Magazine article The New Yorker

Two Emmas

Magazine article The New Yorker

Two Emmas

Article excerpt

Late on February nights when my circling mind returns to our summer cottage in Maine, it often fastens on the books stuffed into two narrow but tall bookshelves that face each other there on opposite sides of our ill-lit living room. Paperbacks for the most part, they are survivors of a rigorous multi-summer select-and-toss procedure, which is to say that every one has been read or reread and then put back up there again for the second or third or fourth time, perhaps to be read again someday. "Good Behaviour," "Endurance," "Framley Parsonage," "Get Shorty," "Daisy Miller," "Dracula," "Butterfield 8," "Goodbye to All That," "Why Did I Ever," "Oblomov," "The Heart of the Matter," "Sailing Days on the Penobscot," "The Moonstone," "Possession," "Morte d'Urban," "Quartet," "Emma" . . . there are many dozens more. I know these beauties so well that I can see the shelf and almost the slot where each one belongs. Our "Emma" is a slim little hardback, in the old pinkish-red Everyman's Library edition. Three or four of the scattered Evelyn Waughs come in that crimson hardback edition, but "Scoop" was briefly left out in a shower one afternoon--I think by a daughter--and is thus thicker and paler than the others. Other fat books--"Martin Chuzzlewit," "Orley Farm," "The Forsyte Saga," and the like--are in paperback, and wait to get taken down during one of those tedious weeks of Down East fog.

It's a kick for me to think of these arrayed words and sentences and pages sitting in the dark at about nine degrees, with the wind battering at the closed-up shutters and our old house groaning and creaking in the night, and our library waiting there for us to come back again in summer. Then my wife, Carol, and I and maybe a visiting niece will be sitting on our porch reading, and now and then raising our gaze to the glittering adjacent bay.

There's a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. Yes, we really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please. My first vacation book this year will be like my first swim, a venture into assured bliss. This summer, I mean, I could be starting with Margaret Drabble's "The Garrick Year," a 1964 novel preserved in a bendy, yellowing old paperback so popular at our place that it resembles a leftover picnic sandwich. It's a short, romantic novel about actors and the theatre and marriage and sex and babies, written when Drabble was twenty-four years old--it's her second novel--and married to an actor, Clive Swift, and both were members of the Royal Shakespeare Company. …

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