Friday January 14th, 2011

Stendhal and the Ponies

stendhal2For the last three years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend New Year’s week at a house in Massachusetts with a group of eight to 10 friends, Big Chill-style (minus the funeral and most of the collective self-loathing). One highlight of each visit is a trip to the local library, which is always giving away books that time of year.

My two best finds this year were a book and a bookmark. First, the book, To the Happy Few, a selected collection of Stendhal’s letters. I haven’t had time to read many of them yet, but I’m looking forward to digging in. This is the start of a letter he wrote to his sister Pauline on April 10, 1800, when he was 17:

I cannot at all understand your silence, my dear Pauline. What can be the occupations that prevent you from writing to me? Dancing, I would suppose, were we not in Lent. But I’ll wager you one thing: you are thinking to yourself that you must carefully prepare your letter and make a rough draft of it. That’s the stupidest folly that can possess one, for, to have a good epistolary style, one must write exactly what one would say to the person if one saw him, only being careful not to write down repetitions to which, in conversation, a tone of voice or gesture might give some value.

aqueduct2I also picked up The Existential Imagination by Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian. I was thinking about bringing it home for a couple reasons: first, because I’ve found a few other old mass-market paperbacks about existentialism in such places, and it’s a nice mini-collection to have; and secondly, because it was free. The deal was sealed when I noticed what a prior reader had used to mark their place: a beautiful ticket from a horse race at Aqueduct in 1963. As a fan of horse racing, this was hard to resist. I suppose I could have just lifted the ticket and left the book, but as a fan of books, that was unlikely.