Wednesday, June 21, 2023


When I was quite young (before I was able to read), my mother took me and my older sister to the local library. It only occurred to me recently that this wasn't done to instill a love of reading, but rather she couldn’t leave a child my age unattended at home. The trip was for my sister. Nevertheless, I was also allowed to borrow a book from the library—one of my own choosing. I couldn’t read, so the contents of the book didn’t matter, nor did the title. I was, instead, drawn to the cover, the size, the weight, and the feel of the book. I wish I could tell you the name of what I chose, but my memory is not that good, and besides, I couldn’t read, remember? What I do recall is that the book was all black, hardcover, and small. I still remember this, which should tell you a few things.

First, I like books, which will become even more apparent as this post continues. Second, I had a strange attraction to little black books, and I still do. When I was in eighth grade, my brother took me to his college bookstore as the school year began. I didn’t want the typical and cheap paper Duotang folders, or the big snap ring binders, or the Class A Winnebago, motorhome of the school supply world: "the Trapper Keeper," which was about to take the nations student body by storm. I wanted something different. So, of course, I was drawn to the little black legal pad folio.

I was a strange kid.

But today, I am struck by how much of my life revolves around books and little black notebooks. I have used Moleskins and now tend to employ Leuchttrum notebooks, all of which are little, and black. 

Of course, my fondness for books doesn’t begin and end with those that are little, black, and unreadable. I began collecting books the moment I started making a paycheck. Being a teenager, and earning only minimum wage, I had a tendency to browse used bookstores. I still do. Just a month ago, while I was in England, I browsed a tiny used book store near Merton College in Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor of English Language and Literature. It began to rain as my daughter, and I were exploring the college grounds, so we ducked into this little, ancient bookstore. The whole thing was perfectly Diagon Alley-ish. And as always happens in any bookstore, or fairy ring, if you step in for just a moment, you'll discover upon exiting that hours have passed.  

Over the many years, I must have purchased hundreds of old books. Just as I had borrowed that little black book from the library, some of the used books I obtained merely because they looked beautiful. Others, I hoped to one day have the chance to read. One of those was an old battered copy of A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway—a little black book. I took this on multiple camping and week-long canoe trips with friends in the hope of reading it. I threw it into backpacks and sacks and the bottom of an Alumacraft Canoe. I even used it as a coaster for a beer. I never got around to reading the thing…until the pandemic. 

Every year in the summer, I endeavor to read an old classic novel that I’ve never read. In the late summer of 2020, I spotted the old battered little black book sitting so patiently on my shelf. 

I picked it up, sat on the porch of my cabin, and with an alcoholic drink (obligatory for a Hemingway novel), I began to read. The novel, if you are unfamiliar, takes place during WWI, which got me thinking. There was another pandemic back then. The “Spanish flu” had devastated the world from 1918-1919. I was struck by how it was almost exactly one hundred years ago. As a result, I was curious about when A Farewell to Arms was first written. I flipped to the copywriter page, looking for the usual list of various printings, but all I found was this:

I was puzzled for a moment then it dawned on me. The book was first published in 1929, and this was the first edition. I had no idea. I was reading a book that was nearly a hundred years old about a time just after a pandemic while I was in one. The symmetry was fascinating. This got me wondering, and I went and checked another one of those old used books and discovered I have another Hemingway first edition. This one was For Whom the Bell Tolls (which I had read years before, but had never checked the copyright of.) 

Now, this last summer, my wife professed an interest in reading E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India. I had an old hardcover copy and purchased a new paperback so we might read together. Then we arranged for a very romantic—albeit nerdy—date. When one reads Hemingway, one is best served to have a glass of liquor and sit in the sun on the porch. When one reads Forester’s A Passage to India, one sits in the shade of the veranda and drinks tea. Thanks to a very kind gift from Will Wight and his team, I have a fancy-dancy tea brewer. So, for our date, and in an effort to encourage Robin to work less and enjoy life more, I set out the pair of books under the overhang along with some fruit, wafer cookies, and tea in the hopes of reading a chapter a day over the course of the summer. 

You must keep in mind the challenge here. Robin is a workaholic who doesn’t like to just sit. She also prefers to listen to books, and she hates tea—unless it is saturated in sugar. She and my daughter both prefer sweet drinks. As she is on a diet, I hoped a good tea and maybe a dash of cream might satisfy her. 

She took several enthusiastic swallows.

“You like the tea?” I asked 

She looked sheepish. “I’m really thirsty.”

Then she took a bite of the cookie and put it down. I tried one myself and understood why. They were quite stale. The wind picked up, and I looked at the sky to see darkening clouds as a summer storm moved in. This was going about as well as most dates I had invited women to. Still, we preserved, and luckily the chapter was short. 

Robin read the new Penguin Classics paperback, and I read the old hardcover. Robin found a footnote, flipped to the back, and also discovered a glossary. My copy had no footnotes and no glossary. There were other small differences as well. Some of the unusual contractions were replaced with more standard words. We ended up discussing the differences as I asked her the meanings of some of the Indian words used. And then Robin happened to ask if I knew when A Passage to India was originally written. I didn’t know, so I flipped to the copyright page. 

I see a trend forming. Today's "date" was canceled on account of rain and very cold weather. So we are huddled inside and are going to do something a bit more modern. Robin's shoulders are once more hurting and since our friend Bryce O'Conner tells us that "motion is the lotion," Robin is going to go rock climbing this evening - virtually, that is. Instead of old books and hot tea, it'll be virtual reality goggles and me making sure she doesn't knock over anything or fall while exercising her arms by climbing a mountain that is only pixels.

Oh, and bonus points go to anyone who can identify what bird the title of this post applies to. 

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