On Paper: Cards, Letters,& Horace’s Invitation to a Dinner Party

Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about the non-linear nature of time. He  meditated on this in his superb novels Slaughterhouse Five and Timequake.  But  Kurt, like the  time-traveling hero of Slaughterhouse Five, couldn’t escape  World War II.  Both were imprisoned by the Germans in Dresden during the fire-bombing in 1945. 

When we look back from this threatening spring, what will we remember?  Many of us will recall a more distant past.  A childhood  spent running freely around a green neighborhood?  Bicycling to the quarry for a picnic and an illicit swim?  Reading  Greek poetry  in a studio apartment while waiting for my boyfriend?  There was reading, there was bicycling, there was marriage, there were movies (sitting through the credits–how pompous!),  jobs good and bad, yearning humanly for something–always.

This spring of 2020 is indecipherable, a change from what I can only call the liberal arts life.  In these weeks of the pandemic, probably months, possibly a year, we are alternately calm and fearful.  We stay home sensibly and revert to the quiet life, but the news is agonizing (so avoid it).  Of course there is a new lightness as we walk through clean air during a beautiful spring, a Climate Change spring–but soothing nonetheless.

Paper, notebooks, books, letters, bills, junk mail, Christmas cards:  paper marked our days in the 20th century.  We loved the mail, if we had no responsibility to pay the bills.   “Get the mail, please,” my mother said, and sighed because there was”nothing good.” Sometimes she worried about the bills, even lacked money for the grocery store.  So, already anxious at age 9,  I wrote an altruistic little  “book” for her (we shall call it “Pennies from Heaven”).  The characters found pennies around the house for their mom.  I adorably pasted actual coins in my illustrations in the book.  I was sure it would be enough to buy groceries.

But cards were our favorite thing. Holiday cards!  My mother also taught me to write Thank You notes.  How I loved the little cards!  I don’t know if anyone writes them anymore.  And then I wrote to my pen-pal, Pam from Australia, whose letters were curiously disappointing. My later correspondence with friends in adulthood was much more satisfying–in fact, delightful, But a few years ago,  I threw out a whole drawer of letters. 

I love the Mitfords’ letters!

I have always been fond of letters in literature–Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, the Mitford sisters-but I especially enjoy letters written in ancient times. There is a whole genre of invitations written in the form of poems.  Most famous is Catullus’s simple poem (Catullus 13), which you may know.  It begins with the line, “You will dine well if you bring your own.” ( I thought I wrote a translation of the poem at one of my blogs, but can’t find it.)

I don’t have this translation, but I love the cover.

Horace’s dinner invitation to his friend Torquatus (Epistle I.5) is longer, more complex, and sometimes philosophical.  Here are the comic opening lines:

“If you are don’t mind reclining on a scruffy couch/ and eating a dinner of herbs in a cheap dish/ I will await you at home, Torquatus, today at sunset./  You will drink unremarkable wine, which was bottled  six years ago / in Petrinum between marshy Minturnae and Sassinium./ If you have something better, send for it or submit to my orders./The hearth shines  brightly for you and the humble seats are spic-and-span.”

What could be better than cheap wine and greens!  This is my prose translation “version,” with a few slight changes to make it readable.

I think we’ll have greens for dinner tonight…

I hope you’ll have a great social-distancing dinner of wine and greens yourself!

What to Do with Paper: Books, Letters, and Other Archives

A few years ago we “decluttered.”  We cleaned the sock drawers, threw out  threadbare T-shirts (Don’t Fall Run, ’79; a faded Book Woman; and a vintage Kliban cat), and junked old blenders and other appliances we had dumped in the basement.

Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying-up guru who inspired decluttering, recently alienated book lovers, though.  On her new Netflix TV series,  she advised two writers to weed their bookshelves. She asked, “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?” And her advice sparked a Twitter fest, or do I mean a Twitter war?

Marie Kondo recommends weeding books.

Culling a collection doesn’t sound radical to me: librarians at public libraries do it all the time. The five-year weeding policy at our public library is distasteful to me, but fortunately librarians at university libraries take old books seriously, and owners of used bookstores hoard.

I hoarded my own books for years. That was before black mold and flash flooding attacked our house. Our tidily-shelved and punctiliously-catalogued books had to be stored in boxes while carpenters scraped away at mold that had grown BEHIND floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Needless to say, we did not dare restore the tall bookcases.  And so I discarded dozens of Viragos, NYRBs, genre books, biographies, crumbling diaries of Anais Nin, and 1990s fiction. What did I keep? Penguin classics! (And a slew of other important stuff, of course. Our bookshelves are still bulging.)

And then a flash flood wiped out the files in our basement. (Thank you, global warming:  our state now has a Living with Flooding program.)  Decades of greeting cards and letters from friends—all gone! Correspondence was an important part of my life until email took over.  It’s not as though this archive of letters meant anything to anyone else, but I wasn’t ready to part with it.

An article in USA Today made me especially unhappy about the loss of my letters.  Apparently the post office handled “2.1 billion fewer letters in 2018 than the previous fiscal year. Online billing is a major cause of the downward trend in letter volume..”

And our post office is no longer open on Saturday!  That was a shock to me.

Everything changes, and there’s no use obsessing about it.  But I plan to hang on to the very few letters I continue to receive.

By the way, I enjoyed Lory’s post about Marie Kondo at the new blog Entering the Enchanted Castle.  Here is the link.