Making a Home for a Connecticut Yankee

If you know my handwriting, you know I didn’t work on this

I spend a lot of time reading, on a desktop screen. Some of it is my own writing, some the works of others, fiction and non, the subjects often about writing and the arts. Too much is the dreary news of the day, which mostly equals the dreary news of yesterday and a good bet to equal the misery of days to come. And I read the occasional novel on an iPad too.

But I always read a physical book during the day (or night) as well. Even when I read a great piece of writing online, something that moves me or provokes me, even when I nod in concert with the thoughts, note a sharp sentence, promise to look at something else the author’s written, something yet is missing.

What’s missing is what I can hold in my hands: a “real” book. So I had a special thrill when my girlfriend Alice’s sister moved out of San Francisco and into the Napa area recently, and engaged us to box up her book collection. She has a couple of different collector’s editions of literary works, back and forward from the 18th century to the 20th, all bound in lovely leather, various sizes and colors. It was tremendous fun simply to move them from shelf to box and gape at their glory.

So when she gave me as a reward A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, one of Mark Twain’s farcical fancies, I was stoked. It’s a hefty book, though only 300 pages. But broad enough so you could put a big sandwich on it, a glass of beer, an apple and some pie and still sneak in some peanuts.

The book is from the Collector’s Edition of Famous Editions, published by Easton Press in Connecticut, fitting for something about a Connecticut Yankee. The work is richly illustrated by Honoré Guilbeau, with the kind of chapter-heading red-ink rubrics you might see in a medieval monk’s manuscript, beholding to the 6th-century setting of the novel. It came with a bookplate, a book ribbon, a nicely done small brochure on its composition, and an intro written by Carl Van Doren in 1946 that includes some musings on medieval times, plus some pungent biographical notes on Twain.

I’d already read (and laughed through) Connecticut Yankee a couple times—it’s vintage Twain, railing against imperial estates and trappings, while throwing in many an inventive absurdity of the “fish out of water” type, though this big fish in this instance is shrewdly capable.

But it’s this book’s bookishness I want to remark on: such a pleasure to touch and smell its leather, flip through its flamboyant pages, feel its heft, admire its careful typography and design. However, it doesn’t take a collector’s edition of anything for me to take to a book like a fish in water. The paperback novel I’m reading right now (Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger) and the nonfiction hardcover (Surviving Paradise, by Peter Rudiak-Gould) I’m stepping through—both appealing books, those solid, unflappable transports to other worlds.

And good for putting on the bedside table and putting your glasses on top of at retiring time.

I published a piece on Medium a bit ago about how my mom’s obvious love of reading when I was a kid influenced my path in life; I expressed in more detail my feelings about books there.

Many are the benefits of electronic reading, but a book will always feel more like a friend to me.

How about you? Electrons or paper?

Linkability

Here are a couple of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Purple Prose and the Word Surgeon’s Scalpel

Unconsciously using too many “justs,” “verys,” “actuallys,” and other fluff evildoers in your prose? Cast them out! And those big words too. (Well, not all of them. Some are fetching.) Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in August 2021.

What One Distillery Did To Gain A New Whiskey Still With A Grand History

My piece on Stumpy’s Spirits, a small Illinois distillery that recently bought a large amount of 100-year-old still components—from Belgium, off the internet—and has reconstructed them for their own use. These guys did a whole lotta work. Published in August 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other Writers Posts

Five Small, Achievable Steps To Improving Your Wellbeing
“Being kind to another provides us with a sense of fulfilment, even if that is on a small level,” says Dr Charlotte Armitage, a Harley Street psychologist and psychotherapist. “Where we project kindness, this is usually reciprocated. This results in a feeling of connectedness, which encourages the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain. Both of these chemicals help us to feel good.”

How to Sleep Better: 5 Hacks for More Rest and Less Stress
“Sleep is probably the single most important health behavior we do every day,” Prichard says. “Pretty much all systems are enhanced when you get enough sleep and are impaired when you don’t get enough.”

10 things you can do now to save our planet
Resist excessive consumption: We do not need all those possessions. Buy less, and buy better. Reject the idea that consumption makes us happier and that we must always have new things to enhance our lives.

Our Brains Aren’t Built to Handle This Much Bad News
“There’s a ton of lifestyle stuff that will obviously help, too (exercise, healthy food, sleep). But more important than all that is monitoring your relationship to the news. Quit the doomscrolling. It’s not helping. It’s like a drive-by on your brain; no wonder you can’t wrap your head around 650,000 deaths, or a house that’s had its roof ripped off, if you’re staring for six seconds or so before moving on to the next thing.”

Improve A Low Mood With These 6 Ideas
“Walk. Often, our negative, repetitive thought-loops can be interrupted simply by a change in scenery combined with gentle exercise. A walk outside accomplishes both.”

Confessions of a Between-The-Margins Scribbler


Books have always seemed like magical things to me, from when I could barely hold one, through the long years to now. Because of that, and maybe more so because I never saw anyone in my house doing it, I never wrote in books. Even when I bought my books in college, and saw how many people would highlight material or write margin notes, such behavior seems almost sacrilegious to me.

But when I encountered things people wrote in the margins of books—“Not intuitive,” “Good point!” “Will be on test,” I always read them with fascination, particularly notes that were longer, and often that took issue with the author. (It’s always easier to argue with an author in his pages than in his face.)

That’s why when I saw the extensive marginalia (really, end-of-book blank-page marginalia) in Wade Davis’s One River, which my sweetie Alice is reading, I poured over it. That took some doing, and at some points a magnifying glass, because the writing was in a tiny scrawl. I am a person whose handwriting can give you liver failure, so I speak with authority.

The Davis book is nonfiction, its topic exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Why some reader took it upon him or herself to inscribe topics like “My Drug History” in the back of this book was puzzling, but gratifying. And why the writer would mingle “beer” and “coffee” amidst “DMT” and “Magic Mushrooms” was intriguing, but how much volume of drinking “Irish Cream” would cause one to note it as an entry in one’s drug history? And “Speed H20” was beyond any personal abuse of mine.

The most fascinating and extensive list on the pages is the “People I’d like to meet,” Perhaps this dates the writer, or the desired names were aspirational from the scribbler’s other reading, but among the luminaries:

Neal Cassady
Alan Watts
Albert Hoffmann (first synthesized LSD)
William Burroughs
Gary Snyder
Bukowski

He goes from these literary counterculture figures into bands and singers, i.e., The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones. But in another column there’s Mort Saul, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope, so he’s digging deeper than those tie-dyed 60s years. And there are interesting compositional distances between Margaret Mead and Ann Landers, but they are near each other in this writer’s pantheon.

There’s a “My Reading Record” area near a “Minds I’ve Entered Into…” but the material below that doesn’t seem to list books or minds, but titles of songs and events, like “Hands Across America.”

So, why did this person write these things, and why in this book? Alice is only a short way in, but what she’s said doesn’t indicate that the work is some kind of pantheon of the greats that might prompt such an exercise. Did the marginalist not want to buy a diary? The scribblings remind me a bit of what F. Scott Fitzgerald has the Gatsby character write to himself in his formative years: Rise from bed; dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling; study electricity; work; baseball and sports; practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it; study needed inventions.

Did this writer want to construct lists that told him he was on the right path, had tasted of stimulating minds, was a member in good standing of this coterie? I don’t know, but it made me wonder if I should write such a list.

Oh, there’s also a list titled “Mexico”:
Vitamins
2 Kerchiefs
3 Shirts
Red Jacket
Green Levis
Swim Trunks
Sandals

I didn’t see Frida Kahlo on the want-to-meet list, but if the writer included a good deal of food in that packing, they might be able to search for her ghost for a while. I’m not yet tempted to write my own confessions in the back of a book, but I do know Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be in my drug history.

The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.