Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Most Constant of Friends

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
 ~ Charles W. Eliot

This is a revised, updated and somewhat expanded version of two essays which first appeared on my “literary” blogspot - “Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret”  - in late 2009 and early 2010.


The Brazilian novelist and journalist Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist, The Pilgrimage, The Winner Stands Alone, and Aleph) has for many years shown an intensive interest in the Internet and its ability to increase access to literature and other media.  In August 2008, he wrote in his blog that “books are trendier than ever - people are reading again, and writing again and why? Internet.”  A couple months later he delivered a keynote address, “The Internet’s Impact on Culture,” at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  He believed the Internet, as well as the Kindle and the Nook, was making books obsolete.

The December 2009 issue of Playboy magazine featured Coehlo’s essay, “Dust in the Wind,” in which he addressed the question of why he was breaking up his personal library. He confessed that he no longer had many books; years ago he decided to keep only 400 books (give or take a few); books he found himself frequently rereading along with a few that had sentimental value.  The remainder he donated to a public library where they might be used and enjoyed by others.  “Why should I keep all these books at home?  To show friends I am cultured? To decorate the walls?”

When I originally read Coehlo’s essay in late 2009, I looked at my offices both at home and at work, and the walls of books in our bedroom and den, and I began to think that Coelho may have a good point.  He originally kept all of his books, thinking that one day he would need to consult one or another.  Later, considering that the Internet has become one of the most comprehensive reference libraries in the world, he decided to share his books with others, “trying to obtain a maximum quality with a minimum amount of things.”  Coehlo continued to purchase books, but once he finished them, he allowed them to travel “like the mind of the author traveled as he wrote it.”  He now believes that “a book has a course of its own and should not be condemned to remain immobilized on a shelf.”

I must confess that I love books.  I always have.  So it has been difficult for me to imagine ever giving them up, even after I have read them. That said, I have begun to understand why Coelho decided to simplify his life.  There comes a time when one must face the consequences of a lifetime of buying and saving books.

In late 2009 my former office at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC had floor to ceiling bookcases covering  two entire walls, and other books were piled here and there wherever space was available.  Every time my wife visited she would look at all of these books, shake her head, and inquire where I intended to put them once I retired.  A levitate question although at the time I had no concrete plans to retire.  So, in my mind anyway, it was a moot point.  My response was quick and to the point.  “I haven’t got the faintest idea.”  On top of all this, new books seemed to appear almost daily as out of thin air.  Another one for this pile or that.

At home our den and bedroom have floor to ceiling bookcases packed tight with our favorite books, and there is frequently an overflow of books stacked up next to each side of our bed, and by the couch in the den.  Add to this bookcases in the basement along with the many boxes of books packed up in storage.  Most of these date back to college and graduate school, and although I have no suitable place to display them, I have always held fast to the notion that one day that space will somehow miraculously materialize.

The fate of the books in my office?  I was faced with the dilemma sooner than I expected, and in March 2010 I did, in fact, retire and the hens came home to roost.  I finally had to decide what I was going to do with all of those books.   My wife and I braved a winter storm, driving into downtown DC to begin packing up my office, including these three plus decades of accumulated books.  There were books that had sentimental value, and others I knew I would need at some point in the future.  Like Coehlo, I would want to keep these.  Would I be able to keep this number to 400?  Only time would tell.  We crated up over three dozen boxes, most of them books, which we brought home.  Several other boxes of books moved from my office to the section’s library where my colleagues would continue to use them.  Finally, we packed up more boxes which I loaded into our car, navigating a snow-packed Pennsylvania Avenue to a small bookstore on Capitol Hill.  While the owner unpacked each box for inspection, his wife invited me into an adjoining room where she offered me a piping hot cup of coffee as I told her how I had come to accumulate so many books.  They both understood how difficult it was for me to part with them, and they were generous, buying about half of what I brought in.  The rest I donated to the store for its “books cheap” program to benefit the local neighborhood association . . . the idea being to find them a good home.  Sounded good to me; Coehlo would have been proud.  I made my way back through the snow to my office with a few bucks in my pocket, enough to buy a nice dinner for us when we finished our packing at the end of the day.

I cannot see myself ever not buying a new book.  But Coelho may have found an equitable solution to this dilemma.  Perhaps it is time to let some of these older books travel seeking their own course.  Do I really need to decorate my walls with books, many of which I will never open again, to show that I am an intellectual and cultured individual?  I still prefer to pick up a book when I am doing research.  But I definitely like the idea of sharing books with others, especially those I no longer have need of.  And, to be honest, I just don’t have anywhere to put them.

For the past three years those dozens of boxes of books brought home from my office have sat squeezed into the basement wherever there is space.  And just like when she used to visit my office, my wife looks at them and asks me what I plan to do with them.  Well, there is still no room for them here at home and so I am going to have to start making some of the hard decisions I have been putting off until another time. That time has finally arrived. 

I have moved the car out into the driveway and have now unpacked all the books which lie stacked on two long tables in the garage.  The sorting process has begun and I am trying to decide which books I am going to keep for whatever reason.  Some I just cannot part with and so I will find room for these.  I put a few interesting history books into a box which I gave to my son’s father-in-law who shares my interest in various historical topics.  He was very happy to have them.  When you give someone a book, you are giving them the most imaginative of gifts, because you are taking a personal interest in what interests them.

But what to do with the stacks of books for which I have no room?  It is time to find them a new home.  Perhaps I will be able to sell a few more, but when it all sorts out, I will probably do the same thing Coehlo did . . . donate them to a library which will share them with others.  Perhaps I could get more money, if I continued to shop them around to various book stores, but frankly, I am not interested in the money.  If I was, I would have acted long before now.  I will be happy just to find a proper new home for my most constant of friends.
Thomas Jefferson, in his aging years at Monticello, offered to sell his private library to the US government in Washington to help rebuild the Library of Congress collections that were lost when the British sacked and burned he capital in September 1814.  His library had grown so large that he could no longer accommodate it, nor did he have the time, energy nor the inclination to read all that he had collected over the years. Not only would these books be welcomed in Washington, but the monies from the sale would go far to help offset the growing debts of Jefferson’s estate.  In April 1815, several wagons containing almost 7000 volumes made their way to Washington and John Adams, Jefferson’s longtime friend and confident (and sometimes bitter nemesis) applauded the gesture as an “immortal honor.”  Jefferson, finding it impossible to survive without his books, began to establish a new library at Monticello.

The bookish Adams could well understand his friend’s plight as his own personal library at Peacefield, his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, numbered well over 3000 volumes.  And still he wished to continue to increase his collection, as he once confessed to Jefferson.  “What would I give to possess in one immense mass, one stupendous draught, all the legends, true and false.”  This collection was deeded to the town of Quincy in 1826, two years before Adam’s death, and was eventually incorporated into the Boston Public Library, in 1894.  Adam’s son, John Quincy Adams, who served as the sixth President of the United States, eventually authorized the construction of a Gothic Revival stone library adjacent to the Peacefield residence which was completed in 1873, a quarter of a century after his death.  Today it houses over 14,000 volumes belonging to him and other members of the Adams family.

So perhaps my donation of my personal library will serve as my own “immortal honor”?  Had I the means, I would certainly follow in the footsteps of John Quincy Adam and build a library to house all of my most constant friends.  Instead, I plan to send them forth as my personal emissaries.  Let them enlighten others as they have enlightened me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Seafood Extravaganza - Part 2

Dateline: Savannah, Georgia and Mount Rainier, Maryland

The rest of my seafood extravaganza was not to be!

I departed Gainesville as planned on a very cold yet sunny day. The temperature was hovering just above the freezing mark and there was frost on the ground as I began my northward journey up Florida Route 24 and US 301, through the speedtrap hamlets of Waldo and Lawtey. I passed several strawberry fields in Alachua and Bradford counties on my way to Jacksonville, most of which were encrusted with ice. I thought to myself . . . there is something dreadfully wrong with this picture. Just a week before I had passed this way on my southbound journey and the temperatures were hovering around 80F at sunset. The week I spent in Florida most days were lucky to climb into the 60s, if that.

But I had other things on my mind. I was up- and outward bound with the idea of dining on some fresh Georgia seafood by lunchtime. A little over two hours after departing Gainesville, I was crossing the St. Marys River and passing from Florida into Georgia. The St. Marys region is the gateway to Cumberland Island, Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island which is home to pristine maritime forests and marshes and undeveloped beaches and almost ten thousand acres of Congressionally designated wilderness area (one of the few things I can thank Congress for these days). Unfortunately for me, Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry and my timetable did not allow me to return to the island I first visited forty years ago this month, around the same time the island, which was once owned by the Carnegie family, was deeded to the US government and designated by Congress as a National Seashore managed by the National Park Service. I am sorry I did not have a chance to return and see what it looks like today.

I continued up Interstate 95 to Brunswick with the intention of visiting Jekyll and St. Simon islands, two more of Georgia’s famed barrier islands, which I also first visited forty years ago. This is a region of unsullied marshlands and small islands known as hammocks, extending out to the barrier islands and populated with birds, fish and other marine life.

The southernmost island of Georgia’s Golden Isles is Jekyll Island which was originally purchased in 1886 by a group of wealthy families as a private retreat. By 1900, The Jekyll Island Club included representatives of the Rockefeller, Morgan, Crane and Gould families which at the time represented almost 20% of the world’s wealth. The Club closed in 1942 and Jekyll Island was purchased by the State of Georgia in 1947 and is presently managed by the Jekyll Island Authority. When I first came here in the late winter of 1972, I don’t recall it being very developed . . . it was well-known for beaches and its wide variety of seashells and sand dollars. So I thought it would be fun to have a look around the place and perhaps sample the local seafood. I followed the causeway out to the island until I arrived at the entrance gate where I would be charged what I considered to be an exorbitant rate to just drive around the island. On top of that there was a $6 daily parking surcharge. It seems to me the State of Georgia wanted the Rockefellers and the Morgans to return.

I took the first available u-turn and backtracked along the South Brunswick River to the Sydney Lanier Bridge, Georgia’s longest (7780 feet) and tallest (486 feet) cable-stayed suspension bridge providing easy access to Brunswick and St. Simon Island. It is named in honor of the Macon-born poet (1842-1881) who wrote the “Marshes of Glynn” (1878), an evocative long poem featured in "Hymns of the Marshes," an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems about the beautiful marshlands of this region. After crossing the bridge I actually crossed over the Marshes of Glynn on the Torras Causeway (there are designated “Terrapin Crossings” during the May-July migration) to St. Simon Island, the largest of the Golden Isles. Here I drove though the winding Spanish moss-draped roadways into the village at the southern end of the island surrounding the 1872 lighthouse still in operation. The original lighthouse, constructed in 1810, was destroyed by Confederates in 1862 to prevent its use by Federal forces.

I parked here and wandered around the lighthouse and the village pier which afforded me a broad panorama of the Brunswick River estuary. I browsed through the shops and galleries along Mallery Street, the skies remaining sunny yet the temperature hovering only in the mid 50s with a crisp breeze coming off the water.

I finally settled into a local eatery for a platter of large succulent oysters. Hoping they were local, but learning they were from Galveston, Texas, they were too good to pass up. I followed this with a generous portion of local wild Georgia white shrimp wrapped in Southern-cured bacon served with various dipping sauces and all washed down with a delicious toasted lager.

After lunch I resumed my northward journey, returning to the mainland and following US Route 17 to Darien, on the banks of the Altamaha River. I poked around the waterfront shrimping operations and Fort King George, which is Georgia's oldest fort constructed in 1721 and at the time the southern-most outpost of the British Empire in North America. The fort was abandoned in 1727 following attacks from the Spanish. The town, establish in 1736, is the second oldest in the state. Darien and McIntosh County registered some of the highest oyster harvests in the world in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, rivaling even the Chesapeake Bay, yet the industry went into a long decline after 1910 as a result of over harvesting (which perhaps explains why I could not find local oysters during my recent lunch stop). As the oysterbeds declined, a new commercial wild shrimp fishery developed, and by the early 1960s, Darien and McIntosh County had the largest shrimping fleet along the Georgia coast. Yet today, Georgia's shrimping industry struggles to survive against foreign competition, a story you hear up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

From Darien I took scenic Georgia Route 99, the old Ridge Road, running along the edges of the coastal marshes between the mainland and Sapelo Island, one of the northernmost of the Golden Isles of Georgia which for many years was the private fiefdom of the RJ Reynolds family and is now the home of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. I eventually wound my way back to I-95 and from that point it was a short hop up to Savannah which was my day’s destination.

I settled into my motel looking toward to an evening exploring the older precincts of the city bordering the Savannah River. I was particular excited with the prospects having never really visited the city after closely bypassing it all these many years. Two years ago we were suppose to spend a few days here while I was attending a literary conference, but our plans changed suddenly when we had car problems on the way down and we never made it. I had dinner reservations at a fantastic place recommended by a friend and I thought this would be a perfect end to a most pleasant day. Alas, it was not to be. I began feeling ill - it turned out to be a touch of the flu - and it only got worse as the dinner hour approached. To make a long story short, I canceled the reservation and spent a long and most unpleasant evening in my hotel room. There is nothing worst than falling ill on the road.

The next morning it was only worse. There was no way I was going to make it to Charleston and to the Outer Banks as planned. Instead, I steeled myself and set out on a nine-hour, 600 mile trip up I-95. I figured, if I am going to be sick, I would rather do it at home. To make matters worse, it rained almost steady all the way home.

Now I sit here drinking tea and eating nothing more adventurous than chicken and beef broth and pots of tea. No more oysters, crab, shrimp and other bounties of the sea for me. That will have to await another time and opportunity.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Seafood Extravaganza - Part 1

Dateline: Gainesville, Florida

I am just about one week into what is turning out to be a very rewarding road trip.  We departed our Maryland home in the predawn darkness this past Tuesday morning.  The temperature was in the high 20s and the sun only began to peek over the eastern horizon as we approached the northern fringe of Richmond Virginia.  Thirteen hours after our departure, and 800 miles later, we arrived in Gainesville, Florida just as the sun was dropping below the western horizon.  The temperature stood at 80F.  I have driven this route so may times over the past 37 years I think I can do it in my sleep while blindfolded.  And the farther south we drove, the greener were our surroundings.  The trees were beginning to leaf out and the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom, and the azaleas are just beginning to pop out here in north central Florida.  Not only had we driven south, we had driven into spring. Or so we thought.

The day after we arrived the skies were overcast and the temperature began to drop into the 60s and eventually into the 50s.  After sitting in the car all day on the trip down, this was a day to relax and unwind.  I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s sophomore novel, Silent House, which was originally published in Turkey on 1983 but only recently released in an English translation.  I also brought along some writing projects and notes which require some attention even when I am away from home.  So this was my original plan when we left home; a quiet and pleasant venue where I might catch up on my reading and writing. 

Our first day here in Gainesville I snuck off to my favorite sushi place for a relaxed lunch of über-fresh sashimi and tuna maki rolls served with wasabi seaweed and miso soup and Kirin beer on draft.  Little did I know that I was setting the theme for this trip.  There is also another restaurant in town that serves some of the best sushi-grade ahi tuna encrusted with white and black sesame seeds and topped with roasted red peppers, green onions and a garlic ginger soy wasabi sauce.  It is almost worth the drive down here!  So I figured this visit could evolve into a regular seafood extravaganza, if I planned it right.

The next day we drove over to Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico.  I had been there a couple years ago and fell in love with the sweet-tasting littleneck clams from the local aquiculture beds surrounding the island.  I could almost taste them on the hour or so drive to Cedar Key.  Unfortunately the weather was not the best with overcast skies, unseasonably cool temperatures, and a few drops of rain.  Still we were able to enjoy our walk along the ramshackle streets and waterfront that strikes me as a smaller and certainly more sedate version of Key West.  As bent as I was on eating clams, my mind and tastes suddenly shifted gears as we rolled into town past several signs hawking stone crab claws.  They are only available during a  short season and are often hard to find in markets and restaurants even then.  And when you do find them, they can be prohibitively expensive.  Having just arrived in Florida I had not realize that they might be available now.   Soon I was belly up to a table in a local clam bar where I slurped down the local oysters (the main diet of stone crab and therefore, in my mind, more appropriate than clams) and feasted on a pound of steamed and cracked stone crab claws served with the traditional horseradish mustard.  And all washed down with pints of a local microbrew.  Not only is the claw meat exquisite, but the fact that only the claws are harvested while the crab is returned to the water where they regenerate in new (and equally tasty) claws.  A truly sustainable seafood!  So the seafood extravaganza was well underway!

One of the main reasons I came to Florida at this time was that I was scheduled to  delivered a talk at my alma mater, Florida Southern College.  This necessitated a trip from Gainesville down to Lakeland where we also had an opportunity to visit with old friends and college chums.  Afterwards we took a side-trip over to the Gulf coast and Tarpon Springs where I visited with my mom, who is also down in Florida for a few days visiting friends and old neighbors, and where we all went to dinner at one of my favorite seafood joints in that area.  I feasted on Greek-style steamed shrimp (marinated in extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil and lemon juice before steaming) and served with a horiatiki [village] salad consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, pepperocinis, red onions, green peppers, kalamata olives, thick slabs of feta cheese, sprinkled with lemon juice and drenched in an oregano and garlic-infused red wine vinegar dressing.  OMG!  Can one ever get enough of this wonderful seafood?

This afternoon we drove out to Cross Creek, made famous in the books of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which is situated less than twenty miles southeast of here.  My first blog posting back in December 2008 was the result of a visit to the Rawlings farm and orange groves at Cross Creek -

I returned there a couple of years ago after which I wrote inter alia about a meal I enjoyed at The Yearling restaurant just up the road from the Rawlings farm -
I was disappointed last time I was there as there was no cooter (soft-shell freshwater  turtle) available; almost all of it was being sent to Japan.  So this afternoon the great cooter quest began anew.  Besides this delicacy, I was once again looking forward to digging into a platter of cracker swamp food. Disappointment, however, reigned supreme when I did not find cooter on the menu (although the restaurant’s motto still remains “Eat Mo Cooter!”  It is once again protected as an endangered species by US Fish and Wildlife.  And well it should be, I guess (it is probably endangered because it tastes so damn good!).  This disappointment did not stop me from savoring a plate full of succulent frog legs, soft-shell crab and catfish and the ubiquitous hushpuppy.    Hmmmmm, boy howdy! The "seafood" extravaganza continues!

When I planned for this now almost annual late winter sojourn in Florida, my original intention was to spend the next few weeks here in Gainesville, returning home in early March.  This is a trip I have made over the past three years; an opportunity to escape the cold and damp of a Maryland February.  Instead, I reconsidered my original options and current timetables and strategies, and changed my mind.  Instead of remaining here, I am departing tomorrow morning after less than a week in the Sunshine State.  I have decided, however, to forego one more breakneck trip home and take a few days to explore coastal Georgia and the Carolinas, areas that we by-pass virtually without notice each time we scurry up and down Interstate 95 between Washington, DC to Florida.

Tomorrow will be an easy day as I am only driving as far as Savannah.  An early start to the day will afford me an opportunity to sample the wild Georgia shrimp as I make my way north from Jacksonville via Brunswick, Jekyll and St. Simon islands and the low country between there and Savannah.  And tomorrow night I will be dining on more delicious seafood as the extravaganza continues.  More reports to follow.