Category Archives: Opinion Posts

My Visit to the Rare Book Room at The Strand

The Rare Book Room at The Strand.

On my recent trip to New York City there was an article in the New York Times about The Strand celebrating its 90th year in business.  Not only does this bookstore have 18 miles of books located on four floors, but they also have rows and rows of sale books on the sidewalk on 12th st. just outside the store, and a kiosk fully stacked with fabulous books outside of Central Park.  The article in the Times mentioned The Strand’s most expensive book—a first edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses illustrated by Henri Matisse, signed by both authors.  The Limited Editions Club published 1500 copies in 1935; only 250 copies are signed by both Joyce and Matisse which are rare and very expensive.  The manager at The Strand said that the price tag on their copy is $45,000.    Matisse signed all 1500 copies and the ones with only his signature sell for a lot less—between $3500 and $5000, depending on the condition of the book.

The rare book room is housed on the third floor of The Strand and all of their customers are welcome to visit any time during business hours.  The staff was kind and willing to show me their most expensive and famous book for sale.  The manager extracted the book from a safe where their most precious books are kept and happily allowed me to look at the copy of Ulysses and let me take these photos.

Not all of their books are as rare or expensive as this copy of Ulysses. The rare book room has something for everyone’s budget. There are lots of signed and first edition books by modern authors openly available on their shelves to look at and to browse. I saw a first edition of Derek Walcott’s poetry inscribed by the author, for instance, that was being sold for $40. Some of their more expensive books, the ones that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars are under glass cases—for instance a first edition German copy of Kafka’s The Castle with a price tag of $2500. But the staff is friendly and helpful and willing to let customers hold and flip through any of their books.

The Strand, all four floors of it, is one of my favorite places to visit in the world and I can’t wait to go back.  I am thinking another trip in the fall is in order.  First, I have to recover from carrying almost 40 books on the train back home and find a place for my purchases.  In my next post I will share some of my NYC book haul.

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NYC Reading Suggestions from Literary Twitter

Literary Twitter has come through for me once again.  I sent a Tweet asking if anyone would like to recommend some reading for my upcoming trip to New York City.  The response has been overwhelming and I thought I would share the suggestions I have gotten so far.  I have chosen to list them alphabetically by author.  If anyone has additional titles to add then please leave them in the comments:

The New York Trilogy by Paul Aster

The Cities (poems) by Paul Blackburn

Open City by Teju Cole

The Flea of Sodom by Edward Dahlberg

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos

Time and Again by Jack Finney

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

New York Revisited by Henry James

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer

Passing by Nella Larsen

Poet in New York by Federico Garcia Lorca

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney

The Rosy Crucifixion Series by Henry Miller

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell

After Claude by Iris Owens

Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Low Life by Luc Sante

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.

A Tree Growns in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz

Down these Mean Streets by Piri Thomas

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead

 

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Sifting Through the Ruins of an Abandoned Library

I teach Latin and Ancient Greek at The Woodstock Academy, an independent day and boarding school in northeastern Connecticut.  At a time when schools are shrinking and slashing budgets, we have had the good fortune to purchase an additional campus.  A private school in town closed and we bought the entire school, lock, stock and barrel in order to expand our facilities and programs.  Among the many things left behind by the former occupants of the school was their entire library.  They had originally intended to pack it up and ship it to Maine where they own another boarding school.  But at the last minute they abandoned it.  When our administration sent a message that we were not keeping the library, that any and all books from the library were free to anyone for the taking I couldn’t resist.

I walked away with a trunk full of books—the trunk of my car could not have fit another book.  They are packed into four boxes and are currently sitting in the garage where I can sort them and figure out how they should be shelved and arrange for more space.

You will have to forgive the mess in the background since the books are all in the garage and that is where I took these photos.  I found lots of classics books.  I took away two large boxes of Ancient Greek and Ancient Rome titles.  Some of them are duplicates, like the three volumes of Greek Tragedies translated by Richard Lattimore.  But I couldn’t very well just leave them there:

 

 

A wonderful surprise among the ruins were these four volumes of Civilizations of The Ancient Near East.  Something I would love to have owned but would not necessarily have invested the money in:

 

I also collected a very lovely stack of poetry books. The essays about the poems of William Carolos Williams especially intrigued me. And it is nice to finally have a large volume of Robert Frost poems sitting on my shelves.  Gibran’s The Prophet was a nice find since I had not owned a copy of that previously.

And finally I rescued several stacks of literary classics that are duplicates of books I already own but couldn’t leave behind.  I now have three different translations of Kafka’s The Castle, for instance.  But I think most bibliophiles would agree that one can never have too much Kafka.

And some Thoreau, and Hardy and Dante and Chaucer and….

As I was driving over to what is now our South Campus, I was excited at the prospect of sifting through books and I thought it would be akin to browsing through a used bookstore.  But the experience was much more sad and melancholy than I had expected.  The books were strewn on the floors and counters of the former library.  The large room will now serve as the new band and music room, so all of the shelves and fixtures were removed and the books were lying everywhere, haphazardly abandoned.  There were even books sitting on carts that were recently returned by students and under normal circumstances would have been reshelved.  It made me think that each collection of books, whether public or private, serves a specific purpose or a specific community.  And it is unfortunate when a collection is broken up and no longer serves that need.  I, personally, would like to have kept the collection together, to be able to brag about a school with two libraries.  But, we really needed the space for music, so I did the next best thing and rescued a least a few of the books.

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A Bibliophile’s Conundrum: How do you organize your books?

There have been complaints recently by my family members (i.e. my husband) about the piles of books that have taken over various parts of the house.  The kitchen table has two stack of books that are getting so high they are threatening to topple over and crush one of the cats.  The book piles are also in the way of the cats’ favorite window from which they view the yard; notice the picture of Henry attempting to navigate around the books in order to watch a chipmunk that has made a nest under his favorite window.

Current stack of books on the kitchen table

 

Henry attempting to navigate around the current stack of books on the kitchen table

Then there are the various piles on the coffee table, the top of which table can barely be seen because of the amount of books. (As I look at this photo I realize it’s probably not a great idea to have so many candles among my books.)

But it is not that I am lazy or unwilling to move my books.  My issue is one of organization and trying to make decisions about which books go where and oftentimes these important decisions paralyze me.  I like to keep the pile of books that I really want to read immediately (which has grown impossibly large) as close to me as possible, thus all of the Vergil books currently hanging out on my coffee table.  I also like to categorize books by my favorite publishers: thus I have a handsome collection of Seagull Books and New York Review of Books.  But then I also like to collect books by author and by topic.  And finally, my Classics books are organized by subject—Greek tragedy, for instance, and within each of those categories books are further organized by author—Aeschylus, Euripides, etc.

Some of my Seagull Books Collection

 

Some of my NYRB collection

The conundrum I have comes when a book falls into more than one shelving category; for instance, I have collected many Ann Carson books, but one of them is a NYRB publication, so where do I put that book?  It seems that it ought to go in the Carson section, but then my NYRB collection seems lonely and incomplete without it.  And what should I do with the Bachmann/Celan Correspondence book that I recently reviewed?  I want to put it with the other Seagull titles, but then again I have a growing section of Bachmann books and a small section of Celan poetry.  Oh, and I also have a shelf of books all about letters and correspondence (the Letters of Virginia Woolf, Love Letters of Great Men, Nabakov’s Letters to Vera, etc.)

Books from my Classics collection

Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t find a book because I forgot where I shelved it.  I have been looking for my copy of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening for weeks.  Did I put it with the philosophy books?  It isn’t with the other Nancy titles.  I bought a translation of Propertius’s poetry that has the exact same cover as the Nancy book.  Should I have a section of books that have the same covers?  It’s really exhausting.  My husband has generously offered to build me another bookshelf or two; although this also further enables my habit of book hoarding.

How do my fellow bibliophiles organize books?  I would love to see some photos!

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An Addendum to my Personal Canon

When I recently wrote a list of the books that have had the greatest impact on my life, I naturally included several ancient authors.  Each work on the list is something I have translated myself and I was thinking about those texts in the original Latin or Ancient Greek.  But I have had many inquires about my favorite translations of these texts, so here is my addendum.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the old chestnuts that I return to time and again:

Homer, Iliad: The Robert Fagles translation is still my favorite (the intro. to this text written by Bernard Knox is worth the price of the book alone).  For those who want something more daring, Chapman’s translation of Homer is also something I have really enjoyed.  And for those who want something really daring, Christopher Logue’s interpretation of the Iliad, entitled War Music, is stunning (regular readers of my blog will know that I flipped my lid over this and wrote four different posts about it.)

Presocratic Philosophers: Since these authors are in fragments, the best book I have found that includes both interpretations as well as translations is The Presocratic Philosophers by G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon: Once again, I have to go with the Robert Fagles translation of this which is a Penguin Edition.  This edition also includes translations of the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

Euripides, Trojan Women, Medea: The Oxford World’s Classics editions translated by James Morwood are my staple translations for all of Euripides. The Trojan Women and Medea are in separate volumes.  The edition with Medea also includes Hippolytus, Electra and Helen.  The edition with Trojan Women also includes translations of Hecuba and Andromache.

Sopocles, Oedipus, Antigone: The Penguin edition is my favorite which is translated by Robert Fagles and includes all three of the Theban plays. (Can you tell that I am partial to the translations of Fagles?)

Plato, Symposium: The Tom Griffith translation by the University of California Press is still my favored edition and also includes engravings by Peter Forster.

Aristotle, Poetics: I still go back to the first translation of this I’ve ever read by Leon Golden published in 1968 by Florida State University Press.  It also includes an excellent running commentary.

Catullus, Carmina: Although the English is a bit Archaic since it was originally published in 1913, I still love the Loeb translation edited and revised by G.P. Gould.  This edition also includes the poems of Tibullus which I also highly recommend.  Tom, whose erudite writing about classic literature can be found at Wuthering Expectations, recommended the Horace Gregory translation published in 1952 which I am thoroughly enjoying!  I have been reading the translations from Gregory this semester as I translate the Latin text with my students and it has been a most enjoyable experience.  Sometimes a different translation, even an older one, gives us fresh eyes.

Vergil, Aeneid: I’ve always loved the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid which is the Vintage Classics edition, that is, until Robert Fagles published his. I also am excited to read the new translation of it that will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2017.  Word on the street is that David Ferry’s new translation is fabulous.  Stayed tuned for my official opinion.

Seneca, everything he wrote, especially The Trojan Women: I love the dual language edition by Elaine Fantham which has been out-of-print for quite a while.  The introduction and the commentary are extraordinary.  There is also a new translation of all of Seneca’s plays that was just published by The University of Chicago Press.  Elaine Fantham was part of the team of editors and translators on this project before she passed away and I am very eager to devote my full attention to these new translations.  Stay tuned for my thoughts!

Cicero, De Senectute, Pro Caelio: The Penguin Editions of both of these translations are excellent. Cicero: Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant includes De SenectuteCicero: Selected Political Speeches includes the Pro Caelio. These are the editions that I use to teach Cicero in my classes.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Heroides: For the Metamorphoses I have always loved Rolfe Humphries’s translation that was originally published by The University of Indiana Press in 1960.  The translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in 1995 is also excellent.  Finally, the A.S. Kline translation is also very good and is available online here: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm

The Loeb edition of the Heroides, translated in 1914 by Grant Showerman and revised by G.P. Gould, is still my favorite. This edition also includes the Amores which I very highly recommend.  Maybe I also should have included the Amores on my personal canon?

Propertius, Elegies: (Many read Catullus and Ovid and unfortunately bypass Propertius.  But his poems are just as good and important.)  Once again, I have to go with the trustworthy Loeb edition translation by G.P. Gould.

Lucan The Civil War: (A very underappreciated epic from the Latin Silver Age)  And yet again, I have to go with the Loeb edition of Lucan translated by J.D. Duff and originally published in 1928.

I realize that there are quite a few Loeb editions on the list, but the dual text and the older translations have always appealed to me.  Please leave further suggested translations for any of these authors in the comments!

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