old White Line Inn. I slept poorly; the gentleman in Room 12 across the hall wakened me with ursine snoring, and “nature’s soft nurse” left the room. Grabbing my computer bag, I headed to the hotel lobby, where only the ticking of the clock in the hall interrupts the stillness.
It is mid-June in England, and the skies are a brilliant blue. Sunshine spills on the street and the clipped green lawns of homes and parks. A breeze stirs the leaves of the trees, and when you are in the sun you are very warm but with the breeze the shade of the trees is cool and refreshing. Flowers flourish in window boxes and tiny gardens, and around some of the homes are enormous tangles of wisteria with roots as thick as a man’s calf.
In the opening pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who treasures his snug home and the routine of his days. All is well with Bilbo until the wizard Gandalf arrives and nominates him as the ideal candidate for a dangerous quest. Despite his protests, off the trembling Bilbo goes, out into the great, dark world surrounding his shire, with dwarves as his companions and all manner of monsters as his enemies.
About two months ago, I began culling books from my shelves. I live in an apartment with several thousand books, most on shelves, some stacked in closets, some thrust under beds or packed in a storage space in boxes. This weeding-out was, as usual, neither orderly nor effective. Even a casual observer of my rooms would note no difference in the number of books.