Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Reading and Writing Letters

Despite my difficulties with pen and ink, I do manage to compose very nice handwritten thank-you notes. Conventional letters are very easy to write. More formal letters are even easier. After all, as Miss Manners points out, to reply to a wedding all you have to do is parrot back (more or less) the invitation: Mr. and Mrs. Very Polite accept with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr and Mrs. Genial Hosts for Saturday, the first of May at twelve o'clock noon. Thank you notes are a little more difficult, but if one follows Miss Manners' basic rule ("It must not start with 'Thank you for the . . . .' It must include some favorable mention of the item, and must avoid mentioning that [one] . . . already has one."), you will not go far wrong.

I adore getting letters, so I can't help feeling pleased that email has become so prevalent, though it might be nice if less of it consisted of lame jokes, cute animal photos and trite spirituality. The ephemeral nature of email and the ease of sending it makes its composition unintimidating. Not so the pen & ink letter, not so -- which is why books of sample letters are still being published. But I doubt if any of the current ones are as entertaining as Familiar Letters On Important Occasions by Samual Richardson.

Two friends had asked Richardson to prepare “a little volume of letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers who were unable to indite for themselves.” (Sort of like science nerds and MBAs.) Richardson agreed on condition that he could also include instructions on “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common Concerns of Human Life.” It was published in 1741 and was an immediate hit. Five further editions appeared before the author's death in 1761.

Richardson was a letter writing genius who later* went on to write three successful epistolary novels: Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740); Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748); and Sir Charles Grandison (1753). It's not surprising that he segued into novels. The examples in Familiar Letters are filled with dramatic potential.

For example, in the very first letter, "To a Father, against putting a Youth of but moderate Parts to a Profession that requires more extensive Abilities," the writer advises the recipient against choosing the legal profession for his second son William who "has neither talents for the law, nor ever will have the presence of mind necessary to make a figure at the Bar." Instead, he counsels that William be apprenticed to a merchant, or even a creditable wholesale dealer where, despite his very moderate talents, "very often, more money is to be gained than in professions that require an extraordinary genius, a perpetual attention, and a close and intense study; which yet very seldom succeeds."

Further, ". . . tho' I hope it will never be so in your case, yet nothing has been more common, than that of two sons, the eldest brought up to the estate, the other to trade, in the revolution of twenty or thirty years, the latter, thro' the extravagance of the former, has made himself eldest, as I may say; for, by saving while the other has been spending, he has found means to keep the estate in the family, tho' it has been transferred upon the youngest, and, as it has then proved, the worthiest branch." Now there's a novel waiting to happen!

Or what about about Letter LXII: "A young Woman in Town to her Sister in the Country recounting her narrow Escape from a Snare laid for her, on her first Arrival, by a wicked Procuress." I don't know if his readers had much need of this particular sample in their own correspondence, but I doubt not that it was frequently read.

Even more exciting are some of the sequences of letters, the first of which introduces an interesting situation which subsequent letters carry forward. The reader follows breathlessly, wondering what will happen next.

Letter CV: A threatening Letter from a Steward on Delay of Payment Letter

CVI: The Poor Tenant's moving Answer

Letter CVII: The Steward's Reply, giving more Time Letter

CVIII: The poor Man's thankful Letter in Return

Or better still:

Letter XV: From a young Lady to her Father, acquainting him with a Proposal of Marriage made to her

I think it my duty to acquaint you, that a gentleman of this town, by name Derham, and by business a linen-draper, has made some overtures to my cousin Morgan, in the way of courtship to me . . . . But, I assure you, sir, I have given him no encouragement; and told him, that I had no thoughts of changing my condition, yet-a-while; and should never think of it but in obedience to my parents . . .
Letter XVI: The Father's Answer, on a Supposition that he approves not of the young Man's Addresses

Letter XVII: The Father's Answer, on a Supposition that he does not disapprove of the young Man's Addresses

. . . I would have you neither wholly encourage nor discourage his suit; for if on inquiry into his character and circumstances, I shall find, that they are answerable to your cousin's good opinion of them, . . . I know not but his suit may be worthy of attention. But, my dear, consider, that men are deceitful, and always put the best side outwards; and it may possibly, on the strict inquiry, which the nature and importance of the case demands, come out far otherwise than it at present appears. Let me advise you, therefore, to act in this matter with great prudence, and that you make not yourself too cheap; for men are apt to slight what is too easily obtained.
Letter XVIII: The young Gentleman's Letter to the Father, apprising him of his Affection for his Daughter.
I take the liberty, tho' personally unknown to you, to declare the great value and affection I havew for your worthy daughter, whom I have had the honour to see at my good friend MMr. Morgan's . . . .

Letter XIX: From the Cousin to the Father and Mother, in Commendation of the Young Gentleman
. . . Mr. Derham has shewn me his letter to you; and I believe every tittle of it to be true; and really if you and my cousin approve it, as also Cousin Polly, I don't know where she can do better. I am sure I should think so, if I had a daughter he could love. . . .
Letter XX: From the Father, in Answer to the young Gentleman

After this letter Richardson cannot restrain himself from breaking into narrative:
The father in this letter referring pretty much to the daughter's choice, the young gentleman cannot but construe it as an encouragement to him to prosecute his addresses to her; in which he doubles his diligence (on the hint that she will soon return to Northampton) in order to gain a footing in her good will; and she, finding her father and mother not averse to the affair, ventures to give him some room to think his addresses are not indifferent to her; but still altogether on condition of her parents consent and approbation. By the time then that she is recall'd home . . . there may be supposed some degree of familiarity and confidence to have pass'd between them; and she gives him hope, that she will receive a letter from him, tho' she shall not promise an answer; intirely referring to her duty to her parents, and their good pleasure. He attends her on her journey a good part of the way, as far as she will permit; and when her cousin his friend, informs him of her safe arrival at Northampton, he sends the following letter.
Letter XXI: From the young Gentlemen to his Mistress, on her Arrival at her Father's
As your good father in his kind letter to me, assured me, that he should consult your inclinations, and determine by them and by what should offer most for your good; how happy should I be, if I could find my humble suit not quite indifferent to your dear self, and not rejected by him! . . . I hope you will condescend, if not to become an advocate for me, which would be too great a presumption to expect, yet to let your good parents know, that you have no aversion to the person or address of, dearest madam, Your forever obliged, and affectionate humble Servant.
And here Richardson breaks in again:
As this puts the matter into such a train, as may render more writing unnecessary; the next steps to be taken being the inquiry into the truth of the young man's assertions, and a confirmation of his character; and then the proposals on the father's part of what he will give with his daughter; all which may be done best by word of mouth, or interposition of friends; so shall we have no occasion to pursue this instance of courtship farther.

*He started the letter writing manual in 1739, but took time off to write and publish Pamela, so it actually came out before Familiar Letters.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Art Imitates Life

"I remember when Phil was a little kid, instead of picking up a book, getting bored, and then throwing it at his sister, he'd actually sit down and read the whole thing," said mother Susan Meyer, who declared she has long given up trying to explain her son's unusual hobby. "At the time, we thought it was just a phase he was going through. I guess we were wrong." . . . According to behavioral psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Schulz, Meyer's reading of entire books is abnormal and may be indicative of a more serious obsession with reading.
This article in "The Onion" is good for a giggle. How many of us were accused of similarly "deviant behavior" when we were growing up?

(And thank goodness the local child protection agency never found out about our daily read-aloud sessions with our children! I'm sure they would have classified it as child abuse.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Timeliness and the Reading of Classics

"One time I made for myself a formidable list of classics which I proposed to read during the year. Papa looked it over and approved, but he gave me good advice.

"'Start each one, but if it doesn't hold your attention, either you don't understand the style, or it is beyond you in some other way. It won't do you any good to read anything that doesn't interest you, because you won't remember it. Set it aside. But continue to try to read it, and one day it will rush in and fill a great void.'"

--Elizabeth Borton de Treviño, in The Hearthstone of My Heart.

The author goes on to tell how thirty-five years later, after many false starts, something finally clicked. At last it was the right moment to read War and Peace, and it did indeed fill a great void.

I can think of many books which suffer from being read at the wrong time. I was made to read Moby Dick when I was in junior high. Boooooring! The only bits that held my interest were the ones detailing how whales were cut up. I've never given it another chance, though I daresay I'd get more out of it now that I'm 55 than I did when I was 13.

My husband used to say that there were some books that could not be fully appreciated until one had reached middle age. He identified Brideshead Revisited as one of these and warned all of our children against reading it until they were at least 40. (Naturally, this only incited them to read it as soon as possible.)

Some books which I blithely enjoyed in my youth strike me with greater force now. A few months ago I reread A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a novel about a pioneer woman which I'd read countless times when I was a girl. But now I could not read it without weeping because I've actually experienced the same things which the protagonist did: motherhood, widowhood, the death of a child, etc. (She'd also had artistic and musical talent, but it was a potential that she'd never got around to developing -- though she'd been able to pass these gifts on to her children. That also struck a chord!)

And though Dickens was one of my favorite authors when I was young, I couldn't bear to read him for many after I became mother. So many dreadful things seem to happen to the young, orphaned children in his novels, and my sympathies were too quick and too tender.

I wish now that I had not discarded the copy of Pamela which was required reading my freshman year of college. I think I'd be ready for it now.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fountain Pens and the Lure of Blank Books

I love blank books. But I hardly ever use them.

I would love to have been the sort of person who has a row of hand-written diaries on her bookshelf.

Actually, I do have a shelf-full of diaries, but hardly anything is written in them. It seems that I only resort to a diary when depressed. When life is blithe, when life is gay, I feel no need to write. When it's busy and interesting, I don't have time. And when life is boring -- well, what then is there to write about?

Besides, it's hard to write with a pen. The keyboard has become such a natural extension of my brain that I'm hardly aware of it. The words flow effortlessly through my fingers. The pen lies inert, grasped tensely between fingers that have already to ache with the unaccustomed effort. I awkwardly squeeze out the words. Good heavens! I seem to be writing these words one letter at a time. And such awkward words!

I need to delete! I need to cut and paste!

Yet the romance of pen and ink (a fountain pen, mind you!) and the blank white page continues to haunt me. Perhaps some day I will express myself with these elegant implements of a more genteel age. Nourishing that hope I do own a couple of fountain pens, some chaste white note paper, and even some blotting paper.

Last night, I decided to rehabilitate my husband's old fountain pen. He bought it during our visit to England almost 30 years ago at a shop which offered to customize pen nib to the customer's taste. It's been languishing in a drawer for years. Since the ink in it had been allowed to dry out, it took a good deal of soaking, flushing, and rinsing to bring it once more to a functional condition. Then I had to let it dry overnight. While it rested on its couch of paper towels, I read a little book titled,

The pocket
for the
of the

written by Mr. Pier Gustafson.

It is a very little book: 2 x 4.75 inches. Though only 15 pages long, it contains everything the new pen owner will need to know in order to enjoy "the reliable and pleasurable use of the fountain pen." Among the topics covered are the anatomy of the pen (with its charming cross section illustration of a pen being sawn in half), how pens work and how they are filled, proper fountain pen ink, and the necessity of a light touch when writing. The author also discusses the touchy subject of lending your pen, particularly when one suspects that the person requesting it is a barbarian. (Suggested gracious denials range from "I'm so sorry. It is out of ink," to "If you break it I will kill you.") There is advice about the best way to travel with your fountain pen, and the dangers of allowing it to rattle about in your handbag in company with "emery boards, baubles bristling with diamonds in the worst possible taste, keys, melted candy bars, and other such items foreign to the author."

The book's charming tone can best be conveyed by quoting from its introduction:
Psychologists tell us that we, as a species, use only a small portion of the brain's full potential. That is fortunate as there is room for improvement. We have ample cells available for new ideas, comprehending new inventions, and remembering the newly-expanded zip-code. Some of the unused sections of the brain are due to the fact the we have forgotten much. Along with hunting and gathering skills, tree climbing, and the rules of etiquette we have a neglected area of the brain that had once concerned itself with appreciation of the pen.

Since the development of the noisome ball-point pen only a few of that lobe's cells are being used. What had long lain dormant are the myriad of issues dealing with the pen in terms of quality, art, invention and pleasure. Now that you have a fine fountain pen in your hand you'll find the appreciation of that and the world around you will grow as those sleepy neurons and synapses awake and fire.

The aim of this book is to assist you in this noble endeavor.

And so it has.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Technical Difficulties

Computer difficulties have prevented me from posting much lately. I hope that things will finally be resolved in about 24 hours. I've been meaning to mention that I have a second blog now. I have unimaginatively titled it Quilting Bibliophagist, because quilting is what I do when I'm not reading. You can see it here if you like. However, since it was set up to chart my participation in Bonnie Hunter's mystery quilt, Carolina Crossroads, it's of rather limited interest.

(Quilters all over the world have been working on this quilt at the same time. Many of them post pictures of their progress on their regular blogs. But I decided it would be better to keep the quilting madness and the bibliomania in separate places.)

Friday, January 4, 2008

Reading Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Christmas gifts in the Bibliophagist household tend to be flat and rectangular. And the ones that are not chocolate bars are books. Fillius Minor gave me a copy of The Hearthstone of My Heart by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. I'd never heard of it before, so I was delighted to receive it. (She's best known as the author of I, Juan de Pareja which was the Newberry winner in 1966.)

I had previously read My Heart Lies South, her account of how she, a thoroughly modern, American journalist married the very traditional Mexican public relations director who had been assigned to meet her at the border when she arrived to cover a story for The Boston Herald. Because of their cultural differences, she did not at first realize that he was courting her! The role of women in the U.S. had begun to change, so her married life in Mexico in the 1930s seemed like a journey back in time both to her and to her readers in 1950. The book has currently been republished by Bethlehem Books in a slightly revised Young People's Edition "to make it more suitable for general family reading."

(Naturally I had to find out how this edition differed from the original. As it turns out, it was abridged in only two places. The first deletion is a account of her servant problems, the most awkward of which was the tendency of her unmarried maids to become pregnant. The second was a description of one of her husband's aunts who had a deathly fear of being accidentally buried alive. Some of the annecdotes related to this topic might have been considered a bit gruesome for Bethlehem's market. Digression: Apparently the fear of being prematurely buried was very common in the 19th century, giving rise to many patents for coffins with escape hatches or signaling devices like this one. In some areas this fear lingered into the twentieth century.)

I'd always wondered what her life was like before her marriage. In her memoir, The Hearthstone of My Heart, the author begins by describing her childhood in Bakersfield, California in the early part of the 20th century. Not only did she live in a very different world than ours, but she and her family were happy in a way that must have already begun to seem unusual to her audience in 1977. Her respect for the strength and integrity of her parents shines through her narrative. And she also conveys a sense that strong women capable of academic and professional achievement existed well before the advent of "Women's Lib" -- a term she uses several times which now seems somewhat dated and quaint.

The author earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish language and literature, and then went back East to study music. In need of funds, she first worked for a publisher and then segued into journalism, first writing concert reviews and later becoming a reporter. Interviews with well known celebrities became her specialty. At this point, a lot of the references in her stories began to go over my head since I'd never heard of most of the musical and political people she met. Her newspaper also sent her back to California every summer to interview Hollywood actors and actresses. (I knew a few of those, but I guess everyone's heard of W.C. Fields.)

For years she'd been trying to write and sell fiction without success. Interestingly, it was her Hollywood experience that led to her first book contract. She was approached by the publisher of the Pollyanna books and asked to write one set in Hollywood. (The original author had died after writing only two books. Since they were wildly popular, the publisher was continuing the series using various authors who wrote the books on contract and to specifications.) She asked for time to think it over because she was afraid that being associated with Pollyanna and her "glad game" would tarnish her image as a sophisticated and intellectual young woman

"Among my sophisticated friends, this procedure of always being glad about something was anathema. The climate of thinking was changing; it was generally thought to be much more intelligent to be angry about things. This elevation of anger to a position among the virtues has attracted an amazing number of partisans in recent years."

Fortunately she asked the advice of a friend who was already an author. He advised her that if she wanted to be a professional writer she should, "Take every job you are offered, and do it to the best of your ability. Beethoven was not ashamed to work on contract and deliver work that was ordered . . . The publishers are willing to take a chance on you. Grab it, and do as good a job as you possibly can." Then he added what I consider to be the best writing advice ever: "Don't keep anything back, thinking it is too valuable a pearl for this job. Put your best into everything. If you are ever going to be any good, new ideas will come, and you will not find yourself without resources when you need them."

And it turned out she ended up writing four of the Pollyanna novels, and the job was invaluable in teaching her how to structure and write a novel. The exciting part is that I actually have one of them in my collection. But I had never realized that she was the author since it was written while she was still using her maiden name. And she made her peace with Pollyanna's optimism and cheerful, stiff upper lip.

As I reflect now on much of the current writing for children I wonder if it is wise to assume that they must be hurtled into the "real world" of sex, murder, incest, abortions, and violence in all their reading. It is a rougher, harder world than I knew as a child, and I agree that children must be made as wise as possible by their parents before they are allowed to roam freely in it. But aren't children entitled to escape literature , too? Shouldn't the imagination of what could be a beautiful world, be kept, in their stories, in their entertainment? If not, how will they envision it? Man has always dreamed of improvements before he was able to effect them.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Miracle Fiction?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've decided to have a go at The Song of Bernadette. It's another one of those books that I've always heard of but have never actually read. Since I'm on a tight budget, I borrowed a copy from the public library. They had the 1989 edition from St. Martin's Press. According to the introduction, it was the first book to be published in their new "Religious Miracle Fiction Series."

Naturally I was intrigued. Most of what passes for religious fiction is very badly done. But I'm always on the look-out for the rare exception. This series was to consist of "reissued classic books that bring back the well-known works of popular religious writers of the twentieth century." So what other novels had they published under this imprint? Possibly none -- since both Amazon and Google searches turned up no references except to Song of Bernadette. (If anyone does know of further books in the series, please let me know.)

Why did they attempt this series?

According to the editor, the approach of the new millennium would see both a revived belief in eschatology and "a fervent faith in the arrival and occurrence of religious miracles" which he defines as "often totally inexplicable events, that will be interpreted as saving us from our rational, destructive selves." Huh? Our rational selves are destructive? I thought that was the job of our irrational selves. He also seems to be buying into the assumption that religion and reason have nothing in common. Okay, Mr. Editor, I can tell right now that we are not simpatico.

I'm in the same camp with G.K. Chesterton who says, in the person of Father Brown in "The Blue Cross, "I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason." That's how Father Brown unmasks the thief Flambeau who has been masquerading as a priest. "'You attacked reason, ' said Father Brown. 'It's bad theolgy.'"

Not counting the brief Y2K frenzy, did either of the editor's predicitons of emerging religious themes come true? I don't think so.

Oh, wait a minute. Didn't those Left Behind novels come out around 1995? Shoot! Not that I ever read them. I tried to read the first chapter of one while standing in front of the book display in Costco, but I just couldn't manage it. It was soooo badly written. (And not my cuppa theology, either.) Their popularity boggles the mind. But I suppose that if you really like a novel's message, you'll forgive a lot in the way of bad writing.* Which is probably, as I said earlier, why most religious fiction is so badly done.

I'm two thirds of the way through Song of Bernadette. So far my response to it is fairly positive -- with one major reservation. More details when I'm finished.

*Is that why Da Vinci Code did so well?