Category Archives: Literary Influences

Chapter 719 Women, Books, and Art

I found this frontispiece page of a book recently.  I like how the woman portrayed in the picture is so engrossed in her book that she appears not to notice nor to care about the person who is watching her — the artist who drew and then engraved this picture. That artist paid close enough attention to his subject to capture the sheen of her hair, the shadow on her neck, the filigree of her fine lace collar and cuffs.   The attention to detail, while typical of engraved frontispiece portraits, makes me think that the artist is capturing an important interaction — that between a reader and her book. While I’m not an art collector, this frontispiece inspired me to look around for art that featured women reading books.  These days, with more women than men reading electronic books rather than the printed kind, this sort of bookish art may become a thing of the past.  Here are a few more:

See you in the stacks!


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Chapter 679 Tin Tin and Edgar Allan Poe Go To The Movies On A War Horse

 “Why should people pay good money to go out and see bad films when they can stay home and see bad television for nothing?”  Samuel Goldwyn

I don’t go out to see movies very often. Once upon a time, in the long ago days before I had children and before I understood how rare a truly well-told story is, I went to the movies almost once a week!  The only trouble is that most movies just didn’t tell stories as well as the books I read, and, gradually, I lost interest. That said, I did enjoy last year’s book-into-film portrayal of Charles Portis’s True Grit. As with a well-written book, well-written films are few and far between.  I now save my free time only for movies I really think I’ll enjoy. As you may have guessed from my bookish background, I like to see books that are developed into films. Too often, though, the adaptations don’t translate well to film. I recently learned about three “literary” films, based on books or authors that are coming soon to a theater near you. The trailers are interesting, but we’ll reserve judgment as to what the actual films are like when they are released.

The first is an adaptation of Herge’s Tin Tin books. The books themselves are great fun.  Written in a colorful, comic book style and depicting the adventures of a young reporter turned detective, Herge’s series of books take its readers on adventures all over the world with a very entertaining cast of characters.

I am optimistic about this film, and here’s why:  My own sons, Tom and Huck are, sadly, not (yet) enthusiastic readers. Oh, they can and do read just fine. It’s just that they don’t often seem to enjoy any of the current books written for their age group. I must say, after reading a few of today’s books written for boys age 10-13, I rather agree with the boys that most of them are rubbish. As for the “classics,” one hazard of being the sons of an antiquarian bookseller and former English teacher is that your mother is always shoving the classics down your throat and, while admitting to the superiority of the writing and storytelling, you reject them out of hand because your mom says you should be reading them. There are a few exceptions to this in our house, of course, and one series of books which Tom and Huck have long been ready, willing, and eager to read is the Tin Tin books.  They offer a lot of what young boys might like:  crazy characters, exotic locales, treasure hunting and adventure, and lots and lots of illustration.

I was pleased and excited to find out that Steven Spielberg (who seems to take great joy in directing adventure films — Raiders of the Lost Ark)  and Peter Jackson (who did a pretty good adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a few years ago) are teaming up to produce this animated feature and to introduce Tin Tin to a new generation. I have my doubts about books being adapted into films, but if anyone could do justice to Tin Tin, it’s these two.  Here’s the trailer:

Spielberg also has a hand in another book-into-film being released at Christmas. War Horse, based on the book of the same title by Michael Morpurgo.

Last but not least comes The Raven, featuring none other than John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe.  I enjoy John Cusack as an actor, but I can’t really imagine him as Edgar Allan Poe. We’ll see how the final film is.

In any case, it’s nice to see Hollywood paying an extra bit of attention to books these days. Books provide the best content, hands down!

See you in the stacks!


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Chapter 672 September — “New books, erasers, chalk, and such . . .”

Happy first day of September! (Okay — it may be September 2 by time I post this.) I often think of the beginning of a new school year as a sort of new year or new season. Such thoughts come from having been a student and then a teacher for so many years of my life. September always marks the start of fall and the start of all things new — new school supplies for Tom and Huck, new book fair season, and new recipes that don’t rely so much on the grill, which we use often during the summer months. Although the San Francisco Bay Area has rather gentle seasons the year ’round, I know that in other parts of the country it’s beginning to look like autumn. I like paying attention to the turning of each season.

For those of you living in the Eastern part of the United States who are, probably, not enjoying the September weather and who have suffered from Hurricane Irene and its aftermath, I hope that this Hurricane Season passes quickly for you and that your region is as resilient as I think it is. Californians are no strangers to earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and the like, so we are thinking of you during these difficult days.

And now for the annual September poem:

“The breezes taste
Of apple peel.
The air is full
Of smells to feel-
Ripe fruit, old footballs,
Burning brush,
New books, erasers,
Chalk, and such.
The bee, his hive,
Well-honeyed hum,
And Mother cuts
Like plates washed clean
With suds, the days
Are polished with
A morning haze.”
– John Updike, September

See you in the stacks!

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Chapter 655 Happy Independence Day!

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Chapter 581 “We few, we happy few, we band of bibliophiles . . .”

It’s Monday as I write this and it will be Tuesday when many of you read it. If I were better organized, I would have had it posted earlier in the day. . .

Like I said, it’s Monday.

Sometimes I need a little extra motivation on Mondays. Do you?

Lucky for me, today (Monday) is the 595th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, which took place on October 25, 1415.

Even though it took place a long time ago, Shakespeare immortalized this important battle in his play Henry V. When King Henry V and his band of outnumbered Englishmen are about to go “once more into the breach” of battle against the French, the king delivers a rousing speech exhorting his motley crew to think of the glory and the nobility they will attain if they defeat the French (Act IV, scene iii).

When I’m tired, or procrastinating, or just plain believing I can’t accomplish something, I re-read King Henry’s speech. And when I re-read the famous lines, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” I secretly replace the word “brothers” with “bibliophiles”. We hear so much about the death of print and so often that books are dying, that, in this age of digital media, we bibliophiles are, like King Henry’s little army, a small but happy band who seem outnumbered and surrounded by the encroaching technology of our epoch. When I read it with my — ahem — small correction, this speech makes me, like all good bibliophiles, want to preserve and promote print.

(The encroaching technology of our epoch? Yikes! When I read too much of an author like Shakespeare I subconsciously — and badly — attempt to mimic his style. I’m sorry. I just can’t help it.)

You try it. Listen to the speech and replace the word “brothers” with “bibliophiles” at the appropriate part. If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll like how it sounds.

Here’s a very inspiring performance of King Henry’s speech performed in 1989 by Kenneth Branagh. Makes me want to rally and do great things every time I hear it:

And for those who prefer to read Shakespeare rather than to see his work performed, here’s the text of most of the speech, though slightly altered from the performance above:


What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

After that, I’m ready to take on the world, at least for a little while.

And now, “once more into the breach, dear friends, once more . . .”


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Chapter 549 The Bronte Sisters — “Forced to Fight Evil Publishers to get their Books into Print”

The video below arrived in my email inbox today from from a friend who knows my love of all things Bronte. Yes, I know. I am too easily amused. Enjoy!

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Chapter 502 What a Character! The Answers – UPDATED

Sorry not to get back to this sooner. It’s been a busy week. Without further adieu, here are my answers to the literary character questionnaire I posted a few days ago.

1. If you could host a party with 7 literary characters, who would they be and why?
Gatsby (who could throw a better party?), Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler (ditto), E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady (the after-party gossip would be hilarious), Shakespeare’s Henry V (he could give an inspiring toast), Cliff Janeway (John Dunning’s biblio-detective would have great bookish tales to tell), and Bertie Wooster.

2. Who is your literary role model?
I’m assuming this question refers to a fictional character rather than an actual author and writing style. So, in that vein, I answer with two very different people as my role models: Dante Alighieri (the pilgrim in the story) and Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, that answer will not surprise you.

3. Which literary house would you like most to live in?
Tara (the huge plantation house in Gone with the Wind), Pemberley (Mr. Darcy’s House from Pride and Prejudice — just imagine the library in that house!), or the Ingalls homestead in DeSmet, South Dakota (one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood homes), or, though it’s not fictional, Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s farm. Sorry. I can’t pick just one.

4. Which literary couple would you like most for parents?
Either Ma and Pa Ingalls or The Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George.

5. Pick 3 literary characters you would like to have as siblings.
Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens) — he is kind.
Laura Ingalls (from Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder) — she has spunk and self-sufficiency.
Elinor Dashwood (from Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen) — she has common sense.

6. Who is your favorite literary villain?
I don’t really have a favorite. There are lots of interesting villains in literature. There’s Nellie Olsen, tormentor of Laura Ingalls Wilder. There’s also everyone who is in Dante’s vision of Hell in the Divine Comedy. They were villainous in their lives on earth, and now they are being tormented in Hell. The literary villain who scares me most is O’Brien from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

7. Name a character that most people dislike, but that you do not. Why do you like them?
I always liked Melanie Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. She is liked by all of the other characters in the book for being a gracious, generous, and truly kind lady. However, most people I know who have read the book think she is kind of wimpy and too sweet to be human. Most people want to be Scarlett O’Hara. I really like Melanie, though, and I think she has a hidden strength and fearlessness, demonstrated when, shortly after giving birth to her first child, she kills the Yankee who sneaks into Tara and then helps Scarlett hide his body. I first read GWTW when I was 13, and Melanie’s character made an impression on me. I like that her virtuous personality is combined with her willingness to slay dragons (or Yankees) when necessary.

8. Which minor character deserves a book all to themselves, in your opinion?
The hero’s best friend from any book is certainly someone whose back-story deserves to be told. I think we should start with Stephen Maturin, close friend of Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s books.

9. With which character from literature do you identify most?
The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe. 🙂

10. If you could go into a novel, which one would it be and why?
Again, I can’t choose just one. Allow me to say that when I do read a novel I like, I become engrossed enough to tune out all that is going on around me. This is not necessarily a good thing for child safety. 🙂

11. Name 3 — 7 books that you rarely see on people’s favorite book lists, that are high on your own.
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
A Gentle Madness, by Nicholas Basbanes
Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

12. Which is your least favorite book of those that are considered “classics”?
I don’t really like Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s supposed to be a classic portrayal of teenagers, but I worked with a lot of teenagers when I taught high school, and most were not as whiny as Holden. Just sayin’. . .

UPDATED: In #7, I got some information incorrect. Melanie did NOT kill the Yankee. Scarlett killed him and Melanie helped pick his pockets and hide his body. Then she cleaned the bloody floor. Sorry. It’s been years since I last read Gone with the Wind.

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Chapter 501 What a Character!

It’s been another busy weekend here — parties, sporting events, grocery shopping, cooking for the week ahead, and making plans for Thanksgiving. The work-week looks to be still busier. I’m posting a few questions from a literary character questionnaire. I’ll be back with my answers tomorrow.

1. If you could host a party with 7 literary characters, who would they be and why?

2. Who is your literary role model?

3. Which literary house would you like most to live in?

4. Which literary couple would you like most for parents?

5. Pick 3 literary characters you would like to have as siblings.

6. Who is your favorite literary villain?

7. Name a character that most people dislike, but that you do not. Why do you like them?

8. Which minor character deserves a book all to themselves, in your opinion?

9. With which character from literature do you identify most?

10. If you could go into a novel, which one would it be and why?

11. Name 3 — 7 books that you rarely see on people’s favorite book lists, that are high on your own.

12. Which is your least favorite book of those that are considered “classics”?

Feel free to leave answers to any or all of the above in the comment box. I’ll have my answers tomorrow.

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Chapter 373 Serendipity in Storybookland, Or, Finding Lovely Books Where You Least Expect Them

Editor’s Note: This post is cross-posted at the Fine Books Blog today.

Many years ago, when I was a first-year high school English teacher, I overheard some of the veteran teachers talking in the faculty room of our school. The conversation went something like this:

“These kids today. No self-discipline.”
“I haven’t taught a really smart class since 1987.”
“Kids these days don’t read, don’t care, and can’t write.”

This kind of conversation made me uncomfortable. While I did have the occasional difficult student — several actually — I liked most of my students and felt that for the most part they worked hard. Because I had worked an office job I hated for a short time before becoming a teacher, I felt that teaching was a gift. I was lucky to be able to work in a classroom and to help others to see the what’s so great about good literature and to teach them to write and to work towards their goals of college or career. I won’t lie and say every day was a good and perfect one or that I always achieved every goal I set or that all my students claimed me as their favorite teacher, but I really did feel like I was lucky to be able to have a job that allowed me to indulge my love of books and to share that appreciation with others, even with the reluctant students who felt books were unlovable and beyond comprehension.

I’ve been away from the classroom for the past eight years, and now I’m an antiquarian bookseller. Sometimes, when I talk with other booksellers I hear remnants of the attitudes of some of the veteran teachers I used to know. Their conversations about bookselling go something like this:

“The book business is dying. It’s been killed by (insert favorite answer here — the internet, the electronic book, the death of print media in general, too many unprofessional booksellers who don’t know what they’re doing).” Etcetera.

I suppose that there’s some truth in those comments, as they are usually made by those with more experience than I, but I don’t like the constant focus on all that’s wrong in the book world. There’s so much that’s right and wonderful about it. You only have to open your eyes and look around. Seek it out.

While I won’t deny that books and print are in a period of — ahem — uncertainty and transition, I find I spend a lot of time trying to find examples of book culture in unlikely places to prove to myself that the book is not dead yet.

On a recent family trip to Disneyland, I was pleasantly surprised to find books used throughout the park to enhance visitors’ experiences. These weren’t books I could buy and take home, but books that made the person who saw them stop and say, “Isn’t that neat?” or “Oh, how lovely!” The use of books at Disneyland is a perfect example of book culture and popular culture in peaceful co-existence.

A few photos will show you what I mean:

A store on Disneyland’s Victorian-era Main Street featured old books in its windows to help evoke the mood of America a century ago:

Disneyland is known for its many lands — Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland. But did you know it also has Storybookland?

One of the rides in Storybookland, the Canal Boats, takes visitors on small boats through small, banzai-landscaped villages recreated from those Disney movies that were originally based on fairy tale books — Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Aladdin. I for one appreciated the nod to the movies’ bookish origins. Here’s the castle from Sleeping Beauty:

The entrance to the Snow White Ride featured a fairy tale book carved in gold:

Inside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle was a series of “books” that told the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty’s story. Each open page was beautifully illuminated by hand in the Disney style:

One of the Main Street stores featured a series of similarly illustrated books that told the story of some Disney classic movies:

The most popular rides at Disneyland and its neighboring park, California Adventure, are known for long lines. The line area for each ride often has a vignette about the ride in order to give those waiting something to look at and talk about. The vignettes are there to help the riders feel the mood of the ride on which they are about to embark. On the Grizzly River Run Rapids ride, the vignette was a desk in a forest ranger’s office. Note the books on the canoe shelf:

We did, of course, see plenty of props made to look like books. Take, for example, this re-creation of the Library from the movie “Beauty and the Beast”. The walls are wood painted to look like bookshelves:

In an exhibit about animation, these interactive computers were made to look like large books at a desk. That’s Tom sitting and working there:

The computer screen “book” asked the user to answer a series of questions like this by touching her answer choice on the screen:

After I answered all of the questions, the book told me which Disney character is most like me:

While Disneyland is not by any means in the business of selling books, the use of books to enhance the ambiance of the park is evident everywhere. While there’s no denying that the printed book vies with other media for our attention, books underpin our culture, popular or otherwise, and sometimes we just need to look in unexpected places to discover that popular culture’s love of books is alive and well. I plan on posting more examples of finding books and book culture in unexpected places as I come across them. As for the end of this post, well, this “storybook ending” was painted on a wall in Disneyland:

See you in the stacks!

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Chapter 142 How I Know My Husband is Crazy (About Me)

Thoughtful Husband and I both have big birthdays this year, ones that end in a “0”. We wanted to do something to mark the occasion. Throw a party? We could, but that could get expensive. We both grew up in the Bay Area, along with many of our friends, and we both have good sized families, so there would be a lot of people to invite. A party would be fun, but would only last for one night.

I thought about taking a special trip with Thoughtful Husband and Tom and Huck, one that would make a great family memory. I tried to think of something that might be especially enjoyable to Thoughtful Husband yet still kid friendly. I secretly planned to take him to a hotel in Oregon where a friend of ours stayed with his family. They had a great time and highly recommended that we take our family there.

What’s the big deal about a hotel in Oregon, you’re probably wondering?

Well, this hotel is made entirely of tree houses.

That’s right. Tree houses.


I can just see the pure joy on Tom and Huck’s faces when they learn that, much as their namesakes Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might have, they will spend a night in a tree house fort. Thoughtful Husband, being basically a grown up boy himself, has wanted to travel here since his friend told us about it a few years ago.

I hesitated in mentioning my idea to Thoughtful Husband. What if he really just wanted to bask in the sun and relax in a hammock in some tropical clime like Hawaii? Fun, but too expensive in our case. Would playing treehouse fort with me and the kids be exciting enough for a __0th birthday gift/celebration?

One day, Thoughtful Husband, said, “What do you want to do for our __0th birthdays?”

“I don’t know,” I said, secretly hoping he’d come up with something amazing.

“I know you’d probably like to go somewhere fabulous, like London, or Paris, or Rome,” he said, frowning.

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s realistic right now.” (I’ll admit it I would like to go any of these places, but like Hawaii, it’s just not a possibility at this time, and I know it.)

“Well,” said Thoughtful Husband, “I’ve been trying to think of something meaningful and fun, even if it’s not exotic. And I thought of something, but I didn’t want to mention it because I worried that you wouldn’t think it was good enough.”

“Guess what?” I interrupted. “I thought of something we could do, too, but I wasn’t sure it was good enough for you either.”

“What is it?”

I told him all about the tree house. He thought it sounded like a great family trip. “I can’t believe you are agreeing to camp in a treehouse,” he said. (He knows I like pioneer women, but I don’t actually want to live like one. I’m afraid of snakes, bugs, and too much dirt.)

Next, he told me his plan.

“I know you collect books by and about pioneer women, and I know how much you like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I thought we could rent an RV, drive across the country and see a few of her old homesites. I figure if you visit places like Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota, it will help your knowledge of Western Americana in particular. You never know, you might find some good books along the way! We can drive home through Oregon and stay at the tree house hotel. There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder homesite in DeSmet, South Dakota and another just over the Minnesota state line in Walnut Grove.”

Stunned silence. Thoughtful Husband is not a bookish sort. I cannot believe he has taken into consideration my love of books and Laura Ingalls Wilder in planning our family vacation. Wow! I love this man. How many husbands would indulge their wife’s amassing of books in the dining room, the bedroom, the hallway? And then still want to take her on a book-related vacation? Oh, yeah! He’s a keeper.

“I didn’t want to tell you at first because I was afraid you wouldn’t want to drive in an RV and I thought you might want to go somewhere more glamorous than South Dakota.”

“When I aspire to be a bookseller specializing in the history of the west and the people who settled there in the past 200 years, where else could possibly be more glamorous than South Dakota? I love this idea! Thank you, thank you for thinking of it!”

I’m going to be a pioneer woman this summer. I’ll be headed East instead of West, but since I’ve spent my whole life in the West, going East will open a whole new world to me!

I’ve gotten varied responses from friends and family here in the cosmopolitan Bay Area. The general consensus is, “Two weeks in an RV with kids and dog driving through flyover country? You guys are crazy!”

I realize this isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But it’s not everone else’s __0th birthday. It’s ours.

Yes, we’re crazy. About each other.

Tomorrow: One bookseller’s advice to those new in the book business


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