One of my distinct summer pleasures is returning each year to our Adirondack camp. Here one finds the usual outdoor pastimes, from canoeing and hiking to just sitting on the dock listening to the calls of the loons. But the pleasure I’m referring to now is accomplished indoors, a process of turning the clock back in time. That is to say, browsing through the various camp libraries, whose volumes reach back a century and more.
I use the plural because there are several small-scale libraries here, tucked away in different buildings, each with a different identity. Where I’m sitting now, in a boathouse overlooking the lake, four bookshelves are crammed with paperback mystery and suspense novels, collected over the past thirty years. Some are familiar to me, such as Elmore Leonard’s Swag or P. D. James’ Devices and Desires. Other authors’ names ring a bell, though I’ve never read their books, including Sara Paretsky and Lawrence Block. Still others I’ve never heard of, yet clearly prolific creators whose volumes populate these vast sub-fields of idle diversion. There is “Edgar Award-winner” Sharon McCrumb, also Stuart M. Kaminsky, creator of “the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mysteries,” and Diane Mott Davidson (no relation), a writer who specializes in a “unique blend of first-class suspense and five-star fare,” and whose back covers boast such gastronomic encomia as “a delicious whodunit” (Bon Appétit) and “a rich feast” (Publishers Weekly).
I am usually good for about one volume a summer plucked from these shelves, though never more. Back in the 1940s critic Edmund Wilson wrote two classic screeds bemoaning the quality of detective fiction; and as the years go by, I find myself increasingly in agreement with his acerbic assessments. Still, these shelves yield up occasional treasures.
In the main living room, however, the selections are much more unpredictable and engagingly odd. Each side of the fireplace boasts a glass-protected shelf filled with volumes acquired by various camp owners beginning sometime after 1911. The great majority are hardbacks, though great literature most are emphatically not.
As a historian, I enjoy the encounter with the popular predilections of decades gone by, where the questionable taste of readers is not merely dull, as Edmund Wilson might have it, but unpredictably exotic and strange. I wandered in this morning and, running my finger across the titles, pulled one book off the shelf that I had never noticed before:
I have no idea who Grace Denio Litchfield is. The book was published in September 1904 and the title page informs us that she was also the author of “In the Crucible” and “The Moving Finger Writes.” That volume ought to have been titled “The Moving Finger Writes Tremulously,” judging from the first page of The Letter D:
I could not bear to read further, but did flip the book open, at random, to page 109, where I found a fellow named Robert walking with Ruth on an April afternoon, a wind “chill with the memory of March...sweeping down the street.”
Well? Wasn’t this worth a tug off the shelf? I confess that, upon reading these words, a rose tint suffused my pallid cheeks as I felt the shadow of Grace Denio Litchfield hovering o’er. And then the shade of another creature—destined, decades later for a Boris Karloff picture—in which Dr. Frankenstein, like Robert, brays those immortal words, “It’s aliiive!!”
All right. As one writer to another, I owe Litchfield an apology. We authors should be humble about the bookshelves our works are likely to end up on, to be taken out decades later and trod upon with glee. Grace Denio Litchfield made an apparently satisfactory living from her output. (Yes, I googled her after I began writing this, and discovered that she published at least a dozen novels and poetry collections. In the Crucible is her account of being nearly crushed to death during an earthquake in Italy.) The hilarity derived from her pages gives proof of how fickle popular tastes can be, including our own. What will future owners of this camp, pulling books off the shelf, derive perverse pleasure from? Will they include sentences which, today, strike us as discerning prose but decades hence will seem trashy or horribly overwritten?
“The little I have read has been only of the best,” Robert assures Ruth. Our goal is the same. Yet a little voice whispers that our notion of what truly lives, moves, and “is the real thing,” may prove as ephemeral as Robert’s or Grace Denio Litchfield's fancies.
Two postscripts. As I began posting this entry, my eye lit on something on the cover of The Letter D. Scroll back and see if you notice it. It's the letter F! Tucked in the lower right corner of the six inscribed letter D's on the cover. What can it mean? It's the only wiggle in the novel that has thus far aroused my curiosity, and it tempts me to skim further to see what the title means and what that subversive F is all about. But I could not quite bring myself to haul the book home and continue to delve. If there are any Litchfield devotees out there who can provide an answer, drop me a line! Otherwise, I'll see how strongly I'm drawn to return to the puzzle next summer...
Finally, when I began this post, I intended to talk about two other books that caught my eye, but for now they must wait. The Letter D was where the moving finger, gliding along the dusty shelf, abruptly landed. That's the fun of this odd time machine tucked away in a wilderness camp.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors