Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An "Old Fashioned Christmas" from England

(Robin's note: I've been telling you about one of my favorite holiday books, Treasury of Old Fashioned Christmas Stories, edited by one of my favorite people, writer Michele Slung. She's in England for Christmas, so appropriate for Michele, who has always looked as if she belonged in an English cottage, curled up by a coal fire, sipping a cup of tea. In fact, I think that is exactly what she was doing, when she sent us this lovely Guest Blog ... )

Michele near her farmhouse in upstate New York.

Christmas Eve morning, East Anglia from Michele Slung

"Any book you've never read is a new one" was the message printed on a sign I saw long ago in a secondhand bookstore --- and it seemed one of the most perfect pieces of plain truth I'd ever encountered. Inhabiting a culture, as we do, that, faster than ever before, changes its touchstones, icons, shibboleths and avatars, I often wonder what it is about the past that so offends. The answer's, in fact, an easy one: the newly packaged, the freshly dreamed up, the smartly branded, the hot, the hip and the the already-selling-out are where the money is.

Just not my money.

A shabby, faded volume, missing its dustjacket and sitting a-tilt on the farthest back shelf of a side-street shop, may look rejectable to most, but, to me, it's all about the intoxicating possibility it promises. (In the thirty years I spent as a frequent reviewer for the New York Times, the Washington Post and others ---an activity I've now finally, and happily, renounced --- I was actually always faking it, preferring for my real reading pleasure books forgotten for decades by any assigning editor.) Clearly, I'm addicted to the thrill of discovery, and, as someone who's also made a good deal of her income by assembling anthologies in various genres, I'm also hooked on sharing my finds.

As I write now, I'm in England, where I've come to spend every Christmas since the late 1980s and where I was first introduced to a story of just the sort I love, one that had passed from memory for several generations. "Innocents'Day" by F. M. Mayor, the tale of a spinster and her genteel illusions, became one of the inspirations and then one of the cornerstones of the last collection I published, A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories (Carroll & Graf/RunningPress, 2006). Its author, Flora Mayor, in fact, happens to be the great aunt of the friend with whom I regularly eat my turkey and mince pies (not mention the breadsauce, brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding and Stilton), which is how I came to know of her. Far from a household name, she died in 1932, and yet two of her three much-admired novels --- The Rector's Daughter and The Third Miss Symons --- are still available in those splendid Virago paperback reprints.

Such serendipity is the very essence of the assemblages I try to create for the reading joy of like-minded souls. Later, as I began in earnest to work on the Treasury, having three or four themed oddities already chosen, I headed from my farmhouse in upstate New York down to Washington and the Library of Congress, where I then spent five eleven-hour days (each of which went by in a flash), sniffing out the names of tantalizing, lost Christmas stories.

Requesting and then reading them, I sat there, almost invisible behind the tall stacks the clerks kept bringing from the stacks. Among my favorite finds: Willis Boyd Allen's Dickensian "Mrs. Brownlow's Christmas Party," John Kendrick Bangs' satiric "The Child Who Had Everything But" and the environmentally prescient "A Christmas White Elephant" by W. A. Wilson.(In all cases -- in every story in the book, really -- the Christmas we read about is little different from the one we celebrate today.) But perhaps my greatest triumph was to be able to present a humorously heartwarming Christmas tale by O. Henry that isn't "The Gift of the Magi!"

Who wouldn't want to read for a living?

(Robin's note: it makes a wonderful last minute gift. Just send it via Amazon.)

Michele is also the author of Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say and this photo is of Michele with a painting of her grandmother, Minnie Magidson, whose sayings, in a way, got the whole thing started.

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Elizabeth said...

Hi Robin,
I have been enjoying your blog and wish you a very Merry Christmas. Safe traveling this holiday season! Libby Crockett, Kissimmee, Fl


Ms. Robin Chapman

Second hand book-stores were my favorite spot, only second to the university library. But the availability of all the classics on net has lessened the utility of those mountains of books I had collected in seventies and eighties.

Naval Langa

Robin Chapman said...

I'm with you on that Naval: I had 80 boxes of books when I first moved to Florida and now I realize I don't have to lug them all around but can find them on Abe Books and Amazon. Bit of a relief to my movers! Merry Christmas.