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Posted By DMB

Eighty percent of my library had to go to my storage when we moved from a house. A tragedy for any book person. To not have access to your library is to not have a library. I’ve been sorting the part of my library still at home. This has led to endless browsing, a chapter here, a few pages there, opening and reading in the last part of a book becomes so compelling you have to start again at the beginning; cross-referencing constantly leads elsewhere (here is where the missing library really hurts) all of which demands six other books, etc. etc. I felt like Montaigne is his tower, except I amuse only myself; he still entertains us 500 years later.

But the point here: I’ve also been sorting for filing the neglected papers and part articles and old emails from the last ten years which has brought back memories of those years in a manner I wouldn’t have imagined possible. This has caused a flow of emails to neglected friends, long-distance calls, the beginnings of several new articles. But the most melancholy part is a longer list than I care to remember of the “missing”, the ones gone over the last few years.

One friend who died a couple of years ago had a few emails which were so compelling that I realized he was far more important – to me, but also to our shared vocation – then I realized at the time. I had my assistant track and print our entire email correspondence going back 10 years and am now reading it in full. This led to the researching of quite a few obits and tributes to fellow booksellers, friends and acquaintances in the trade, a growing literature of loss, and many animated views of my time in the trade.

In all, a fascinating experience. If you live long enough your past melds into history and becomes significant in a very different way than just our own petty concerns.

So, of all my recent readings this has been the most important.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out many times, one of the unexpected gifts booksellers receive is a very different perspective of history. If I might have spent all day yesterday researching a book from 500 years ago and then went on to read Tacitus and Catullus, then skipped to Montaigne, then maybe Jim Harrison or another recent contemporary, all history eventually becomes a continuous sequence where timelines became blurred. Like our expanded view of the universe, when we learn that all those bright gleams in the sky are not “stars” but billions of suns just like ours.

I just read two days ago, since I’m also back reading the Romans, that the ancients believed that the stars were actually holes in the firmament which allowed us to see the glories of celestial heavens behind. If I hadn’t been expelled from Grade IX science I might not have needed to wait sixty odd years to discover this.

Time becomes short and booksellers know that more than most. It’s perhaps a pointless gift to have except now, in this plague year, it turns out to be very useful in what I do a lot: putting history, my life, and my so-called career in a better perspective relative to its parallel history.

Reading and rereading Nick Mount’s wonderful book Arrival: The Story of Canlit (House of Anansi Press, 2017) which gives us the first evocative account of the birth and rise of the true Canadian literature was a revelation for me (besides being a clever and truly witty page-turner). As I read, I found it paralleled my life as a bookseller and my own experience of that period. As with all booksellers, especially used ones, I was more often on the sidelines, observer, but seldom participant except in my personal relationships with some writers and other actors who made that history. But on every page of Mount’s book I found venues I frequented, or events I was at, or people or events I’d known, where I could add comments to Mount’s account.

Canadian literature, and in fact much of modern Canadian culture was emerging from the shadows of our British heritage and the seemingly overpowering weight of our American neighbours. For that reason, much of it appears negative. We seemed to be always reacting against something foreign, but our responses – maybe not noticed by most of us – was a Canadian response. The “difference” which all Canadians know exists but often can’t precisely explain was there emerging on its own and defining us through our separateness. The results will be clearly apparent in a hundred years. If you want to see the beginnings go read Mount.

I continue to study this period which so clearly mirrors my own life and my column in CNQ usually tries to illustrate or emphasize an aspect of it.



Posted By DMB

Looking back through my early Blogs for a misremembered quote I realized that I now spend, like many of the aged, half my time looking for mislaid items; only to find half-way through that I’ve forgotten what the mislaid item I’m searching for is. So…, misremembered, mislaid, and forgotten; old age in a nutshell. But luckily as I read Epicurus he reminds me that it really doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is sitting outside in the cafés in the sun, eating olives, drinking a glass of wine and talking to old friends.

After questioning myself about what I miss most in this enforced solitude, I began questioning those friends I speak to on the phone. I found that all my friends said the same thing. What we all miss most is sitting in cafés with old friends, talking over food and wine. Everyone said that, without prompting.

Then I finally found the missing quote – it was Epicurus, from that marvelous philosophic study by Daniel Klein I read a few years ago. Here it is again from my Blog of October 2016:
October 18, 2016

The “Book of the Month” for this month is Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein (Penguin). A marvelous mediation on old age wherein we learn that Epicurus was not an Epicurean. He believed in simplicity in food and drink. And that what was important was not what you ate but who you ate with. He also believed that old age was not to be avoided – by pretending that seventy was the new fifty, but that it should be embraced as not only an important stage in life but the most important age. For only the old can dismiss all the pointless vanities and stupid ambitions which drove us in our youth. And embrace the important things, which are companionship, conversation over food and drink with friends and simply embracing the beauties of life which are there for all if we only slow down and look. All obvious, even trite – except Klein makes it fascinating, so much so that I read a page and think for half an hour before going on. And finishing it once, and having bought a dozen copies for friends, I’ve started it again.

A word to the wise – from Epicurus, one of the truly wise ones.


So this book whose wisdom so impressed me that I quoted it four years before this terrible plague – turns out to be what I and all my aged friends have discovered on our own as a result of the plague.

And for me another thing which it so clearly illustrates is the edge that all readers of books have: the open door we share, where all the thoughts and feelings and wisdom of our forebearers is stored for us to discover and benefit from. “Books fall open and we fall in,” goes the old children’s poster I’ve never forgotten, that wonderful description of the world of reading.

So what’s become clear to me is that while we all need some solitude and reflection we humans also need the company and presence of our fellows.

As McLuhan pointed out, movies and TV are passive time-fillers compared to the active engagement which is reading. It’s not hard to conclude that all these electronic means of communication we’ve developed are, like TV, passive things to fill time. We humans need to engage. We need to read to engage our minds with our world and our past. And clearly, we need other humans to engage our whole beings.

That being true, we must today be losing some essential sustenance that our souls need, without which we must be threatened with some essential part of us dying by atrophy.

That, of course, is what the mental health practitioners warn us of in times like this. We’re missing something essential and we don’t know what it is so we become a bit crazy, anxious or depressed, and bad things occur.

This plague is affording us an opportunity to re-examine our lives and make some corrections. I’m back rereading Klein’s wonderful book which is full of clues from Epicurus.

All us readers have that great gift: we can seek answers in the books. 


Interviewer: “What then would you say is the source of most of your work?”
Dorothy Parker: “Need of money, dear.”


Posted By DMB

I am vindicated in my long-held and widely trumpeted opinion that Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here is the first great Canadian novel by this quote found in an old column by Adam Gopnick,
“… makes me want to praise Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here as the greatest and still not adequately appreciated of all Canadian novels.”

To be vindicated in my view by someone of the statue of Adam Gopnick makes it even sweeter. I’ve read it four times, soon to be five. Read it slowly.




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