Books with a Past; hope for the future of the book, in whatever form it may take

October 28, 2010 at 9:54 pm (Blogroll of honor, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

A recent visit to Books with a Past served as an all too vivid reminder of what has been lost with the demise of so many independent bookstores.

The first thing that struck me was the rich aroma…Is that decaying paper? No matter – it’s a balm to the senses. And then – what a treasure house of old volumes, some very old indeed. I’d say it was a pleasant jumble, but the store is much more organized and spacious than the usual establishment of its type.

(Some months ago we nearly lost Books with a Past. The near legendary owners, Mary Alice and Donald Schaefer, had decided to sell up. . Thoughts of the demise of this venerable institution were causing depression among the book lovers of the county (whose numbers, thank goodness, are legion). Then in rode a rescuer in the shape of Erin Matthews. We are no end grateful to you, Erin!)

Naturally I made for the mysteries first. I had stopped in at the shop some weeks before and been impressed to find several paperbacks by Francis Clifford. This is an author I had never heard of until reading Mike Ripley’s praise of this British thriller writer in the Summer 2010  issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Now a more recent issue of that same excellent periodical had commended yet more titles that were of interest. Specifically, there was a feature concerning crime fiction set in Cambridge (UK). Naturally, these  books tend to deal with life in academia. Now mysteries set in schools or colleges are a particular favorite of mine. I love the claustrophobic, almost hothouse atmosphere, the mix of  different types of intellectuals: pseudo-, anti-, and genuine. I have my favorites (and I would include in this group teachers, professors, and scholars, like Isabel Dalhousie, who live outside academic institutions): 

And my all time favorite by Dorothy L. Sayers. (For a fairly comprehensive look at academic mysteries, see the list on Stop. You’re Killing Me!)

Here are two of the titles recommended in Deadly Pleasures:

(Click here for the complete list of books in the Cambridge Crime series.)

This particular search did not, alas, bear fruit. Thinking I was still in the mystery section, I turned a corner and came face to face with the classics – specifically, authors I through M.  Here was a treasure trove of titles by some of Western literature’s most esteemed writers:

James Joyce

Guy de Maupassant

Washington Irving

Henry James

One is of particular interest to me at the moment:

W. Somerset Maugham

Some weeks ago while I was subbing at the information desk at the Central Library, a patron came in and told me that she and a group of friends had been working their way through the works of Somerset Maugham. They were, she said, having a wonderful time. I asked her if she knew of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. This new  biography of the author by Selina Hastings  has recently been published to considerable acclaim.

When I read the reviews of this book some months ago, I remember thinking, Is anyone actually still interested in Maugham? O ye of little faith… I was about to get very interested in him myself. My interest was piqued by what this patron had told me, At Books with a Past.I purchased Cakes and Ale and Twelve Short Stories, published by Doubleday in 1966, with an introduction by Angus Wilson. I’ve since read four of the stories. They are riveting narratives; they can be disturbing as well. “The Yellow Streak” and “Mackintosh” depict the patronizing, condescending attitudes of British colonial administrators toward the natives in places like Malaysia.

“The Lotus Eater” is set on the island of Capri, a magical place where – I can hardly believe it! – I actually was, a year ago last May. It is a place that has cast a spell on writers and artists for many years. This story describes one man’s struggle to attain a dream; I found it very moving. Maugham himself spent some idyllic time on the island, in the company of someone he cared for deeply.

I have since purchased this volume of Maugham’s stories published by Everyman Library:

In The Literary Review, Diana Athill calls The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: “An impressively perceptive and often moving account of an extraordinarily interesting man.” I’m on page sixty, and I can tell you that so far, her comments are right on the money.

As I was buying the Maugham volume, I began introducing myself to the person at the cash register. My friends had got there before me and they chorused, “Oh, Tina knows who you are!” And Tina did. It seems that years ago, when I still worked at the Central Library, I had introduced her to two authors whom she has cherished ever since. The first is Robertson Davies

“You gave me Fifth Business,” she enthused, “and then I read the whole Deptford Trilogy.”  Those are indeed marvelous books. And as for The Cunning Man, published a year before the author’s death in 1995, I remember finishing the novel and clutching it close to me and thinking, Thank God people can still write fiction like this!

I also introduced Tina to  Josephine Tey, author of  two of my favorite novels:  

Upon seeing the volume I was purchasing, Tina remarked that she agreed with critics who maintain that Maugham’s stories are his true masterworks. She also asked if I had read Shirley Hazzard – not The Great Fire, in which we  were both somewhat disappointed, but her earlier, highly regarded work,  The Transit of Venus. (I had not.)

Amazon can be quite effective at recommending books. So can Novelist. (You need a card number in order to access that database via the library’s website.) Newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times and magazines such as The Atlantic and Harper’s still provide generous space for book reviews. And I am constantly in awe of the eloquence and enthusiasm of those who blog about books and/or maintain book-themed sites. In fact, I’ve been meaning to mention a few of my current and perennial favorites, among them:  Booksplease, Lost in Books, A Commonplace Blog, A Book and a Hug, Do You Write Under Your Own NameMy Porch, In So Many Words, Letters from a Hill Farm, Mysteries in Paradise, Petrona, and Howard County Library’s Highly Recommended.

But there is nothing – NOTHING – like getting a recommendation from a living, breathing fellow reader. Tina’s recollection of the Reader’s Advisory I provided all those years ago was immensely gratifying and gave me hope for the future of the printed (or electronically displayed) word. The value of the human element in such a transaction can never be overestimated. When libraries and booksellers make a space for this “marriage of true minds,” then the passion for literature becomes a real and living thing.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.


Here’s a provocative piece from NPR on the future(s) of books.


As for the mysteries I could not find, I was assured that the good folks at Books with a Past can search for them on my behalf, should I desire them to do so.


  1. kathy d. said,

    What a lovely post. Thank you.

    It reminds me of the days years ago when I was in my latter days of high school and I sat in my bedroom, with the window behind me, a big tree branch leaning over my right shoulder, and read books by Somerset Maugham, among others. Today, I don’t know what attracted my teenage self to his writings, but I think I’ll try again.
    I was becoming conscious of the world and thinking about a lot of things–read Steinbeck, Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, Maughm and A.J. Cronin (for some reason), and devoured mysteries–only certain authors though about particular characters–Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I did read some books by Dorothy Sayers, too.
    But now I also see that I must read some books by Josephine Tey and try to revisit Maugham.
    There is so much to read now–the new books, some of the older ones.

  2. Erin said,

    Hi Roberta,

    I just saw this wonderful post! I own Books With A Past, and due to my shameful lack of blog savvy, I just now (three months later) came across your review. I’m so glad to know you and your friends enjoyed the store, and Tina will be thrilled to know you were pleased with her recommendations. That’s her favorite part of this job. As I’m sure she told you, we’re constantly getting new books in (as the piles on the floor can attest), so hopefully we can help fill out your collection. You can also search our new titles on to see if we have anything new for you, though of course we would love to actually see you in person. Thanks again, and we hope to see you soon!

    Books With A Past

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