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.



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