November 3, 2014
In The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley’s indelibly delightful salute to both bookselling and Brooklyn, the proprietor of the shop in question offers some thoughts as to how his customers might best be served. Posted on the wall of the shop is a sign, in a neat, un-showy hand, reading:
If your mind needs phosphorus, try “Trivia,” by Logan Pearsall Smith.
If your mind needs a whiff of strong air, blue and cleansing, from hilltops and primrose valleys, try “The Story of My Heart,” by Richard Jefferies.
If your mind needs a tonic of iron and wine, and a thorough rough-and-tumbling, try Samuel Butler’s “Notebooks” or “The Man Who Was Thursday,” by Chesterton.
If you need “all manner of Irish,” and a relapse into irresponsible freakishness, try “The Demi-Gods,” by James Stephens. It is a better book than one deserves or expects.
It’s a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way.
One who loves the English tongue can have a lot of fun with a Latin dictionary.
I often thought of that sign and its prescriptions when I worked at the bookstore. I used to say that I felt sometimes like the village pharmacist: People would come in with one ailment or another, and my job was to figure out what book would answer their needs. Sometimes they would ask me the titles of my favorite books, and I would always explain that that didn’t really matter, that I wanted to find the right book for them.
And what that book might be could change from one day to the next. Just as a pharmacist’s client may have a sore throat on one day, and the jitters the next, a given customer of mine might need a chuckle on Monday, something calming on Tuesday, and a book to take on a plane, so absorbing as to make him forget the cramped seat and the lousy meal, for the weekend.
I’m thinking about book-prescriptions right now because I’m headed into the hospital on Wednesday, and I’m planning what books I’ll take with me. I won’t want anything really complicated – no Cold War espionage with back-room betrayals and Russian names to keep straight, and certainly nothing hugely violent or upsetting. I will need to be both soothed and absorbed, and a giggle or two would not go amiss.
For soothing, I will almost certainly turn to books I’ve already read and know I love. I know there are people who don’t reread – my mother never did – but for me, a well loved book is like a blanket with a comforting, familiar smell. The giggles are tough: In my experience, there are a lot more writers who think they’re funny than there are actually funny books. But happily, F&M publishes some dandy ones. Finally, “absorbing”…I’d like a book that has enough of a plot to keep me interested, to help block out the bleeping machines and the sharp smells of antiseptic and the ghastly Jello they always want you to eat. I’m going to have to bring a whole bunch of books of course – because if you want to see my vital signs go wacky in a hurry, lock me in a hospital room with AN INSUFFICIENT AMOUNT OF READING MATTER – but what am I going to start with? What’s the book that will see me through that first day, when I’ll be snappish with nerves and peevish at the forms and needle-jabs?
Got it: The wonderful Elephants in the Distance, by Daniel Stashower. Dan has by this point won so many Edgar awards that he could field a (somewhat static) baseball team, but this was one of his early novels. It may not be backed by the extraordinary research that underpins the biography and non-fiction he specializes in, but it has two very powerful hallmarks: A deep familiarity with the history of magic, and a great love for the old geezers with the arthritic rabbits and the moth-eaten top hats. The first scene in the book, in which an elderly, once celebrated magician is making balloon-animals at a toddler’s birthday party, reflecting with some grief – but little sourness – on the fact that he used to perform for princes…it’s a killer. I read it, and I keep reading even though I know the book, because I want so badly to see justice done for the nice old fellow.
Want to read along with me? It would give me enormous pleasure to know that I had some company in Stashower’s world. So this week, we’re offering 25% off the wry, clever, gentle and altogether lovely Elephants in the Distance.