Epilogue: The 81st Book

So now we’re finally back at the Reform Club where it all began in Verne’s novel, right on schedule. You may object, though, that I’ve already exceeded the 80-book limit, given that I began by discussing Around the World in Eighty Days in my introduction to the project, and of course have taken my project's name from his book’s. But this isn’t really so, any more than Phileas Fogg lost his bet, as he feared, when a last-minute delay caused him to arrive in London at 8:50pm, five minutes after the time he was supposed to appear at the Club. He heads home instead, and spends...

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August 28: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings"

Today our summer’s journey reaches its end, as we return to England with our eightieth book. (An Epilogue will follow later, once we’re gathered back in the Reform Club.) The Lord of the Rings seemed ideal for our concluding book, for several reasons: as the riveting account of an epic quest “there and back again” (to recall The Hobbit’s subtitle); as a book very much about books (and manuscripts, tales, and legends); as the most popular novel of the twentieth century, and quite likely of all time, with 150 million sales to date; as a book born in the aftermath of...

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August 27: Saul Bellow, "Henderson the Rain King"

Like Paris, New York has long been a mecca for migrants, and especially for aspiring writers. Since so much of American publishing is located in the city, many come to New York to seek their literary fortune. Even writers based elsewhere regularly come into town, and it was on one of his periodic visits that I met Saul Bellow in 1969, seven years before he received the Nobel Prize. His visit had something to do with publishers or publicists, but it had a romantic purpose as well, as he was staying with Margaret Staats, whom he was asking to become the fourth Mrs. Bellow (out of an...

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August 26: James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son"

A city as large and varied as New York can never be encompassed by any single writerly perspective, and probably not by any human being. The city has doubled in size since O. Henry published his collection of New York stories titled The Four Million (1908); his title was a pointed response to a journalist who’d claimed that there were only four hundred New Yorkers “worth knowing.” It can be assumed that the journalist wasn’t including many, if any, minorities or working-class people among those four hundred. Yesterday I noted the precision with which Saul Steinberg portrayed the...

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August 24: Madeleine L'Engle, "A Wrinkle in Time"

In Maine I’d begun to experience the wider world through books, but soon after we moved to New York I encountered my first full-time professional writer: a parishioner of my father’s named Mrs. Franklin but better known by her pen name, Madeleine L’Engle. She had published A Wrinkle in Time a few months before our arrival and was giving copies to friends’ children; she was pleased when I told her I’d liked it so much that I’d read it twice. A further connection developed when my brother Tom and I started going to a small Episcopalian parochial school where her kids also went, and...

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August 21: E. B. White, "Stuart Little"

In 1952, the same year that Robert McCloskey published One Morning in Maine, E. B. White published Charlotte’s Web, the bestselling American children’s book of all time. The two works were as close in space as in time. White had been inspired by a spider spinning her web in the barn of his farmhouse in North Brooklin, Maine, just across Blue Hill Bay from Mount Desert Island and only a few miles from the McCloskeys. Like McCloskey, he was dividing his time between summers in Maine and winters in New York, where he’d been a New Yorker contributor since its...

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August 20: Hugh Lofting, "The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle"

During my Bar Harbor years, my chief portal to the wider world was the Jessup Memorial Library, just across Mount Desert Street from the church rectory where we lived. I became friends with the librarian, Miss Staples, who somewhat puzzlingly became Mrs. Staples after marrying a gentleman of the same name, and by the time I was nine years old I was carrying home an armful of books on a weekly basis. No books more deeply captured my imagination than Hugh Lofting’s dozen Doctor Dolittle novels.

Based in the town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, the good doctor seems quintessentially...

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August 19: Marguerite Yourcenar, "Memoirs of Hadrian"

Whereas Robert McCloskey and Sarah Orne Jewett’s narrator came to the Mount Desert area as summer residents, Marguerite Yourcenar had moved permanently to Mount Desert Island by the time she completed her most famous novel, Memoirs of Hadrian. Published in French in 1951, it came out in English in 1954 in the translation lovingly prepared by her longtime companion Grace Frick. Their home in Northeast Harbor, “Petite Plaisance,” is now a museum, where their thousands of books carry the bookplate showing their two right hands as they share a book.


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August 18: Sarah Orne Jewett, "The Country of the Pointed Firs"

The traditional life of coastal Maine has never been more insightfully portrayed than in the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). Born in the town of South Berwick in southern Maine, Jewett was a precocious and prolific writer. She published her first significant story in the Atlantic Monthly at age 19, and she produced a steady stream of stories and novels until a carriage accident in 1902 largely ended her writing career. During the 1880s and 1890s she became one of her generation’s leading regional writers, part of a movement that sought to convey the flavor of life beyond...

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