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Books about Bookstores

“I became a writer, a teller of tales,” he once said, “because otherwise I would have died, or worse.”  Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1964–2020]

My reading list lately has been crowded with books about bookstores. An old friend once joked (in all seriousness, I believe) that his notion of retirement was the management of a bar-bookstore-travel agency, because it combined his three favorite activities. I can applaud two of them.

There is always Fahrenheit 451, and 84, Charing Cross Road is in a class by itself. I didn’t get very far in A Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. But “The Library of Babel”, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, has been on my reading list for far too long. Then another Spanish-language writer stepped ahead of him: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who created a quartet in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. Last night (or early this morning) I finished Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and am about to begin The Midnight Library by Matt Haig:

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Regrets I have aplenty. And I’d almost welcome an opportunity to reflect on what might have been. But only to confirm the choices made, no matter how ill-conceived.

There’s a blog entry here about Agincourt’s once-upon-a-time dealer in used and the occasional rare book which I probably need to expand. It’s already the end of October and I’ve not written very much.

ἅπαξ λεγόμενον


Sarah Ruden’s introduction to her new translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass mentions the hapax legomenon, the thing said only once. Oh, would that I could claim as much for telling the Agincourt story, which, if anything can be said of it, is repetitive.

Translators of literature are the most admirable of writers: their indelible imprint is in the translated text, yet they themselves do not stand between author and audience. “Catalyst” is the wrong word, because the chemical reaction it sets in motion leaves the catalyst intact; it changes but is unchanged. Surely, for translators this can not be true — though as a monolinguist how would I know.

Ruden’s introduction reminds us that language has its quirks — idiom, figures of speech, dozens of them — and of the difficulty maintaining that quirkiness through translation. My first conscious encounter with the translator’s art was Andrew Bromfield’s masterful conversion of the novels of Georgian author Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili (a.k.a., Boris Akunin), where Bromfield somehow manages to retain the vernacular of a Japanese accent heard by a fictional Russian ear, then written by a Georgian author and rendered into English. Might I prefer a meeting with Bromfield over one with Akunin? Probably.

The hapax legomenon, the thing said only once, is infrequent in my experience. A case decades ago became the wound that never healed until, that is, words like acid reflux issued from my mouth — a thing said only once — that ended our “möbius friendship,” the kind that have just one side. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, for that was a moment of difference between theatre and drama; the act and the actual have rarely been more clear.

Teaching (that thing I do for money) is hardly hapax-atory. Each academic season for fifty years in the metaphoric saddle of acadême, however, I know that each class is unique; each class meeting will be like none other because both they and I are not who we were on Tuesday last. Did the Greeks have a phrase for the thing said often but never quite the same?

In the final tally, I will have said few things only once: “Will you marry me?” and “I do.” “You can put this job some place dark and moist!” or “I quit.”  And, of course, those few words that will be said as my eyes close for the last time. What do you suppose they’ll be?

“It was a long time coming. But I’m glad that it’s finally here.” I’ll be beyond saying that again.

Seamus Tierney [1933-2011]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

TIERNEY, Seamus [1933–2011]

“Templehof Hafen” 

watercolor on paper / 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches


Seamus Tierney is known in the community primarily as a theatre director and playwright. But his local career was interrupted by service in the U.S. Army. Stationed at various bases in West Germany during the 1950s, Tierney became part of an airlift to Berlin during its life as a divided city. He had time to make several quick studies of the city, in this case the harbor near Templehof Airport. Inscribed on the reverse in Tierney’s handwriting is a fuller explanation in German: “Industrieanlagen im Hafen vom alten West-Berlin, im Hintergrund das Ullstein-Haus in Tempelhof.” [Industrial plants in the port of old West Berlin, in the background the Ullstein House in Tempelhof.] Since Tierney worked as an artist in woodcut, he probably intended this as a study for the more tedious process of carving the woodblock.

Cousin Enriqueta

You know it as a psychological disorder, horror vacuii — a fear of emptiness — but it’s also attributed to Aristotle as a truism of science: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” In this case that vacuum is ignorance, anything I’ve recently discovered as a void in my knowledge base. Fear not: I am blessed with far more void that information. Plenty of room to fill.

A recent discovery — maybe that should be “uncovery” — concerns the history of the John Rylands Library in Manchester, a favorite building of mine, designed by architect Basil Champneys. [Why do I remember shit like this?] Someone looked up Rylands and discovered his wife Enriqueta — whose statue stands opposite his at the ends of the library’s reading room — was born Enriqueta Augustina TENNANT in Havana, Cuba in 1843. My thoughts immediately turned to the ways she might be related to the hero of our tale here in Agincourt, Anson Tennant.

To give Anson both a back story and a future, I had invented a family tree for him extending four generations back and two forward and was feeling pretty satisfied with myself. Now this new challenge has been thrust in my face: How can I related the fictional Anson Curtiss Tennant to the very real and entirely admirable Mrs Rylands? At best, she and Anson could be fifth cousins or fourth cousins once removed.