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A Christmas Carol: The Book... 'to Begin With'

Marley was dead: to begin with.

It is one of my favorite opening lines in literature, though I hadn't read the classic holiday season tale by Charles Dickens in years, perhaps decades. Recently, however, I was inspired to revisit his world by 1) the publication last month of the fascinating A Christmas Carol: The Original Manuscript Edition (Norton), with a foreword by Colm Tóibín; and 2) a visit to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan last week, where the treasure itself--the one-of-a-kind manuscript--is displayed every year in Pierpont Morgan's paradisiacal library.

I'll admit, however, that my bookseller's soul was also touched (perhaps just a little Scrooge-like) when I learned about the Dickensian path this unique document took to reach its hallowed place under glass, near a monumental fireplace tastefully decorated with green garland and red ribbon. In his introduction to the new facsimile edition, Declan Kiely chronicles the book's journey to its recent meeting with me (well, not quite that detailed) as I sat for a long time on a cushioned bench, communing (not too strong a word, as it turned out) with an open book, its legacy and its ghosts.

After the printers had done their work in 1843, Dickens arranged for the loose manuscript pages to be bound in red morocco as a gift for his solicitor, friend and creditor Thomas Mitton. Five years after the author's death, in 1875, Mitton sold the manuscript for £50 (about $62) to Francis Harvey, a London bookseller who quickly found an eager buyer in Henry George Churchill, a private collector. Churchill decided to sell it in 1882 to a bookseller in Birmingham, where "crowds reportedly gathered there for an opportunity to view the manuscript before it was sold for £200 to the London booksellers Robson and Kerslake," Kiely writes. Soon after, Stuart M. Samuel purchased it for £300 as an investment, then he sold it in 1890 to London booksellers J. Pearson & Co. for £1,000. 

And now the retail plot reaches its final chapter. Sometime before 1900, Pierpont Morgan acquired the manuscript from Pearson. After his death in 1913, he bequeathed it to J.P. Morgan Jr., who subsequently established the Morgan Library in his father's honor.

On December 12, 1923, the New York Times reported: "Among the various kinds of riches in the Morgan Library on East Thirty-sixth Street, there is, kept very carefully, a particular treasure. It is not very old and it is not at all beautiful, but it is a very significant possession, for which its owner paid a high price, and on which he sets a high value. It is written in a well-known, scratchy hand--on sheets of yellowing paper, the manuscript of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol....

"Mr. Morgan's original manuscript is, of course, a well-nigh priceless treasure. And it is so less because it is the writing of a great work by a great novelist than because it is, in its genuineness and its intimacy, something that for nearly three-quarters of a century has been part of the thought of Christmas cheer, and that throughout the English-speaking world men and women and little children have loved."

As I communed in the library, I thought about this book as both a singular art object as well as the original container for a story that has been told worldwide for nearly two centuries, spawning myriad editions, illustrations and film/TV/stage adaptations. A Christmas Carol is a fundamental tale we share again and again, hoping to learn something new, or at least to remind ourselves of an important lesson about being human that seemed so obvious when we were children.

We... tend to forget.

The Morgan displays its bound manuscript open to just a single page. This year it is the end of Stave I. After his frightening encounter with Jacob Marley's ghost and the promise of more terrors to come, Scrooge watches the specter float away to join "the mournful dirge" outside. (Apparently "dirge" was not a frightening enough word for Dickens. You can see his insertion of the adjective "mournful" on the page.) Scrooge looks out of his bedroom window and sees:

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

When the vision ceases, Scrooge attempts to say 'Humbug!' but stops at the first syllable. His redemptive journey has begun.

In a foreword to the facsimile edition, Colm Tóibín observes: "The word dream has been transformed, has been taken from its dark, cold, lonely, fearful place and, instead of being a watchword for frightful imaginings, filled with mockery and unbearable visions, has come to mean an opening of the self, a way of reimagining the world. And so, with that change, from nightmare to sweet reality, from miserliness to giving, from misery to merriness, Christmas came into being. Courtesy of Dickens, we live in its shadow still and on one cheery, idealized day of the year, as we force Scrooge to appear as merely a distant warning to us all, we become the happy, jolly Cratchits."

'Tis that season: to begin with.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2902


Decorating an Indie Bookstore Christmas Tree

I love Christmas trees, but only as a spectator sport. In other words, I love other people's Christmas trees, which are now everywhere--posed fully decorated in house and store windows; strewn undecorated and for sale across parking lots like pop-up forests; or strapped triumphantly to the roofs of passing SUVs.

river's end bookstore's "book tree is trimmed!"

And in bookshops, of course, where you can go traditional like Paragraphs on Padre Boulevard, South Padre Island, Tex.; or new wave, as the river's end bookstore, Oswego, N.Y., did: "Our book tree is trimmed! And our gift wrappers are standing by (or sitting). We have our holiday catalog full of beautiful gift ideas (books!). And in the days to come we look forward to seeing you in the bookstore!"

Many bookstores have variations on the Northshire's Book Angel Program, featuring a tree decorated with paper angels that customers can buy to make a book donation for a child recommended by area schools and organizations.

This year, I'm trimming a monumental imaginary Christmas tree (Rockefeller Center would be jealous), its decorations handmade from the festive ideas, displays, events and pics that indie bookstores are publicizing nationwide. To find raw materials for these decorations, I went rummaging through boxes in my Internet attic. Here's just a sampling of what I found there (And the season is still young!):

Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.: "O.K., we know the holidays have officially arrived here at the Fairhaven store because--drum roll, please--our book tree is up!! Lovingly crafted by our own talented staffer, Laura, this darling decoration can be admired by all down at our used-book counter. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-lovely!!"

Bridgeside Books, Waterbury, Vt.: "Star Night @ Bridgeside Home! #starbrightstarnight" And: "Our giving tree is filling up beautifully! So many generous donations of amazing books for the Children's Literacy Foundation!"

Downtown Books, Manteo, N.C.: "First Friday! Music--wine--friends--dogs in Christmas sweaters--and Vivian Howard's cheese ball!!"

Viewpoint Books, Columbus, Ind.: "Three great ways to get in the holiday spirit today at Viewpoint Books: 1) Get 20% off all gifts purchased for Toys for Tots (donation box is here in the store!) plus 20% off one item on your shopping list for kids, too! 2) Advent calendars are still available and it's not too late to start! 3) Help us fill the Pajama Bag!... Thank you for joining us in celebrating the season!"

Let's Play Books, Emmaus, Pa.: "Almost ready to host our first event on the 3rd floor (or the CATtic)! We are looking forward to our Journey to the North Pole at Let's Play Books."

Brazos Bookstore's #bearddecorations

Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.: "Are y'all ready for our holiday open house tonight? We couldn't get merrier if we tried. #maxiumyuletide #beardbaubles #christmasbros #houstonevents #hipsterbeard #bearddecorations #booksellerlife #christmasparty #holidayparty." And: "When The Nutcracker comes on the holiday playlist and you just gotta dance... #bookseller #retaillife #christmasmusic #holidayplaylist #nutcracker #nutcrackerballet."

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City., Iowa: "Prairie Lights Gift Certificates make people happy. They may be redeemed in the bookstore or the cafe, and they NEVER EXPIRE..."

Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass.: "Today is our annual Holiday Open House, come have a cup of hot chocolate and some holiday treats!"

The Book Shop, Hayward, Calif.: "The Christmas Art Display in our window is presented by the Flying Phoebe Cloth Doll Club! This gingerbread village comes with a scavenger hunt in poetry form. Feel free to stop by and spend a few minutes with the display, then come inside and warm up with a book!"

House of Books, Kent, Conn.: "Santa Claus will be arriving by Fire Truck to House of Books at 10 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 17th! So stop by and get your picture taken with Santa and find the perfect gift for everyone on your Holiday List!"

Little Joe's Books, Katonah, N.Y.: "First Saturday in December means it's time for Holiday books!!!! #getexcited #katonahholiday #westchester #holiday #christmas #Chanukah"

Merry #Grinchmas at Liberty Bay Books

Liberty Bay Books, Poulsbo, Wash.: "We're getting into the #Christmas spirit now! Merry #Grinchmas from us here in Historic Downtown Poulsbo...."

And here's a little holiday music, courtesy of Bookbug, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Main Point Books, Wayne, Pa.; and Sparta Books, Sparta, N.J.

On Monday, I was in New York City for a few days, and took time out for what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit my primary Christmas tree and its 18th-century Neapolitan Baroque Crèche. A few hours later, I was walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side, where every couple of blocks yet another Christmas tree vendor had staked a sidewalk claim. One of them displayed larger trees at the curb, along with a few diminutive trees near the storefront. Above the latter a sign of the times read: "Gluten-free Christmas trees." In with the old, in with the new.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2897


If You Could Have Dinner With...

You've seen, heard or posed the question. The New York Times Book Review's "By the Book" series asks it this way: "You're organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?"

I once considered the question in an essay, imagining a dinner in 19th century Concord with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. But the fantasy came with a reality check: "Given my working-class heritage, though, I'd probably have been serving them soup."

Mark Twain's 70th birthday dinner at Delmonico's in New York City

This week, the birthday of another notable Concord resident sparked renewed consideration of literary dinner parties, and the stakes were raised dramatically when I discovered other potential guests lurking nearby.

Louisa May Alcott turned 184 and C.S. Lewis 118 on Tuesday, just a day before Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens hit 181 years old and Jonathan Swift a spry 349.

They all still look good for their ages--books in print, myriad biographies and scholarly works available, and perennial international media coverage of their birthdays. If you're a dead author, who could ask for anything more?

I was propelled down this rabbit hole of dead author birthday awareness when Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio, shared a Facebook post from Books with a Past, Glenwood, Md., featuring a necklace and Alcott's words: "She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain." I knew it was time to send out the invitations and consider topics for discussion.

Louisa May Alcott
C.S. Lewis (photo: The Wade Center)

In a Guardian piece headlined "Louisa May Alcott: a practical utopian from a divided U.S.," Rafia Zakaria observed that while she "may have balked at or been baffled by many of the conventions of today's America--being the subject of a Google Doodle might have surprised her--the divisions of its politics dominated once again by race and inequality would not have surprised her. The postbellum U.S. into which Little Women was released had been racked by its disagreements over slavery, the southern half couching its support for slavery in the language of economic survival. This year's presidential election, coming more than 150 years after the end of the civil war, pivoted once again on the maintenance of white privilege, cast now in the coded vocabulary of lost manufacturing jobs."

And on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog, I found this conversation starter from Lewis:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.

Then I went to my own bookshelves for Mark Twain's RSVP and found it in the first volume of his autobiography:

I believe that the trade of the critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value--certainly no large value.... However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. Meantime, I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that.

The frosting on this conversational birthday cake was re-reading Jonathan Swift's wicked, brutally satiric essay "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public."

Is there room for one more guest?

Another November 29 birthday celebrant, the late Madeleine L'Engle (a mere 98 extended years old), said in a 1983 lecture at the Library of Congress:

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

What a conversation this is going to be. Is there even room for me, sitting silently and in awe, at the table? Well, I did fall down a rabbit hole, after all, so: "The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: 'No room! No room!' they cried out when they saw Alice coming. 'There's PLENTY of room!' said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table."

Let's get this literary birthday dinner party started.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2892


#NaNoWriMo: Are a Gazillion Books Too Many? 

November is National Novel Writing Month, but that isn't what this column is about. Let it be noted for the record, however, that cool things are happening: Appletree Books, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has local authors sitting in the front windows "furiously scribbling or pecking out their masterpieces as cars and pedestrians pass by on Cedar Road." And Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago is "putting together its own novella, written by a community of employees and patrons." Owner Rebecca George said "the exquisite corpse method--different writers writing one chapter at a time until the project is finished--has helped ease the pressure of reaching such a high word count while also serving as a community builder."

More than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, according to the organization's website. These include Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Last week, bestselling author Brandon Sanderson tweeted: "Stormlight 3 is going well. Hope to finish it this month, for #NaNoWriMo. This is still my playlist for the writing."

Novelist in the window, at Appletree Books

I like the concept of NaNoWriMo, though I've never been tempted to participate. This year, however, media coverage of novelquest has prompted me think not so much about how many books are being written right this second (Can you hear the symphonic keyboards?), but how many are already "out there." I'm like some kind of biblioastronomer, gazing in awe at the mysterious bookish heavens and wondering: In our infinitely wordy, Big Book Bang Theory universe, can there simultaneously be too many, too few and just the right number of books?

A decade ago in a blog post, I wrote: "If a gazillion books published every year seems like too many, maybe a gazillion books stored in digital memory and printed as needed is not too many. Here's the deal: We just don't know. Yet." And I'm still curious.

One logical theory was posted Tuesday on the Facebook page of Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, Okla.: "Too many books? I think what you mean is 'not enough bookshelves.' " 

We know books defy time, even when they come up against the limits of shelf space. Borges's "Library of Babel" is an infinite universe, while the New York Public Library's collection is a finite and yet, apparently, unstable planet:

In just the past decade, vexingly different figures have been reported--1.8 million in the New York Times in 2009, four million by the Associated Press in 2013. The library and its current president, Anthony W. Marx, seemed content until two years ago to put the number at about three million, although the figure of 3.5 million had long been used, and appears in the lead paragraph of a Times article from Oct. 1, 1905. (Puzzlingly, the headline says 4.5 million.)

I have some questions.

Was it really better when we had fewer books? Well, Atlas Obscura featured a piece headlined "Protect Your Library the Medieval Way, with Horrifying Book Curses." During the Middle Ages, "creating a book could take years.... Given the extreme effort that went into creating books, scribes and book owners had a real incentive to protect their work. They used the only power they had: words. At the beginning or the end of books, scribes and book owners would write dramatic curses threatening thieves with pain and suffering if they were to steal or damage these treasures." To wit:

If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

How many books are there? Mental Floss took a shot at answering that devilish question recently, noting that when Gutenberg "invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn't have foreseen how his humble creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out millions of books each year.... After some basic arithmetic, it seems that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total. And that's all she wrote--for now, anyway."

Is overproduction a blessing or a curse or neither? Does it really matter? In the New York Review of Books last year, Tim Parks wrote: "How to respond, then, to this now permanent condition of overproduction? With cheerful skepticism. With gratitude for those rare occasions when we come across a book that speaks to us personally. With forgiveness for those critics and publishers who induce us to waste our time with some literary flavor of the day. Absolutely without indignation, since none of this is anyone's particular 'fault.' Above all with a sense of wonder and curiosity at the general and implacable human determination (mine included) to fill endless space with dubious mental material when life is short and there are so many other things to be done."


Where do we go from here? Book people can be a patient species--turtles with no delusions of hare. Last year, more than 400,000 folks participated in NaNoWriMo, and 1,012 libraries, bookstores and community centers took part in the Come Write In program. But this column isn't about that.

Are a gazillion books too many? Nah. Though as Arby's so eloquently put it last week: "We're going to need a lot more sauce... #NaNoWriMo."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2884


A Day for Eugene Mirabelli 

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

--From "Distressed Haiku" by Donald Hall

Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.

November 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba--a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)--the 85-year-old author "touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft."

As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before--and after--Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns... and works.

When I read Mirabelli's two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter's narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.

"Anybody who's written a first-person novel knows that you're going to be identified with the narrator," Mirabelli told his audience. "My wife died after I'd written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication."

Joseph Bruchac, Bruce McPherson & Eugene Mirabelli

Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife's death, Mirabelli recalled that "for two or three years I didn't feel like writing at all. And my friends said, 'Oh you're a writer, you'll write.' That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted.... not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.

"And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn't write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what.... And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn't unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion.... But grief is something you've never felt unless somebody you love has died. It's a remarkably unique emotion.... One of the curious things is how similar people's experiences can be while being unique in all the details."

Mirabelli added: "It's funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it's a life-affirming story.... I didn't intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird... I went back to Renato, The Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don't know how that happened, but it just happened."

His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: "I've been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he's been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding's Tom Jones through Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth and Donleavy's The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance."

Grief is a funny thing.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2879