A fun bookstore stop

While traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday last week, we stopped in at Little Shop of Stories, a wonderful bookstore in Decatur, Georgia.

Little Shop of Stories, from news.bookweb.org (see article below)

They sell mostly children’s books but have a long wall of Young Adult books (my teenager was in heaven) and a select variety of adult books. Their children’s selection is outstanding; it made me wish I had about eight children so that I could sample the whole range of literature, from infants on up.

As it was, I could hardly decide what to buy. I’d pick up a book and tuck it under my arm, then pick up another, and another… then regretfully sort through them and set one down — then another would catch my eye!

Buying books in a store like this is like blueberry picking: you tell yourself it’s time to finish up and go home, but you can always see just one more juicy blue orb asking you bring it home.

Wikimedia Commons, Jeff Kubina

Maybe this analogy occurs to me because we also stopped at the remarkable DeKalb International Farmers’ Market for fruit, bread, and of course chocolate!

In the end, after a pleasant 45 minutes of dithering at Little Shop of Stories, I bought four books: two for my teenager, and two for my younger child. I can’t tell you what they are, because they read this blog…. but you can check out Little Shop of Stories on its webpage (click here) or in this article (click here). Stop by, sit down, and browse through their appealing shelves.

(If you’re anything like me, you now have the theme song from “Little Shop of Horrors” winding endlessly through your brain. Sorry!)


A small but mighty writer

We’ve got a visitor staying with us. Well, she’s actually made her home with us for some time. She’s a writer, like me… and a sewer, like my mother. Her name is Argiope. Here’s a picture of some of her work:

I’ll leave her out of the picture, for the sake of those of you who might be a little skittish around her. But you can scroll to the bottom of the post, below the WWWWWWW, to see our lovely Argiope!

Have you guessed? Argiope is a garden spider, quite a big one, in fact. Ours is plum-sized with her legs outstretched. The Argiope spider (not sure which specific variety she is) is a large, harmless spider, with vivid black-and-yellow markings. Wikipedia tells me that they can eat prey twice their size, and one variety has been known to eat a bat!

Ours sits with her legs paired in an X (which is why Australians call her the St. Andrew’s Cross spider). She’s also known as the “writing spider” or the “sewing machine spider,” due to the markings she makes in her web. We tend to get an Argiope every so often, and I always look forward to seeing the designs she spins.

I recently noticed that we had an Argiope spider on the back fence. She’d written a message on the web, something like CVWJZVX. I went to get the camera, but it wasn’t working. A few days later, she’d wrapped up an egg case and disappeared….

Maybe a week or so later, I noticed that Argiope (or perhaps her daughter?) had reappeared, this time on the window screen. Now her web markings look more like the traditional zigzag: ZZZZZZZ or VVVVVVVVVVVVV. But the one I managed to capture above still has the quality of handwriting. I can imagine her working to produce the words, “SOME PIG.”

We’re getting some cold weather these days; I don’t know where Argiope goes on those cold nights (as long as it’s not inside the house!). But I hope her eggs winter over all right and we can look forward to more cryptic messages next spring.

Here are two photos for you. The first one is “our” Argiope, who sits on the inside of her web, between the web and the window screen, so you can only see her underside. The second one is a stock photo. Neither one really does justice to the beautiful coloration of this small but mighty writer. Okay, now only scroll below the line if you are ready for a glorious spider!


from forestryimages.org

A better way to buy

Look inviting? This morning’s New York Times featured a story about Nashville, Tennessee — the city, by the way, where you can find that great gilded lady from my last post (visit their Parthenon if you’d like to see her). The Times article, which you can access here —

Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore

— describes how Nashville recently lost its last independent bookstore, a sad but all-too-frequent occurrence. Barnes & Noble recently opened a new store on the edge of the Vanderbilt University campus (in fact, I bought two books there last week!) but a town, a college town especially, really should have an independent bookstore.

Luckily, Ann Patchett is answering the call. I’m sure you know her books, like Truth and Beauty or, more recently, State of Wonder. With Karen Hayes, she’s opening a new bookstore, Parnassus Books (click to visit), featuring books (of course), e-books, and coffee: what’s not to like?

Patchett is not the only well-known author to sponsor a local bookstore. Larry McMurtry is famous not only for his Westerns but also for his used bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City, Texas. There’s a good article about it here.

The town I live in, although it’s a college town, has no good independent bookstore. So when I travel, I make a point of stopping at independent bookstores. And when I stop, I make a point of buying a book. Not a non-book-item like a bookmark or pen or postcard. If a bookstore is going to stay in business as a bookstore, it needs to sell books; so I buy a book or two. Books make perfect souvenirs; don’t you often recall where you bought or first read a favorite book? And even a stuffed suitcase can usually hold another book!

The Patchett article made me think about my everyday book-buying habits, though. I remembered that, when journalists were interviewing some of the “regulars” at a Borders bookstore that closed in Boston, most of them weren’t regular buyers. They were regular browsers, who would buy their books on Amazon. I don’t do that, but I do buy a lot of my books on Amazon, simply because it’s easy and because the books I want usually aren’t available locally. But with the holidays arriving — in my family this involves five family birthdays as well as Christmas — I’m inviting you to join me in another way of buying books:

Buy books at your local bookstore, if you want them to stay in business!
To find your closest “indie” bookseller, use the IndieBound search function, here.
Buying local keeps more money circulating locally, and it supports the kinds of businesses that make a town welcoming and vibrant.

If you don’t have a local bookstore, then consider buying through someone else’s local bookstore, such as Main Street Books (click to visit), a great indie bookstore in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.

(The photo at the beginning of this post is also from Main Street Books). I visit them every summer, and everyone in the family walks out with a book, although it takes us a hour or so of happy deliberation and consultation. Every book in the place calls out “read me!” and the proprietors bring in an inspiring rota of authors for readings/signings. Even better, they offer an online ordering system that gives you a 10% discount on your order and makes a 10% donation to a charitable organization with every purchase.

Main Street Books anchors some of my family’s favorite summer memories.
What memories does your local bookstore have in store for you?

Gilt and glory

I was traveling this past week — in fact, I was visiting this big girl:

In case you’re wondering, the statue in her hand is Nike, the goddess of victory, and it (the little statue) is over 6 feet tall. Here’s a closeup of that Amazon’s face:

She’s got some serious cosmetics issues, and she looks annoyed about it.
(10 points if you can identify this gilded lady!)

The trip was delightful, except that my travels forced me to miss the chance to sing Duruflé’s Requiem back at home. I knew the Fauré Requiem, but I’d never sung the Duruflé before this fall, and I was looking forward to it. We sang portions of the Requiem a few weeks ago, but not the “In Paradisum,” which is the conclusion to the piece and one of my favorite movements. We sing in a beautiful Stick Gothic space, which lends itself beautifully to music like this, inspired by plainchant and the early days of polyphony. We sing up in the loft, amid the “sticks,” where all that headroom allows the music room to expand.

One nice thing about singing a Requiem is that, like any sung Mass or like the “Mags and Nuncs” of the Anglican Evensong, the text is essentially the same in any version, taken from the traditional Latin liturgy of the Church. You can consider how each composer works with the set parameters of the text and its rhythms and meanings. I imagine, for a composer, it’s like choosing to write a sonnet instead of free verse; you have a form to work with (and against). This might either frustrate you or impel you to more creative work.

Duruflé seems to have liked having form to build against. He uses much of the traditional Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead as the basis for his work. The material he chooses makes the Requiem quiet and meditative, although he offers some quirky and offbeat rhythmic patterning, which can be tricky for singers to learn (or at least it was for me), as in the Sanctus.

You can listen to the “Sanctus” by clicking here.

Singing the “Sanctus” is great fun. It’s also inspiring — literally. It takes huge amounts of breath to sustain that stream of sound, and the music itself is like breathing, the opening and conclusion anyway, broken by the great outcries of “Hosanna!” in the middle. This version (there are three orchestrations) has the organ paired with orchestral accompaniment, so you can enjoy the brass at that moment of glory! We sang it with the organ version, which was, of course, also exciting.

Now, “In Paradisum.” You can listen to it by clicking here.
(This is a version with organ alone. Which do you like better?)

This movement appears at the end because it’s describing the soul’s ascension into heaven, with the words:

In paradisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.
May angels lead you into paradise;
upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you
and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem.
May the ranks of angels receive you,
and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

The beginning of the “In Paradisum” is lovely, of course, though very exposed for the trebles (thank goodness I am not a soprano!).
But truly wonderful things begin to happen at about the 2 minute mark.
And the chord sequence at the end is sublime: beautiful, awe-inspiring, and — because it shows up all our everyday concerns as petty and uninspired — almost frightening in its whispered power and grace. One of the commenters on the youtube page says, “Nothing sounds like God’s shadow like Duruflé.” It’s true. Singing that last page of the Requiem in the midst of the choir and organ, when we reach that final resolution, all the atoms in my body align themselves. I’ve become an organ pipe, hardly vibrating, barely able to hear my own voice or those of my neighbors, just resonating in the lofty space. It’s as though — after a long and exhausting journey, which has jangled my very cells — I’ve come home.

Snowed in?

With the snow beginning to melt and the power — I hope — coming back on, perhaps you’d like to read something related to SNOW.

Here’s a book I loved as a child. I can picture right where it was shelved, at the Lee Whedon Memorial Library in Medina, NY. It looks like the Nioga library system does still have a copy of this book.

Rebecca Caudill, Schoolroom in the Parlor

Growing up near Buffalo, NY, I never really thought much about getting “snowed in” because snow was just part of everyday life — it took moving to Philadelphia to realize that some people actually get to stay home from school when it snows! But I liked reading about getting snowed in.

The two wonderful things about this book:

1. The heavy winter snows mean that the children in this family can’t walk to school, so they set up a “schoolroom in the (little-used) parlor,” with older sister Althy as teacher. A perfect story for a young reader who played school with her stuffed animals! As a child, I especially liked the idea that a regular space like home could transform into a special place — an idea space — like a classroom.

2. At one point in the story, they go outside to see the Northern Lights: great curtains of light falling through the night sky. I’ve wanted to see the Northern Lights ever since. Here’s a quick selection of the wonders you can sample if you Google “northern lights” in an Image search:

I read this book to my kids and they also loved it.

Do you have a good “snowed in” story?

Or are you likely to get snowed in again this winter? Head to the library, grab a copy of this book, stock up on popcorn and cocoa, and dig in!

Black-letter thoughts

When I’m not reading or writing, I’m singing. Seems like it, some months, anyway. This month or so has been especially busy, with Haydn’s Missa brevis St. Joannis de Deo, the Duruflé Requiem (sublime!), and currently the choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, based on the 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” by the Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller.

In fact, I just got back from our first rehearsal with the orchestra — always an exciting moment, finally feeling the vibrations of the strings, horns, and tympani as you sing, resonating underfoot. Especially with this piece — when we’re singing that double fugue toward the end (“Seid umschlungen…”), we’re all singing about universal brotherhood — mostly at the tops of our lungs — but it feels like we’re on the verge of chaos! There’s just so much going on. Exciting, but scary. Because it’s all in German, we need to make sure we really launch those consonants. We’re skipping around from one extreme of our range to another, plunging from fortissimo to pianissimo, prestissimo to adagio. And the music feels like something inexorable, inevitable. It’s accelerating to the end, faster, faster, faster …. It’s like being in a huge road race sprinting and being jostled by a thousand others but at the same time, somehow, exhilarated and uplifted by the massive surge forward. Or flying through a forest filled with tall dark trees, dipping and swerving between them. Or, maybe, reading something immensely powerful and moving, printed in a black-letter font (as the “Ode to Joy” might have been).

Yes, black-letter. You know, that Gothic font:

All those upright staffs and octagonal hollows and elegant angles — an efficient use of space and very evocative but not easy to read!

A few (a very few) of the books I work with in my research are actually in black-letter German. Here’s one, the source of the image above (it will open in a new window):

Rudolph Wagner

Apparently (according to wikipedia) we associate the black-letter font with German because the German printers kept using it much longer than printers elsewhere in the Western world. I’m grateful that none of my main sources (English) use it, but I enjoy the very occasional foray into black-letter.

It slows me down. It makes me focus. It invests Every. Word. With. Meaning. It forces me to live fully and with concentration in that thick and mighty forest of words and ideas. Something like this happens when singing, too. I come to myself at the end and realize I’ve been living in another world for the space of the song. We only hope that our listeners have been, too.

To see a placard about the performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in 1824, courtesy of a man who’s written a book about it, click here.

To read Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” click here.

To hear the chorus, an unstoppable force of joy, in the classic performance conducted by Toscanini (chorus by Robert Shaw), click here. The double fugue starts at about 4:39, and you can feel the energy building (dangerously!) at about 7 and 9 minutes. Hang on to your seat and feel the sound rush by!

“an almost boundless source of gratification and delight”

My title is a marvelous quotation from something I’m reading, a nineteenth-century text.

” … cannot fail to afford you an almost boundless source of gratification and delight.”

What is it, do you think, that gives this author such pleasure and amazement?

What provides you with a deep well of delight? Think it over …

Well, here’s a link to his book (it will open in a new window or tab):


And now, if you’ll turn to page 62, you can find the complete sentence.

What *is* it that provides us (he says) with an almost boundless source of gratification and delight?

(Read on a few pages for more delight, and some surprising illustrations).

Are you looking at the world a little differently now?

A new virtual library



… New to me, that is. It’s been around for a few years, though I just never spent any time there.

For the past few years, I’ve enjoyed having Google Books to prowl through. Because I work on sources that are well out of copyright, many of the books I write about are available in fulltext on Google Books, albeit sometimes with blurred or missing pages. (I do my bit by reporting these when I run across them. It only takes a second).

Some of the features of Google Books make it a very useful tool for scanning a book rapidly to find out if it’s the edition you need or to check a quotation or illustration; I’m talking about the fulltext word search (I wish they would include an option to download PDFs with this feature!) and the see-every-page-at-a-glance tool (the four little squares). That glance tool is great for “paging” forward to a particular chapter.

But Google Books as a reading space is … well, let’s just say it’s utilitarian.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered an inviting reading space online that links to Google Books as well as to other digitized books. It’s called the Internet Archive (okay, so the name is not particularly inviting), and its goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” Not a trivial thing! Despite the grand goals, the interface is more book-in-your-lap than echoing-halls-of-marble. You can download the book in various formats, or you can page through it, either manually or as a slideshow. Take a glance at this, one of my favorites:

Where are we?

Now step into that mysterious land yourself …
Arabella Buckley’s The Fairy-land of Science

What do you think?

… but titled booksilver

So, booksilver….
Thanks to my friend over at booksandbuttons.wordpress.com for suggesting this name. Why do I like it?

Well, it starts with Books, of course.
But it’s also reminiscent of quicksilver, which (you will recall) is an old term for mercury. What’s interesting about quicksilver?

A beautiful photo of quicksilver drops, from http://www.chemicool.com/elements/mercury.html

It’s the only metal that is liquid at normal temperatures, which makes it liquid silver. It’s weighty but fluid, which may be why it seemed almost alive (“quick”) to its early namers. Quicksilver seems to have magical properties: it’s what alchemists used when they tried to turn base metal into gold. The mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China (the one with the terracotta army, buried in about 210 BC) supposedly had a model landscape surrounding his tomb, the rivers flowing with quicksilver.

Calling something quicksilver suggests that it’s valuable and beautiful and alive. It’s no accident that the memories depicted in the Harry Potter films look like quicksilver when they’re drawn out with a wand.

Of course, quicksilver — like words, thought, memory, and books — is not only valuable and beautiful and alive. It also has poisonous power. It must be used with care. Its bioactive properties led people to use it as a medicine; calomel was a form of mercury, for example. It was also used in silvering mirrors, in making thermometers and other instruments, in making hats, and too many other uses to list here.

I’m interested in certain properties of quicksilver — the ones that correlate to the magical qualities of books, reading, writing, and thinking.

But I also want to have fun. Quicksilver is fast and slippery; it breaks into tiny beads and then rejoins itself (I know this, sadly, from experience, having broken a mercury thermometer many years ago). Quicksilver is hard to control. Quicksilver is a trickster. Books can be tricksters, too — they don’t always behave the way we want them to, nor do readers. Opening booksilver is, for me, sort of like shattering a mercury thermometer on the page and seeing what books, and what thoughts, spill out.

The blog not titled Book Spaces …

The first thing I want to tell you is that, if you think you want to publish a blog, run right out and secure your blogname. I’d been thinking for a long time about having a blog named Book Spaces, where I could talk informally about

  • the space I inhabit when I read a particular book, and different kinds of books
  • the spaces I go to when I want to read a good book
  • the marginal spaces on the page, that set off the words, and where I like to comment on my reading
  • the sense of space and place created by typography (for example, my current inability to get the spacing right on this post will affect how you read it)
  • the spaces of possibility represented by the pages still unread, or by a book not-quite-yet-opened
  • the places where I find, and store, our books — especially favorite libraries and bookstores and bookshelves
  • even the spaces (material, temporal, mental, even technological) I find in my busy life to write books and write about books. I’m a literature professor, though this blog is for personal reading and musing about reading. I’d call it “pleasure reading” except just about all my reading brings me some kind of pleasure.
Sounds great, right? However, Book Spaces is not available as a wordpress.com blog. I’m sure the bookspaces.wordpress.com people are perfectly nice and they certainly beat me to the name, so I am not glowering at them, or at least I am trying not to. I tried out other names, but none seemed just right. Until someone (see booksandbuttons.wordpress.com) suggested Booksilver to me. Hooray! I’ll tell you more about Booksilver next time.