Message in a Bottle
Searching for Souvenirs of the Vast Dying Sea

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Garrison Keillor shared the poem below, “Searching” by Billy Collins, the other day through his Writer’s Almanac, and it struck a chord because it reminded me of myself.

I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,

and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.

The sheer paleness of her looms over
all the notable names and dates
as the evening strollers stop before her

and point to show their children.
These locals called her Snowflake,
and here she has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive
and helping her, despite her name, to endure
in this poem where she has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

I read a lot (because there’s so much great writing out there) and I often read too quickly (did I mention how much great writing is out there?) so the details of books, however enthusiastic I am about them, tend to get fuzzy pretty fast. For example, I loved the phantasmagoric novel Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu and wrote about it only a few months ago, but pressed to describe it today, only the scene where terrifed villagers ride on sledges through the snow springs clearly to mind. The rest is a kaleidoscope of scattered images and phrases.

The book about Barcelona that Collins mentions is likely Barcelona by Robert Hughes, although there he incorrectly calls the animal “Snowball.” Some research must have preceded the publication of this apparently offhand verse. The admission of forgetfulness about Anna Karenina that Collins recalls comes from author Nicholson Baker. He writes about the failures of literary memory in his idiosyncratic tribute to John Updike, U and I:

Almost all of literature capsizes and decays in deep corrosive oceans of totaled recall. I remember almost nothing of what I read. What once was Portrait of a Lady is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; Anna Karenina survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey; Pnin is a submerged aquamarine bowl; The Rock Pool's cab meter still ticks away, showing a huge sum, but the Mediterranean has taken over the rest of the resort town of Trou-sur-Mer; an antelope from some otherwise blank Christopher Isherwood short story springs wonderfully up out of oblivion “like a grand piano”; the ample landfall I think I have sighted in Paradise Lost turns out to be the “scaly rind” of the Leviathan in the first book; and even Alan Hollinghurst’s stunning The Swimming-Pool Library, which I am right now in the process of reading, haven’t yet finished, have no excuse for forgetting, already hangs suspended in my inhospitable memory merely as a group of “sodden sticking plasters” fluttering, as he describes them, like an undersea plant near the grate of a water filter. My quality of recollection may be more atomistically image-hoarding than some, yet the twice-ten-thousand-cavern-glutting expanse and depth of the “vast dying sea” of the once read, over which we all permanently and cheerfully row and pole and sail according to our talents, unless our sense of a particular work is stimulated by review writing, the commemorative essay, teaching, an imminent exam, or the hasty once-over that a dinner guest seems to feel is necessary before he or she meets the writer after a long interval, is the most important feature of all reading lives.

Need I say that this passage is almost the only part of Baker’s oeuvre that lingers strongly in my mind, existing alongside a Joycean snowfall of sugar packets from his novel The Mezzanine?

Looking at literature this way, as nothing more than a florilegium of disconnected phrases, would seem to diminish its importance, but I don’t agree. The rich, immersive experience of reading isn’t invalidated because books don’t stay complete in memory like mammoth carcasses in tar pits. You can’t clone a dinosaur from an ancient bone, but the fossilized fragments of our reading, even single words, can bring books back to life or something like it. Florilegium is a case in point; I learned it from Baker, and now every time I encounter it he appears before me, arms full of odd-sized volumes, like a bearded, beatific ghost.

Marco Polo didn’t undertake an adventure of two dozen years’ duration just to bring back a single souvenir, but that would be enough motivation for a writer to make the trip. The journey is its own reward, and a cheap memento is a bonus. In Springer’s Progress, David Markson interrogates himself about what he hopes to gain from his writing and answers, “With luck a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl’s midnight underlining." You say ambition should be made of sterner stuff? Nah. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? If I pass through a Paradise of pages in a dream and have just one flower presented to me as a pledge that my soul had really been there, that’s enough.

By the way, though “Searching” refers to “she,” Snowflake was in fact a male gorilla. An intentional mistake by Collins to further emphasize his poem’s truth? I wouldn’t put it past him.

—James

The Library of Forgotten Books

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April 23rd is the International Day of the Book. It’s official—the UN passed a declaration about it in 1995. Why did they pick that date? Well, it’s Shakespeare’s birthday, for one thing. It’s also La Diada de Sant Jordi, a major holiday in Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia since the fifteenth century. In English, we call it St. George’s Day.

Historically, Catalonian men gave women roses on that day, and women gave men a book to celebrate the occasion—”a rose for love and a book forever.” In modern times, the books go to both genders, and half of all books sold in the region every year are exchanged on April 23rd.

A few years ago, an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas decided to bring this tradition to the US. At the time, the employees at BookPeople were very excited about a new novel called The Angel’s Game by Barcelona native Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s a marvelously atmospheric thriller that features a secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few. According to tradition, each initiate of this clandestine place is allowed to take one book from it and must protect it for life. So the good people of BookPeople each chose a favorite volume that had fallen out of favor, and they spent the month around St. George’s Day promoting those titles and competing to see which one reached the most new readers.

Flash forward to 2013, when we at Island Books have decided to steal … er, borrow this fabulous idea and create our own Library of Forgotten Books. Our highly literate staff has selected an assortment of wonderful volumes that haven’t gotten the love they deserve. At least not lately. There’s a little something for everyone on the list. Our selections include a heartfelt memoir of a marriage of opposites, essays on old New York, and writing about the singular pleasures of the table, not to mention novels of death and war, love and delight, and the unfettered possibilities of the imagination.

Give one (or more) of them a good home, won’t you? Though they’re not brand new, the stories are far from stale. Of course you can visit our website to see all the titles, but you’ll want to come into the store to page through them in person. Books like these are most alive when you hold them in your hands. As they say in Catalonia, a book is forever. As long as someone remembers it.

—James

B is for Book, Among Other Things

It’s probably the imminent end of summer that’s got me thinking about travel and all the places I didn’t go this year. To put a positive spin on it, I’m getting a head start on planning for a fantastic vacation next year, if only in fantasy. As I was nodding off last night, imagining the thousand places to see before I die and wondering how to restrict myself to a reasonable number, I had the goofy idea of visiting only those cities that started with a particular letter of the alphabet. But which? Maybe I wasn’t exhaustive enough, but I pretty quickly decided on the letter that gave me the best options and began assembling my reading list. All aboard for …

Barcelona: Castles, cathedrals, and culture abound in this Catalan capital, but the food and weather alone would make it worth a visit. Richard Hughes’s Barcelona is a fantastic history and guidebook to the riches it offers, and any number of novelists and storytellers have beautifully painted the city’s portrait. Mercè Rodoreda is one of its most noted native authors, but for sheer fun, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a tale of intrigue and romance along shadowy streets and dusty libraries, can’t be beat. It’s the kind of intellectual conspiracy mystery that Dan Brown can only aspire to.

Bucharest: Romania’s years behind the Iron Curtain kept its unique charms hidden for many years, but its capital is now easily accessible. Filip Florian’s The Days of the King provides an amusing, imaginative look at how the country carved itself a place between larger empires such as the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Speaking of the latter …

Budapest: Widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the city is divided by the Danube River, and served for centuries as the crossroad between Western and Eastern cultures. Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies attempts to sum up much of Hungary’s history through the story of one aristocratic family, while Gyula Krudy and Ferenc Karinthy evoke different kinds of dreamy strangeness in their shorter works.

Bruges and Brussels: Two delightful stops in one delightful country. The gorgeous canals of the former gave it the title “Venice of the North,” and Georges Rodenbach captured its melancholy quality in Bruges-la-Morte, a book that inspired innumerable pilgrimages by gloomy young people—the Goths of their day—in the early part of the 20th century. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, but it’s also the capital of the art of comics. The leading name here is Tintin, whose adventures are fun for all ages. Steven Spielberg’s epic movie should prove that all over again when it’s released in late December. And we can’t forget that B also stands for beer—Belgium is certainly the greatest brewing nation on earth. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof: All Belgian Beers.

Bath: This English resort town deserves a visit for many reasons, but the main one is to pay homage to the memory of the inestimable Jane Austen, one of the most tough-minded and technically perfect novelists who ever lived. How she put those skills in the service of such superficially humorous and entertaining romances is one of the wonders of the world. Her Persuasion is my favorite of her works and conveniently, the most Bath-centric as well.

Bordeaux: This gives us a jumping-off point for the entire wine region of France, and I don’t suppose I have to convince anyone to spend some valuable vacation time there. Robert Parker’s guide is known as “The Bible” by oenophiles everywhere.

Bombay: OK, so I suppose we really should be calling it Mumbai, but I’m leaving it on the itinerary anyway. You could spend a lifetime here and not see it all, but Salman Rushdie came as close as anyone to describing it in Midnight’s Children, a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1981. Not only that, it won the so-called Booker of Bookers as the best of all such winners in 1993, and capped things off by doing it again for the 40th anniversary of the prize in 2008. It’s like the Meryl Streep of fiction.

Bangkok: John Burdett’s sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious series of mysteries set in one of the most exotic cities in the world kicks off with Bangkok 8, a perfect book to pull out of your pocket when you’re stuck in an elephant traffic jam.

Buenos Aires: At least two monumentally important authors have called this city home, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. I’m sure both of them enjoyed a glass of wine, a hearty steak, and a tango when they weren’t writing their signature works, Ficciones and Hopscotch.

Boston: Back on home shores, we can explore one of our oldest cities with all its Revolutionary history, while savoring its recent sports success (or rooting against it, as I would). Dennis Lehane has become something of a local laureate, mostly by writing contemporary mysteries and thrillers set in the seedier parts of town, but his The Given Day takes on the sprawling, brawling Boston of the period just after the first world war, depicting two families, one black, one white, swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses, Brahmins and ordinary citizens, all engaged in a battle for survival and power.

Brooklyn: Now it’s just one borough among five, but it was once one of the largest cities in America in its own right. Too many writers have made Brooklyn their home to choose one emblematic figure, but we don’t have to—Evan Hughes recently covered them all in Literary Brooklyn, a survey of a place that’s becoming to this decade what Paris was to the ’20s.

Whew. I haven’t even mentioned Berlin, Beirut, Bogota, Beijing, Bergen, Brisbane, Bern, Bologna, Berkeley, Belfast, Belmopan, or Blubber Bay, British Columbia yet, but the jet lag might kill us if I do. I’m pretty sure my chosen letter is unbeatable, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet in case anyone thinks it can be topped.

James

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