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Posts by Robert Armitage

The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim

"To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small Mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let Furnished for the Month of April. Necessary Servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times."

— From The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim)

For those of you who are of a literary bent (you know who you are), April is “the cruelest month.” For those, however, to whom April is the month of tender shoots bursting through the soil, trees hazy with the ... Read More ›

Words or Music, Part 2: Carmen

Intellectually, I have nothing against modern opera, and I can usually steel myself to try it again, even if the result inevitably turns out to be another tepid stew of tedious language and monotonous music. Emotionally, however, it is the standard repertoire which draws me again and again. These so-called “warhorses” of the operatic repertoire have endured for so long because they speak directly to our adult passions. (Melodrama is, after all, only real life ratcheted up a notch.)

How many of us, like Rigoletto the court jester, have felt humiliated by our employers 

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Let the Wild Rumpus Start! Arthur Rackham and Maurice Sendak

Click images for Catalog entriesLast week in the South Court training rooms, I gave my presentation “Changing Styles in Children’s Literature.” Although I’ve given this talk on various occasions over the last few years, doing it again always focuses my attention on the strange power of children’s books and sets my mind spinning back to my own dim past, when I would stare up at the family shelf of books in a kind of awed yet uncomprehending fascination.

I might not have been aware of much else, but I 

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Just One of Those Things: Dorothy Sayers at the New York Public Library

“As Abelard said to Heloise, ‘Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please.’ As Juliet cried in her Romeo’s ear, ‘Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear?’”

— Cole Porter, Just One of Those Things

Is love “just one of those things?” Now that the Godiva chocolates have been eaten, the frilly greeting cards opened, and the Vermont Teddy Bear-gram forgotten on a dusty shelf, is the spirit of Valentine’s Day dead? Maybe for everyone else, but for the true librarian, whose very profession is 

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From the dust jacket of Pigeon Feathers A number of summers ago I saw John Updike at the library. He was sitting in the back of the main reading room, leaning over the table, and writing with a small gold pen. I felt as oddly excited and privileged as someone else might feel who, in the course of day-to-day activity, had encountered Johnny Depp or Angeline Jolie. I ached to know what he was writing on that pad, if it was a story for the New Yorker, another episode in the chronicles of Harry Rabbit Angstrom or Henry Bech, or just a tally of his day’s expenses in New York. I 

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"There was only one catch. . ."

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22”

Books can accumulate a lot of personal baggage. Keep them in your life for long enough, and they’re likely to become encrusted with memories. This dust jacket is from my personal copy of Catch-22 and goes back a long way, as you can tell from the $2.45 price drastically marked down to $2.19. This was the second and more durable copy I owned after I read ragged the more familiar blue paperback with the dancing airman on the cover. The library’s copy in the

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Musing on Iris Murdoch

A strange relationship is established with favorite novelists, particularly those who are our living contemporaries. In reading their work, we are reconstituting word by word their mental landscapes and experiencing the energy which has gone into the act of creation, thereby establishing an extraordinary sort of intimacy. Although it should work the same way with deceased authors, the relationship lacks the reassurance that they are safely off somewhere, working on their next book. Since these authors no longer inhabit our present reality, their fiction inexorably turns into historical 

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New Year's Readings

If the New Year is to mean anything more than the difference between Wednesday and Thursday, it should contain a bit of reflection on the past, a glance over the shoulder to see where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Since this is a blog about books, reading, and libraries, I thought an examination of my personal reading list during this past year might be interesting. I’m always intrigued by the lists of others--even if, as with the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2008, I’ve only 

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The Creation of Christmas

I generally enjoy the Christmas season if I don’t allow myself to get sucked up in the frenzy. Of course, the frenzy is almost irresistible: the catalogs start coming right after Labor Day, store owners regard Halloween as the beginning of the holiday season, and the stability of the global economy depends on how free and easy you are with your credit card. As for me, I’ve always thought of Christmas as:

"a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open ... Read More ›

Words or Music

Words or music? Which is more important to opera? This is a question which intrigues opera lovers, such as me, as it is endlessly arguable without being finally answerable. Richard Strauss devoted an entire opera, Capriccio, to the debate. The opera culminates in a lengthy scene of ecstatic, mesmerizing musical intensity* which might seem to give the nod to music, if not for what the soprano is actually singing: that words and music are both indispensible, take one away and whatever is left will not be opera.

This season, the

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Dombey & Son & Me

If you noticed me at any time during the last few weeks, skulking through the halls of the New York Public Library, I was probably clutching a plump little volume in one hand, wondering when I’d get another chance to read a few more pages. That copy of Dombey and Son was my loyal companion for a long time. Henry James might have derisively called nineteenth-century novels “loose, baggy monsters,” but I certainly appreciated the scope of this book, the sense of time passing, lives changing, characters intersecting on 

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Vampire Lovers at the New York Public Library

As a professional librarian at the main reference desk, I do whatever it takes to respond to a particular question, and I never become judgmental about the quality of that question. That’s Library School 101. I will admit, however, to wondering sometimes where certain questions come from, or what it might mean for the culture at large when a number of people start asking the same question at the same time. For instance, what should I make of the fact that there have been several requests lately--by New Yorkers, no less!-- for books about vampires? Is it because Halloween is coming? 

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A Meditation on Compulsive Collecting

My apartment does not contain exquisite little Meissen porcelain figures, or walls full of J. M. W. Turner watercolors, or a locked case full of exotic anthropological artifacts from Papua New Guinea, or even a valuable stamp or coin collection. Instead, I’ve managed to surround myself with many well-loved objects of no intrinsic value: books, CDs, movies. This reflection was inspired by my decision, over the Labor Day weekend, finally to get rid of my personal VHS video library.

I suppose I should confess at the outset that my VCR has been non-functional for over a year 

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Guilty Pleasures

In previous posts chronicling my reading habits and tastes, I’ve invoked the names of authors like Dickens, Proust, Flaubert, Austen, and Shakespeare, perhaps giving the impression that I invariably spend my time with only the best that literature has to offer. Before you brand me an elitist (and ruin my chances at a future presidential bid), let me state for the record that I also have my guilty reading pleasures, and they often run right alongside my more literary pursuits. A difficult question is what makes certain fiction “popular” and other fiction 

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Reading Shakespeare / Playing Shakespeare

With only a few notable exceptions, I haven’t been very lucky with theatrical productions of Shakespeare. Of course, I’ve seen the Olivier and Branagh movies and some fine BBC productions, but film isn’t really theatre.

In the theatre, especially here in New York, bad Shakespeare generally outweighs good Shakespeare. The problem with these productions, I find, usually stems from a distrust of Shakespeare’s language, either of the audience’s ability to understand it, or of the actors to speak it.

I’ve seen the tragedy, Timon of Athens, 

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Lost Worlds

"I have wrought my simple plan / If I give one hour of joy / To the boy who’s half a man / Or the man who’s half a boy." — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, introducing The Lost World

One of the most unnerving things about the Internet, I find, is the way it reveals the commonality of our human experience. No matter how unique I imagine myself, the online world usually demonstrates that someone else has been there, seen it, and done it all—if not before me, at least at roughly the same time.

Back in July

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Secret Books: Rediscovering Richard Yates

One day last year, as I was walking home from work, so wrapped up in my own furiously careening thoughts that I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but the general direction my feet were taking me, I found myself momentarily halted in the middle of a crowd alongside Gramercy Park. As I looked around, it dawned on me that the men in the crowd were all wearing fedoras, like 1950s Madison Avenue executives, most of the women wore long pleated skirts to the knee and some had gloves on, and at the same time I realized that all the cars parked on the street were vintage models I 

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The Hidden Agenda

From the start, my goal in this blog was simply to emphasize what I regard as highlights of the library’s collection, specifically in the realm of literature . . . but I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t another unifying element, or, if you will, a hidden agenda. Whatever else I’m writing about, I always seem to end up trying to convey my profound love of books and reading. This has long been one of my defining characteristics, long before there was a blog (or even an internet).

Nabokov, in Lectures 

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I Retire to Cape Cod

You should see me on Cape Cod. I’ve been visiting every summer for about twenty years now and my routine is well-established. No sooner do we drive across the Bourne Bridge than the worry lines disappear and I shed ten years, almost as if the laws of time and gravity had been erased. By this point in the trip I’ve left my job so far behind it’s not so much in another state as on another planet.

This is followed by a week or two of standing on the National Seashore staring out at the sweep and majesty of the Atlantic; floating like a big hairless seal in the 

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Ghost and Horror Stories

I’m a more-or-less rational person. Anything with even a whiff of mysticism strikes me as a great yawn. And I believe dead is dead. Case closed. La commedia è finita. Curiously, I’m also a fan of ghost stories. Contradictory? Maybe it’s that I’ve been working at the New York Public Library for so long, I’ve come to feel like a ghost myself, haunting its marble corridors.

Not to split genre hairs, but I’m not so enamored of horror stories--or movies, for that matter--particularly not modern ones, whose main purpose seems to be to 

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