Instead, I toiled at a significantly overdue book of my own, one that is mostly written but needs to be shortened, shaped and polished. As usual, I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, partly because this silkily devilish inner voice kept whispering: “Hey, you’re on vacation! Shouldn’t you be doing something fun?” Still, I was strong and steadfast — until my beloved spouse flew to the West Coast to visit our two older sons. Then I went wild.
First, I spent several afternoons in my favorite D.C.-area pleasure palaces: The venerable Second Story Books at Dupont Circle and its labyrinthine warehouse in Rockville; the Wonder Book and Video outlet in Gaithersburg (much tidied up and reconfigured) and its big brother in Frederick (still vast and overwhelming); the refurbished, newly energized Capitol Hill Books; and, of course, Montgomery County’s two Friends of the Library Bookstores in Rockville and Wheaton. Since I know many of the people working in these caves of wonder, I always enjoy chatting with them about recent treasures they had acquired or sold.
Did I buy any treasures for myself? Need you ask? Confronted by what Catholics call occasions of sin, I quickly forgot the past year’s resolve to winnow my Smaug-like book hoard.
Here’s a representative sampling from those happy afternoons: James Webb’s “The Occult Establishment” (about H.P. Blavatsky, G.I. Gurdjieff et al.), a four-volume Folio Society edition of Restoration comedies (including William Wycherley’s ultra-risque, “The Country Wife”), Joseph Mitchell’s original 1938 collection of essays and reportage, “My Ears Are Bent,” a second boxed set — for a future gift — of W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson’s five-volume “Poets of the English Language,” and the tome-like “British Painting,” by C.H. Collins Baker, solely for its chapter by M.R. James, the English antiquary and ghost-story writer, to whose work I am devoted. Only the Mitchell cost more than $10.
If those titles aren’t arcane enough for you, I also picked up “Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1958-1959.” Why? Because it reprints a debate about “Patristic Exegesis in the Criticism of Medieval Literature.” Patristic exegesis comprises all the more or less allegorical methods by which St. Augustine and other church fathers interpreted the Bible. In the debate, Yale’s E. Talbot Donaldson championed an essentially humanistic approach to “Beowulf” and Chaucer, while Cornell’s Robert E. Kaske argued that theological commentary provides a master key to medieval imagery and meaning. My own fealty lies with the majestically learned Kaske, under whose tutelage I once studied Gregory the Great’s 4,000-page commentary on the Book of Job. Good times.
During my July break I certainly didn’t attempt any reading quite that formidable. Instead I settled down with Arthur B. Reeve’s “The Silent Bullet,” a gathering of the early cases of scientific detective Craig Kennedy, once dubbed the American Sherlock Holmes. It’s just one rediscovery in the Library of Congress’s Crime Classics, an excellent series overseen by the redoubtable Leslie S. Klinger. I then went on to Joseph Conrad’s sardonic novel of pretense and betrayal, “The Secret Agent,” E.F. Benson’s engagingly written, but obvious whodunit, “The Blotting Book,” and, not least, Lord Dunsany’s novel about the twilight of wizardry, “The Charwoman’s Shadow.” Might its coda — a highly orchestrated dying fall — have influenced the similarly elegiac close of “Little, Big,” John Crowley’s modern fantasy classic? I also enjoyed a fair amount of history-focused nonfiction, starting with Richard Altick’s witty survey of 19th-century murder, “Victorian Studies in Scarlet,” followed by several document-based accounts of Jack the Ripper. For relief from all that blood and violence, I turned to Peter Keating’s enthralling “The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875-1914.”
Let me point out that you don’t become a book critic unless you like to read.
But reading, especially during vacation, is a sedentary activity, so for exercise I shifted boxes of books and papers from my basement to the attic or from my attic to the basement. This fosters the illusion that I’m tidying up. Still, I unearthed a favorite postcard that had somehow been misplaced. It consists of the Pop Art image of a perplexed young woman with this accompanying thought balloon: “I used to be indecisive. . . . Now I’m not sure.”
In one overstuffed file folder I also happened upon some of the “favorite book” lists I used to collect. Dick Dabney, a mainstay of the old Washingtonian Magazine, named Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” as one of the half-dozen greatest American novels and pointed out that David Cecil’s “Melbourne”— a biography of the English politician married to Byron-infatuated Caroline Lamb — was John F. Kennedy’s favorite book. W. Somerset Maugham’s “Books and You,” originally published as three articles in the Saturday Evening Post, proposed Arnold Bennett’s “The Old Wives’ Tale” and Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” as the last major English novels written in a now-vanished “grand manner.”
While William S. Reese’s exceptionally engaging “Narratives of Personal Experience” rightly praises such memoirs as Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” and Kenneth Clark’s “Another Part of the Wood,” this revered and much-missed bookseller’s enthusiasm for Jim Corbett’s “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” surprised me: “To call these stories gripping is like saying the Atlantic Ocean is wet.” Between 1910 and World War II, Corbett, a colonel in the British Indian Army, was regularly called upon to hunt tigers that had turned into serial killers, and he usually stalked them alone on foot. Yet Corbett was also a naturalist, and India’s first national wildlife preserve is named for him. Needless to say, I quickly ordered a copy of his book. But, alas, as Shakespeare recognized, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” So, Corbett’s adventures may just have to wait till my next vacation.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.