Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘The Gift of Gravity’

Gift of Gravity coverIn my dabbling with collecting first editions over the years. Wendell Berry’s works have held my attention more than that of any other writer. From a collecting standpoint Berry has a huge, and ever growing, oeuvre. (I’ve told Berry that he writes faster than I can read.) He is a prolific writer of not one or even two genres, but three (fiction, poetry, and essays). And Berry’s works have also appeared in a wide range of limited editions with small presses and print runs (broadsides and chapbooks spanning over five decades). There is always a little treasure out there that you never even knew existed.

Gift of Gravity backRecently I picked up what actually is a relatively available edition, England’s Golgonooza Press collection of Wendell Berry poems, The Gift of Gravity. Published in 2002 in stiff wrappers only (no hardcover edition, so far as I can tell), it offers not simply a British edition of an American book, but an entirely unique collection intended for the British market.

Interestingly, an earlier small press edition using the title The Gift of Gravity was issued as a joint effort by Deerfield Press and Gallery Press in 1979. Limited to only 300 copies, it was signed on the colophon by Wendell Berry, and contained only the poems “The Gift of Gravity” and “Grief.” I purchased my copy some years ago. Prices appear to have increased since then.

Gift of Gravity limitedGift of Gravity lmtd text








Gift limited sig

And while we’re on the topic of Golgonooza Press, in 1991 they issued a collection of Wendell Berry’s essays, Standing on Earth. Like The Gift of Gravity, it’s an edition unique to the British market. Available in both hardcover and paper wraps, the hardcover is more difficult to find.

Standing on Earth sigStanding on Earth cover









Poking around for obscure, somewhat ignored, editions can be a rewarding way to own a collectible copy from whatever author’s work you may be chasing.

Off the Shelf: Upgrading William Faulkner’s ‘Go Down, Moses’

I don’t mind the trade paperback. They can be solidly made and often are well designed. Nonetheless, in the hierarchy of books hard covers trump paperbacks, particularly hard covers with dust jackets.

That brings us to my copy of William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a key volume in the Faulkner canon. It’s a Vintage trade paperback, a respectable edition, although mine is a bit bumped around with some underlining. I believe it was a hand-me-down. I have no attachment to it, well, no particular attachment to it.

Then at the local library bookshop I recently came across this old Modern Library edition. Now, Modern Library editions are fairly ubiquitous: serviceable, but not usually something to write home (or a blog post) about. But add in the rarely seen Modern Library dust jacket and it’s a whole new ball game. Here is a nice copy of Go Down, Moses in an early state dust jacket, also in nice shape.

A “first thus” Modern Library edition in dust jacket can be quite collectable. Alas, this is a later printing, but still a handsome copy on the shelf. It even comes with an original owner inscription telling me it was “Bought at Jackson, Miss.” in 1962. For a copy of Go Down, Moses that seems to add that bit of extra authenticity.

The Modern Library dust jackets themselves are interesting. Often imaginatively designed, inside is a fine print list of all (then) available, and numbered, titles. On the back is a coupon that you’re instructed to “tear out” (*shudder*) and mail in—no wonder those dust jackets are hard to find! I believe Dante had a special place for those who advised that dust jackets be mutilated, not to mention those who actually did it.

So with dust jacket properly protected with its clear cover, my small Faulkner collection receives a nice upgrade, and all for about $2. I shall cast the Vintage paperback upon the donation waters.

Of course, having gone through all that I remembered that there was this Southern Living Classics edition setting on the shelf. Ah, well.

Off the Shelf: Jane Austen’s ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Turns 200

I confess: I had never read Jane Austen. I suppose I was uninterested in what were perceived simply as romance novels, inspiration for an entire modern industry of “Regencies.”

But several years ago in a conversation with Wendell Berry, most likely about books he might recommend, Jane Austen came up. I owned to never having read her. He replied that he envied me my first reading. So I knew that I needed to read Austen, but still I never quite got to doing it.

This month I finally read her most famous book, Pride & Prejudice. As I finished it, I discovered that this month–today, in fact–is the 200th anniversary of its publication. My own bookshelf yields two copies of the classic, a pocket size Oxford and an Everyman’s Library edition. (Penguin has a nice retrospective today of their own P&P covers that’s worth a look.)

Austen is often abandoned to the fairer sex. But we males do Austen, and ourselves, a disservice by neglecting her penetrating insight into human nature.

As a father of girls I found myself identifying not with Darcy, but rather Mr. Bennet. Mr. Bennet’s sardonic wit in the face of a sea of estrogen (and his frequent desire to retreat to the isolation of his library) makes him one of my favorite characters in literature. But Austen also teaches that his detachment was taken too far, and Mr. Bennet recognizes his own blame for Lydia’s elopement.

If you’re a man and have not read Pride & Prejudice, do yourself a favor and do so. Don’t be like the ridiculous Mr. Collins and refuse to read novels. It is in great fiction rather than non-fiction that we learn the most about the human condition.

I envy you the first reading.

Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘St. Vith, December 21, 1944’

Part of Wendell Berry’s long running Sabbath series of poems, “St. Vith, December 21, 1944” captures a moving moment during the brutality of the Battle of the Bulge. American forces withdrew from St. Vith on that date, leaving the Belgian city to the Germans. General Bruce Clarke ordered the Americans out having said, “This terrain is not worth a nickel an acre to me.”

This limited edition signed broadside was handset and printed by the great Gray Zeitz of Larkspur Press in Kentucky, under whom I apprenticed sixteen years ago. It was commissioned by Michael Courtney, proprietor of the best bookstore in Kentucky, Black Swan Books (where I also worked years ago). Michael commissioned annual broadsides for several years from Gray. For me, the confluence of Larkspur Press, Black Swan Books and Wendell Berry brings about a perfect match.

It was one of the first Wendell Berry broadsides I ever purchased, possibly the first. It was framed in Columbia, South Carolina while I was a graduate student. Special instructions were given to display the lovely deckled edges.

I suppose this entry isn’t really “Off the Shelf,” but “Off the Wall” didn’t have quite the same connotation.

A Merry Christmas from Pinstripe Pulpit.

Off the Shelf: Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

If you’re like me (frightening thought, I know), you were entranced by Madeleine L’Engle’s masterpiece, the Newbery Medal winning A Wrinkle in Time as a child. If you have not read it you certainly must. If your children haven’t read it then ground them until they do.

Back in my days at Piety Hill as an assistant to Russell Kirk, Annette Kirk (or as Dr. Kirk dubbed her, ‘She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed’) was attending an event where Madeleine L’Engle was speaking. For whatever reason, I couldn’t go, but I very much wanted to have a copy of A Wrinkle in Time signed. This was before the Internet and, so I had to settle for the paperback copy I could find at the bookshop in Grand Rapids. Annette graciously did the leg work of having my copy signed.

Far from a first edition–simply a mass paperback–this signed copy is a treasure to me. I keep it tucked away with my ‘good books’ in the barrister.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time. Madeleine L’Engle, who passed away in 2007, would have been 94 years old today.

All Hallows Eve Off the Shelf: ‘Old House of Fear,’ by Russell Kirk

Halloween was Russell Kirk’s favorite holiday. When you understand he wasn’t simply the founder of modern American conservatism, but also an award winning author of suspense fiction, it makes sense.

The Halloween I spent at Piety Hill, Russell Kirk’s home, was one of my favorite times there. The house looked haunted year ‘round, but decorations ramped it up for All Hallow’s Eve. I recall Dr. Kirk wanting to leave the fake spider webs at the front door after the day was over. His wife Annette ignored him.

“ghostly best wishes of Russell Kirk”

One young, wide-eyed trick-or-treater entered the darkened foyer, a space decorated with such things as a suit of armor, and encountered Dr. Kirk wearing a robe.

“Do you live here?” the boy asked.

“When we were alive we did,” Dr. Kirk answered with great seriousness.

Dr. Kirk would often tell the stories of the hauntings of Piety Hill. Those times when the Kirks would travel, and I was left alone to watch over the house, I would relive those stories in my mind, fighting sleep, hesitant finally to surrender the lamp to the darkness of the night.

Old House of Fear was Dr. Kirk’s best selling book. It amazes me that it was popular enough to be issued as a mass market paperback. These old paperbacks are wonderful because of the striking–and often lurid–cover art. The blurb touts its “sadistic violence;” a modern reader would find that a bit of a stretch.

My paperback has seen better days. Age and too many moves have detached the back cover. But the inscription makes it more valuable to me than the true first edition I acquired in later years.

Once far more popular than his cultural and historical writing, Dr. Kirk’s ghostly fiction is largely neglected now. An effort has been made to revive it with new editions, including an Eerdmans reissue of Old House of Fear. I recommend it, and Russell Kirk’s other spooky fiction, to you on this All Hallow’s Eve.
















And on this day, Dr. Kirk would have taken great pleasure in you listening to him speak from beyond the grave as he reads his short story, “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding.”

“the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.” –from “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot