Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year to All the Readers of Midatlantic!

In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beguiled by the Past

The grave of my great-uncle John Teasdale Mackintosh in Odiham churchyard, Hampshire, England

The other day when reading Alice Munro's semi-autobiographical story collection The View from Castle Rock, I ran across a quote that struck a chord with me. In the Epilogue, Munro is searching for the grave of one of her ancestors in an old graveyard in Joliet, Illinois. She writes about how many human beings, as they get older, get hooked on pursuing their family history. 
"Once they get started they'll follow any lead. People who have done little reading in their whole lives will immerse themselves in documents, and some who would have trouble telling you the years in which the First World War was begun and end will toss out dates from past centuries. We are beguiled. It happens mostly in our old age, when our personal futures close down and we cannot imagine – sometimes cannot even believe in – the future of our children’s children. We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging onto the threads, insisting on being joined to dead people, and therefore to life.”

This is exactly how I felt when researching my own family’s history. Yes, it does become more important to us as we get older and can look back over the contours of our own lives and beyond them to those of the people from whom we are descended – gene by gene, chromosome by chromosome. But this is also how I’ve felt as I’ve slowly unearthed and pieced together the facts of the lives of the Salmons of Tahiti. It’s partly the thrill of the detective work involved in genealogical research but it’s also the very human need to find and tell a story. And for those of us with no children, the stories we tell are all we’ll leave behind us. They matter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Books of Many Colors

Just one of the bookcases in our dining room

While waiting for the kettle to boil the other day, I began idly counting the books in one of our bookcases. A couple of minutes later after scribbling some sums on the grocery list pad, I’d calculated that we probably have around 2,000 books in our house.
That’s not very many compared with the 33 million in the Library of Congress, the 14 million in the British Library, or the 11 million in the Bodleian at Oxford University. But for a modest 3-bedroom colonial, it’s a lot.
There are 3½ full-length IKEA bookcases in our dining room as well as a nifty built-in shelf that runs the length of the room at just below ceiling height, which alone holds – I reckon – 80 paperbacks. There’s another full-length bookcase in the living room and one at the top of the stairs, plus one and a half in my office that are groaning under the weight of books about Tahiti and 20th-century British and European history. This is not to mention the contents of several smaller book shelves in the spare room and the basement.
We could probably cull fifty to a hundred and never miss them, but I’m not in any hurry to try.
How many of these have I read? I really couldn’t say. Maybe half? Or less? Which means that I have a host of literary treasures at my disposal, ready and waiting to be discovered. Having so many books on the premises means that, when I get into a reading frenzy on some subject or author, I can usually satisfy my cravings just by going to my own shelves. For example, to fill a gap in my reading of the classics, I recently embarked on a tour through the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. I began with The Master of Ballantrae because he wrote it in Tahiti in 1888 while staying with Tati Salmon. (Tati described RLS sitting up in bed in the Salmon house in Papara scribbling furiously on a pad on his knees.) I knew that, when I finished it, I had copies of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped right here under my roof whenever I was ready for them.  
Also, on those rare occasions when I’m at a loss as to what to read next, I can browse my stacks and remind myself that we have copies of, say, Slaughterhouse Five or The Tin Drum or The Old Man and the Sea.
I have often been teased for organizing my books by the color of their spines. But that is how I remember them. The other day a friend asked me if I had a copy of Midnight’s Children that she could borrow. I knew I did – and remembered it as a Penguin trade paperback with a white and orange spine and was able to go straight to the right shelf and found it wedged between Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood and The Stories of Colette – in the same color combo. It’s a weird unconscious mnemonic device of mine – my own instinctive Dewey Decimal system. Thank god I have it or I’d never find anything I was looking for.
Clearly it would make more sense to cram our 2,000 books onto an e-reader, but where would be the fun in that? Our house is an embodiment of Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel titled Books Do Furnish a Room, and to me the sight of a neat row of matching orange, blue, or green spines is a real aesthetic pleasure. In these gray times, it is good to have as much color in our homes and in our world as we can find.