Black and White and Read All Over

It seems that, every year, the next few weeks are more intensely reflective ones for me, as they bring memories of the last few weeks of my mother’s life, and I tend to re-live moments from those sad, beautiful days when the year turns and rolls again through their anniversaries. As always, I take comfort on the trail and from my blessed companions, both the 2 and 4-legged.

There is something, too, so soothing about the black and white world winter creates: the chickadees and downy woodpeckers at the feeder, the birch tree in its leafless and elegant grace, the silhouettes of the ash and oak trees in relief against the backdrop of the snow-glazed river, the bridge rails against the white hills, the crows punctuating the great blank page of sky, even my sweet black lab-border collie companions: This morning, I easily imagined Fred and Ginger waltzing towards me down the trail, all white satin, sequins, and black tails…

 Suddenly jolted in my own precarious ambulation, I grabbed for a tree branch and steadied myself, as Fred and Ginger faded away—poof!—instantly replaced by the patch of ice I’d just obliviously tempted to rearrange my face. Whew! Close one. Better to forget about dancing cheek to cheek and focus on the path itself: odds are fairly certain that there would be no imminent Astaire and Rogers-like sightings.

In addition to risking hypothermia and broken limbs, any trail dancers would also have been assailed by the strange falling moisture we’ve experienced today. It’s been a mercurial mix of rain and snow interspersed with salvos of graupel and soft sprays of mist. A balmy 35°, our walk nonetheless felt chilly as the dampness seeped boneward and the wind whipped rudely through every opening it could. The trail was deep in runny slush mushed over a bed of ice, and my pants were soaked to my knees. It became tiring to slip, slide, and remain vertical, and our walk began to feel a bit more like duty than pleasure, so I promised myself a reward and reviewed the possibilities, although I already knew which I’d choose.

The black and white beauty of winter seemed best observed from inside today, seated in my cozy chair, with hot tea and the comforting black and white of a beloved book. I decided if I could finish writing a troublesome chapter by two o’clock, I could relax with a “good book” for a couple of hours this afternoon.

And then, as always, I yearned for the days when my catalogs from A Common Reader arrived in my mailbox and a few nights of bibliophilic ecstasy (don’t knock what you know not of, Gentle Reader) awaited me. It was the best book catalog in the universe. Ever. Maybe the best “whatever” catalog (excluding the Whole Earth Catalog and a few gardening catalogs). Archie Mcphee catalogs and their brilliant copy come close, but gag gifts, while highly entertaining, are a few orbits out from the inner ring of bliss created by books. 

What I loved and miss most about the erudite and magical A Common Reader were the many introductions it offered to books and authors I would otherwise never have met, books which have become mine, and authors whom I have grown to love. Through A Common Reader, I met books that are obscure, unique, fascinating, unheralded by the marketing-driven publishing world, and which have become all the more treasured for this.

I recently thinned my library, clearing bookshelves, floor space, and tabletops; ridding my collection of (most of) the duplicated books I owned; earnestly re-dedicating refrigerator shelves once again to food, and giving back the full use of their dog kennels to Riley and Clancy (although I think Riley, finally, was beginning to enjoy P.G. Wodehouse).

Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that drastic, but to have shelves neatly lined with volumes only one-book deep and all my “secret places”  in cupboards and nooks vacant once again has made me forget my original purpose was to achieve just that. To be fair, there are a few gaps here and there where a volume or two may neatly and fit.

I am learning that I naturally seek to fill spaces in my home and heart with books and gardens and friends, though some spaces, I think, just become part of us…little placeholders marking the heart’s private rooms, where we go in memory to visit people and places too dear and too precious to replace.

Since my recent book sorting, however, I’ve been able to limit my purchases (so far) to only two used books (autobiographical writing by Jessamyn West; a novel by Rumer Godden I didn’t yet own). Of course, I saved all the books purchased from A Common Reader and those recommended by beloved critics and friends. For years, Robert W. Wells created amazing book reviews for The Milwaukee Journal. He led me to the book,AugustusCarp, Esq.: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Sir Henry Howarth Bashford, a British physician. (I think you might be able to read it online, here, but recommend you find a copy to treasure in your own favorite chair. Be sure to have a mug of maginificent tea–or whatever:

It is still one of the funniest books I have ever read, the kind that makes me laugh out loud, howl, snort: for me, it’s that funny. Phillip and I recite lines to one another and, after all these years, make ourselves laugh in places and situations where we really shouldn’t. (“I apologize to the moisture.” “…he is now in the full flower of his southern Metropolitan Xtian manhood.”)

I believe that, as I’ve finished re-writing the vexing chapter that faced me today, it’s a good time for laughs with Augustus. A fine reward.(Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so, that I can barely speak…)

I would love to hear if you have favorite “obscure books,” or books well-suited for cheering the spirit when days become gloomy. I have found this online book catalog to be interesting:, but am still mourning my loss of A Common Reader.

There are relationships that, once ended, are never able to be replaced, nor should they be. And that is sacred and well.

For me, it’s black and white.

6 thoughts on “Black and White and Read All Over

  1. Yes, a few treasured, hard-read books …..
    “Art and Lies” by Jeanette Winterson.

    “Jade” and all the other young adult books by Sally Watson (now back in print, if you have any young girls who could use some spunk and character building!), found again over a chance article in The Utne Review just this November. They had been lost to me forever, I thought, after the crushing horror forty years ago of an emptied Public Library shelf, combined with my knowing only “they’re on the W shelf”.

    I love this blog,

    • Thank you for visiting and for sharing book titles! I’m especially grateful because these are both new to me and I’m eager to read about Jade, and art/lies! Isn’t it wonderful synchronicity that you were able to re-connect with Sally Watson’s books? I love when that happens. For years, I kept an eye open for two books I chanced upon and then loved when I was young. One was by Joan North (Cloud Forest) and the other was by Alison Uttley (A Traveller in Time). I recently found them online and hope to read them again soon…

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