Books and Literature

Treasures from the Victoria College Book Sale, 2023 Edition

Every September my pulse quickens as book sale season rolls around. Book sale season is, of course, the time of year when the University of Toronto’s colleges hold fundraising sales—collectively known as Bibliomania—to support their libraries and other college projects. The books are donated, and include castoffs and sometimes entire collections from Toronto’s bookish set—university faculty, readers, writers: anyone who loves the printed word but finds a need to cull a few shelves. The sales are massive and attract huge crowds, particularly on opening day when the lineups even before opening can be hundreds of people long.

I started attending the UofT book sales as a grad student, and became a regular while working on a Toronto-focused research project. When my daughter was a newborn 15 years ago, I brought her into the Victoria College book sale in a chest carrier, and jostled with her down the aisles while wondering how many books I could stuff into the stroller I’d checked outside. Quite a few, it turns out, although I remember it listing a little on the subway.

These days I look for two kinds of books: domestic manuals, decor guides, and old cookbooks dating up to the mid-1950s, for another research project; and just generally quirky books that suit some of my more ridiculous sensibilities. I love that weird old books are still out there for the finding.

The Victoria College Book Sale was a couple of weeks ago. I always try to go as early as possible to get a decent place in line, but this year I was only able to get to Vic about an hour before the sale started, and as a result was quite far back in line. Still, I managed to get into the ‘specials’ room (rare, antique, quirky) immediately upon opening, and after that was able to navigate the crowds through the large halls where most of the sale is held fairly easily, digging through the well-sorted boxes with tremendous joy.

Some of this year’s special finds:

I don’t think I had never heard of Dora Hood or her ‘Book Room,’ which Hood operated on Spadina Avenue near Bloor from 1928 to 1954 before retiring and selling the business to successors (who, variously, ran the business until it closed in 1981). The Side Door: Twenty-Six Years in My Book Room (Ryerson Press, 1958) is an unassuming-looking book with a rather uninteresting title—but is actually a fascinating read. I bought The Side Door mainly because I didn’t have it already, and because I was mildly interested in what the author might have to say about bookselling in Toronto during her era.

Hood was a purveyor of rare and antiquarian books, and a renowned dealer in Canadiana. Her memoir details a selection of these books with relish, making it a kind of catalogue in itself. Hood’s stories about how she acquired books, and from whom, and to whom she sold them, are amazing and envy-inducing. Hood lived a remarkable life, and her contributions to the book trade, to the preservation of old books, and to Canadian history scholarship more generally, were immense.

While researching Hood and her Book Room, I was unsurprised to see that Toronto historian Jamie Bradburn (a fellow book hound whom I run into at nearly every book sale) has previously written about her life and times: please visit Jamie’s blog to learn more about Hood, her shop, and her era.

[P.S. Looking at the font on Dora Hood’s advertising makes me think I have seen it somewhere … possibly on a bookmark found, perhaps appropriately, in an old book.]


A completely unexpected find this year was Horse d’Oeuvres (PaperJacks / General Publishing, 1975)—a collection of works by avant-garde Canadian sound poets The Four Horsemen … published in a mainstream pulp paperback of the sort one could have bought at any Coles Bookshop or even the local drugstore. And not that kind of drugstore, either. It blows my kind that there was ever a time, in Canada or anywhere, really, when weird poetry could produce mainstream publishing success.

The Four Horsemen were Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, and bp Nichol. Nichol is perhaps the best known of the Horsemen outside poetry circles, having published prolifically across genres and having contributed extensively to children’s television programming, but all four were gifted, multidimensional poets and performers. The works in Horse d’Oeuvre are strong and varied, and wow: I’d have loved to be a 14 year-old coming across a book like this while spinning a paperback rack at the local pharmacy, because this was about the age I started producing, on the heavy old manual typewriter in my bedroom, things (‘compositions’ would be too strong a term) I called ‘pomes,’ which played with words, syllables, and the space on the page. I had no idea these textual / spatial experiments even counted as creative work, however, and soon gave them up, not knowing I was making crude attempts at concrete / visual poetry.

Of all the pieces in Horse d’Oeuvre, I think my favourite is Paul Dutton’s ‘this is a poem:’

this is a poem for my father’s gravestone
a grave poem for my father’s stone
a father for my poem’s gravestone
a groan for my father’s grave

Dutton’s poem is deeply (pre-post) modern, but also reminiscent of eighteenth century poets in its cadences and tone (an elegy of sorts, it of course reminds one of Thomas Gray).

Bonus: my copy is signed by two of the Horsemen (by Dutton; and by McCaffery, who inscribes his section, via a simple code, to Mary) although not, sadly, by bpNichol. [Although to be frank, bpNichol’s poems in this collection are among his more self-indulgent, and lack some of the vital fervor of his subsequent work.]


I have an enduring love for twentieth century design of the pre- and immediately post-war period. There is something about the clean lines and pale, earthy tones that seems fresh and genuinely modern. This promotional guidebook is from 1938, and features Asbestos (!) Flexboard suitable for use in commercial as well as residential settings. The brochure references the 1934 National Housing Act (US), which was New Deal era legislation intended to reduce foreclosures, and which also provided and insured loans for home repairs.

Behold the colour tints available: “rich and distinctive” Rose, Green, Light Gray (a “shade of unusual adaptability”), “admirable” Buff, and Slate. I also love the concept kitchen (in Green and Buff) with its streamlined appliances, colour-coordinated canisters and nook for radio and cookbooks.

Did any real people have this sort of decor in their actual kitchens in the late 1930s? While I’ve seen concept kitchens of this sort in quite a few magazine spreads of this era, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an archival photo of a real, lived-in kitchen like this. I wonder if the tail end of the Depression, followed so quickly by the war with its attendant restrictions on non-essential manufacturing, meant these concept kitchens were destined to remain dreams. There are hints of these stylings in 1950s diner-era kitchens, but after the war modernism turned in different directions—to international influences, or to kitsch. The cool, clean stylings of the 1930s seem to have vanished.


Another, related, find was this Plan Book of Charming Exteriors and Livable Interiors, produced in 1938 by Bennett Homes and Lumber Co. of upstate New York. Books of home plans were common until the early 1960s (Sears Roebuck being the best known); from these books, property owners could order entire house-building kits, including architectural plans and all lumber pre-cut to size. This book includes 50 home plans, most of modest size, with two or three bedrooms.

The original owner of my brochure marked house designs of special interest to her, and appears to have settled on the Columbia, a fairly simple 1 1/2 story home with a gable over the front door. From her notes it appears that a complete kit for the Columbia (plans, lumber, and kitchen cabinets) could be bought for $3,769, and financed at 3 1/2 percent. Her annotations include notes about additional costs, estimated as follows: “Mason Work 750.00, Plumbing 450.00, Wiring 125.00, Heating 250.00, Painting 225.00, Carp(entry) labor 600.”

If the costs for this home seem low—in 2023 dollars, $3,769 works out to a little over $81,000—it is worth noting that this amount covers only the architectural drawings and lumber. It would not include HVAC, plumbing, wiring or foundation work–all costs that would now be many magnitudes greater than the estimate indicated by the prospective homeowner. Nor would it include the cost of the land. The 1938 design, however quaint, would also not conform to contemporary building codes in terms of structure or insulation.

Still, the Columbia, like the other house plans in this brochure, is lovely and deeply evocative of its era. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that there is a fair amount of historical interest in Bennett house plans–here’s an interesting account, complete with images, of the Dresden, another of the Bennett kit houses, and here’s some more commentary on Bennett’s 1920s offerings. And click here for home plans from a variety of manufacturers.


To my small library of practical guides of yesteryear I add Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them (1909; 1928). It is a dear little book with a lovely, arts-and-crafts-inspired cover and interesting illustrations accompanying instructions for (among many other devices) devising sawhorses, sowing machines, fruit picking devices, adjustable clotheslines, and smokehouses. I’ve added it to my bookshelf, alongside Boot Making and Mending (1898; 1912) and Practical Buttermaking (1924), because after the zombie apocalypse these skills, alongside blacksmithing, dowsing and witch hunting, will probably come back into vogue.


The Hawks and Owls of Ontario (revised edition; 1947) was one of my favourite finds at the Victoria College Book Sale. It is a charmingly illustrated guide published by the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology during that long and sadly long gone era in which governments and cultural institutions made efforts to share accessible information about Ontario’s flora, fauna, fossils and geology as an important part of public education. My copy is signed by its author, Lester Lynn Snyder, a noted ornithologist, “curator of birds” at the ROM, and co-founder of the Toronto Field Naturalists.

It’s very interesting to note that some of the birds of prey once reported uncommon and in decline in Southern Ontario, mainly due to deforestation (and, later, pesticides)—e.g. sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and Red-tailed hawks, and peregrine falcons—are now seen regularly in this part of the province, having adapted to urban life and benefitted from cosmetic pesticide bans in cities. If only the many other animal species now in decline could enjoy such comebacks. I love the cute saw whet owl on the cover — a bird I’ve never seen in real life.


Insect Life: An Introduction to Nature Study (1919) was written principally for middle-grade school children interested in exploring outdoor life. The book, which is organized by locale (various chapters are titled ‘Pond Life,’ ‘Brook Life,’ ‘Orchard Life,’ ‘Forest Life,’ and ‘Roadside Life’), encourages students to venture out into natural environments to observe insects in their natural habitats, and sometimes to collect and mount them.

Books like this challenge the commonly held view that, until the rise of critical pedagogical theory in education, all learning had been rote learning, and consisted mainly of memorization and repetition. Much of it was, but in the natural sciences at least, Darwin’s investigations prompted several generations of educators and natural science writers to see nature as a classroom, and science as a subject best explored in the field.

It’s a pity this approach is no longer standard in elementary schools. Budget cuts, risk aversion and ideological intrusions from the left (e.g., the rise of critical animal studies) and right (especially among religious fundamentalists seeking to replace science with theology) have made educators reluctant to have students do more than look at YouTube videos and memorize taxonomy. It seems to me that kids would be far better  equipped to handle the very severe environmental challenges of our era if they knew a little bit more about how ecosystems actually work from spending time out exploring them.


The Natural History of the Year (1896; 1901) is a delightful guide, written for young people, to nature throughout the seasons. It is charmingly illustrated and slightly florid in its language—but no less intelligent for it. The author cites the discoveries of numerous 18th and nineteenth century naturalists and recommends scientific works for further reading, even while quoting bits of doggerel and comparing winter to the story of Sleeping Beauty.

At the same time, the book is definitely influenced by late Victorian sensibilities, as this text on the withering of leaves in the fall suggests:

But there is something very beautiful in the manner of their dying. For before they fall they surrender all their worldly goods to the plant which bore them; all the useful material–sugar, green pigment, more complex substances, and living matter itself—retreats into winter quarters in stem or root.


I will include one final treasure before this post gets any longer. It is Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage (1942; 1949), written by William J. Fielding, apparently a noted American sexologist, albeit one who left school before finishing grade 8. But, presumably with an adolescent’s fascination for all things sexual, this autodidact seems to have spent his life researching and writing about sex—his side gig while also working as a secretary at Tiffany’s.

Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage was originally published in 1942 and appears to have been reprinted repeatedly up until the mid 1960s. It is one of a number of rather surprisingly well-researched books about salacious or at least eyebrow-raising subjects published for general audiences in inexpensive pocket paperback editions, among them Daniel P. Mannix’s A History of Torture and Burgo Patridge’s A History of Orgies.

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Treasures from the Old Book and Paper Show

Yesterday morning, bright and early, I took the streetcar halfway across town to attend the Old Book and Paper Show, hosted at the Artscape Wychwood Barns on Christie at St. Clair. The show was scheduled to open at ten, but when I walked in shortly thereafter, the hall was already buzzing with eager browsers and the booths were packed with people and an incredible range of wonderful paper-related things.

This was another first-time event for me. I’ve had a very serendipitous life discovering interesting old books and sometimes other paper treasures at book sales, yard sales, and in random boxes discarded at curbside. I’ve always maintained a large library at home, made up of books kept for research, teaching or pleasure reading, but suppose I have not really considered myself a Collector of books or paper ephemera. Although there are the 1940s issues of Chatelaine Magazine I snap up whenever they appear; and the nineteenth and twentieth century promotional cookbooks and kitchen-related pamphlets; and vintage books on animal husbandry, hunting and trapping, interior decor; and …

So maybe I have become a Collector after all.

At the Old Book and Paper show, I browsed the booths counter-clockwise, and was fortunate to arrive almost immediately at the delightfully-named The Book Not Mad, whose proprietor had laid out a very good selection of Canadiana, garden books, tame and therefore rather sweet erotica, and—catnip for me—old cookbooks and food-related promotional pamphlets. I rifled through those, and—with an eye on the clearly inadequate amount of cash I’d brought—bought three books.

The first, Better Cooking and Baking, was published by Robertshaw-Fulton Controls Canada in 1956. I had never heard of Robertshaw-Fulton before, but have learned that the company produced thermostats and other controls for electric heating elements. Many of the recipes—for apple pie, mushroom casserole, tomato soup cake (yes: it sounds awful, but midcentury cookbook enthusiast and TikTok recipe tester B. Dylan Hollis says it’s not half bad with the right frosting)—are familiar fare in mid-century cookbooks. Where Better Cooking and Baking differs, however, is in that the recipes are divided into two principal sections: Oven Cooking, and Range Top Recipes. Along the way, readers—who may be new to electric cooking—are also instructed in Correct Placement of Pans in Oven and shown schematic illustrations of stovetop sensing elements for stovetop burners. The cookbook has delightful photographs, which include lovely now-vintage oven and serving ware, and includes very helpful guides to kneading bread, shaping rolls and preparing pastry. I am guessing this cookbook was given away at trade shows and possibly also came free with the purchase of electric ranges containing Robertshaw-Fulton controls. 

My second purchase from The Book Not Mad was Tasty Meals for Every Day, issued by Canada Packers under the Maple Leaf Products banner in 1933. By 1933 the Depression was well advanced, and many of the recipes in Tasty Meals for Every Day are geared toward “economical meals.” There are, for example, plenty of recipes calling for chopped or ground meats, and many of them involve meat cooked in and with vegetables in order to stretch a dish to feed an entire family. The recipes are credited to “Margaret H. Rees, Dietician” who, according to Elizabeth Driver’s Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (2008: 756), worked for Canada Packers and created or compiled recipes for at least one other company cookbook. I am guessing that this promotional cookbook was given away at public events like the Canadian National Exhibition

I bought this cookbook for two reasons. First, Canada Packers operated out of the Junction-area Union Stockyards (at Keele and St. Clair) until 1983. The Stockyards—located less than a kilometre from my house, albeit on the other side of the proverbial tracks—has been developed into housing and large format retail spaces since the 1990s, although at least one slaughterhouse remains in operation, for now. The second reason I bought Tasty Meals for Every Day was because it includes handwritten recipes on the endpapers—my very favourite thing to find in an old cookbook. The recipes in my copy are an (unlabeled) chocolate cake recipe, which includes allspice and mace; ‘Chocolate Cream Filling or Blanc Mange;’ ‘Boiled Icing,’ Chocolate Frosting,’ and ‘Divinity Fudge.’ From these handwritten recipes, and from the grease marks in the cakes and pastries section of the cookbook, it seems pretty clear that the woman who received this cookbook kept it not for the meat recipes but for the desserts. 

My third find at The Book Not Mad’s booth was this intriguing, vest pocked-sized A.B.C. of Mixing Cocktails. The book is undated but was produced before 1932 and possibly prior to 1926, when the company (sold to industrialist Harry C. Hatch in 1923) was renamed Hiram Walker-Gooderham Worts in a merger (note: the Distillery District’s Distillery Heritage website lists the date as “circa 1928”). Toronto-based Gooderham & Worts Distillers was located in what is now known as the historic Distillery District: after production shut down in 1990, the site (named a National Historic Site in 1988) remained largely vacant until it was redeveloped into galleries, shops and condos that have maintained most of the site’s nineteenth century industrial architecture. 

I’m not quite sure what to make of this little book. Prohibition wasn’t formally repealed in Ontario until 1927, and remained in effect in the US until 1933. In Quebec, however, Prohibition lasted only until 1921, and G&W (or HWGW, as the company became known) exported enthusiastically to the province. I have seen reference to a bilingual, 1930 edition of A.B.C. of Mixing Cocktails, which obviously would have been distributed in la Belle Province (a digitized copy can be viewed here), so I am guessing that my edition (which includes a couple of mixed drinks with French names) would also have been made available in regions to which G&W could legally have exported alcohol. At the same time, the names of many of the mixed drinks—American Beauty, Astoria Cocktail, Bronx Cocktail, Manhattan Cocktail, Millionaire Cocktail, New Orleans Gin Fizz, Saratoga Cocktail, etc.—seem very American, very Jazz Age, meaning the book might have been subtly marketed to bootleggers’ American customers … or at least to Canadian drinkers who wanted to feel like they were consuming illicit beverages in a Detroit speakeasy. 

In America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (Oxford University Press, 2011), my favourite historian, Christine Sismondo, writes of the relationship between Canadian distillers and American drinkers during Prohibition in the US, 

Prohibition was effectively a farce in Canada. The country had no equivalent to the Webb-Kenyon Act, which had prohibited the shipment of alcohol from wet to dry states. Several distillers, most notably the Seagram Company, under the control of entrepreneurial Samuel Bronfman, took immediate advantage of this legal oversight and began building a mail-order alcohol empire within Canada. When America went dry, Canadian suppliers such as Bronfman saw the potential for sales south of the border and began ramping up production, ignoring ethical concerns. As Harry Hatch, president of Hiram Walker [Hiram Walker-Gooderham Worts], put it, “The Volstead Act does not prevent us from exporting at all. It prevents somebody over there from importing. There is a difference.” 

This means it was entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that A.B.C. of Mixing Cocktails could have found its way into a few American vest pockets prior to 1933. Which makes one wonder: had Jay Gatsby been carrying one, would he have survived George Wilson’s bullet? 

Fun Fact 1: A.B.C. of Mixing Cocktails includes a recipe for “Flu Cocktail,” which seems very of its post-1918 Influenza Epidemic era. In case anyone wishes to try it in the Covid era, it calls for 

  • 1 dash of Jamaica Ginger
  • 1 teaspoonful of Lemon Juice
  • 1 teaspoonful Rock Candy Syrup
  • 1 glass of G & W “Four Roses” Rye
    Stir together and serve in same glass

Fun Fact 2: I paid $15 for my copy of A.B.C. of Mixing Cocktails, and thought it a fair price, but see that the book is considered scarce, and the couple of copies available online are listed for over $400 CDN. Yikes. Well; I guess I’ll drink to that. If you don’t want to spend the money on a print version, you can read a digitized copy online here

From another seller’s booth I bought this 1941 copy of Emergencies in War, prepared by the Canadian Red Cross Society. The booklet was produced during the Battle of Britain (1940) and Blitz (1940-1941), during which Nazi warplanes carpet-bombed civilian as well as strategic targets in efforts to force Britain to submit to German terms (the same approach Russia has used in its targeting of civilian populations in Ukraine in 2022). Emergencies in War assumes its Canadian civilian readers may well find themselves under direct attack, and seeks to prepare them accordingly, with advice on dealing with shock, bleeding, burns and other wounds. It includes chapters on Psychology of Emergencies — noting, “fear is an implement of war” — and Air Raid Precautions.

A very relevant example from the Psychology of Emergencies chapter is the reported use of noise to terrorize civilian populations:

Fear has played a large part in the progress of the present war to date. Hitler, realizing that fear is the most powerful and deep-rooted instinct in human nature, has repeatedly, and successfully, and without conscience, made use of it to achieve his conquests. For instance, note how he has made use of loud noises to produce fear. German dive-bombers have sirens placed on their wings, and German bombs have vanes which make them scream as they descend. The masses of civilian population in Poland, Holland, Belgium and France broke into frenzy in the face of dive-bombers roaring down at 600 miles an hour, with sirens wailing, bombs screeching and machine-guns blazing, and swarmed on to the highways, effectively blocking them to fast manoeuvering of allied armaments. 

For this chapter alone, the book is excellent, and—it must be said—timely, more than eighty years later. This, incidentally, is a subject I will shortly have much more to say about over at The Space Between Us. 

My favourite finds at the Old Book and Paper Show were 1930s and 1940s issues of Canadian Home Journal, a woman’s magazine that ran from 1905 as The Home Journal (and 1910 as Canadian Home Journal) until 1958. Middlebrow Canada describes the CHJ as similar to Chatelaine Magazine, but in browsing the issues I bought yesterday, I’d say the CHJ is notably lighter weight in terms of the issues it addressed. Where Chatelaine, even in the thirties but definitely by the forties, is usually proto-feminist in orientation, and tackles social issues intelligently and pretty much head-on, the CHJ takes a softer approach, foregrounding stories and serialized novellas in which traditional themes are advanced and including (at least in my reading so far) much briefer non-fiction articles that tackle their subjects somewhat in passing. Where CHJ has it over Chatelaine, however, is in its visuals, which are wonderful. Chatelaine covers are very good, but look at these CHJ covers! I just love them. 

I hesitate to mention advertisements, because far too often ephemera resellers rip ads out of old magazines and sell them individually as tear sheets. I don’t get this at all. It seems to me that the ads lose their value when removed from their context, particularly the record the magazines, their format, design, articles and advertisements offer of the era in which they were published. Ads can be scanned, which I suppose would undercut much of their resale value. And yet—advertisements are emblematic of the mass production era, and maybe it would be better to enjoy them that way. 

Still, have a gander at this gorgeous advertisement for Congoleum Gold Seal Rugs! Isn’t it incredible? I would die—positively die! (only metaphorically, of course)—to have this kitchen! 

So endeth my day at the Old Books and Paper Show. There was so much I didn’t have a chance to enjoy, especially the numerous boxes of old photographs and postcards at various vendors’ tables. They were utterly swarmed with people and I didn’t want to push in. I was also, if I am honest, experiencing information overload. Also, the vendor from whom I bought the Canadian Home Journals had tons and tons of old magazines (including old Vogues) and catalogues (Eaton’s, Canadian Tire, etc.) I would have loved to look at longer. Maybe next time. It was a fun event, and I’ll definitely go to the next one. 

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Treasures from the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair

It’s November, and the air is velvety soft. Misty evenings precede gentle mornings, each more beautiful than the one before. At night the moon rides high in the trees, and all day the leaves, unusually beautiful this fall, detach themselves, one at a time, and drift down to rustle in the gutters.

Milo tiptoeing through the tombstones

It is a fall right out of Gray’s Elegy, and every front garden—still decorated for Hallowe’en, no one quite ready to break the spell—has the quality of a country churchyard. Stones askew in the tangled grass; leaves and lichen adorning gnarled roots and twisted branches like memento mori. November is a melancholy month, bringing with it the season of perpetual twilight. And yet: the light, so low on the horizon, illuminates the undersides of things.

Yesterday I rode downtown in the exquisite air to attend the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair. I left early, because I wanted to visit some friends at the Art Gallery of Ontario; namely, the paintings and sculptures in the Thomson Collection. I’ve recently gotten an AGO membership, part of making good on a first-year-of-retirement goal of focusing on inclination and not only necessity, and it’s my intention to visit the Gallery (and not only the Thomson Collection) as often as possible.

Ken Thomson tickles his ivories

I do have a soft spot for the Thomson works, however. Ken Thomson was my first employer when, as a teen, I wrote for the Oshawa Times. And I felt another kind of affinity when, in 2004, five small ivory figures, on loan from the Thomson Collection, were stolen from the AGO. After their recovery several weeks later, Thomson clutched the ivories to his chest and told reporters he would sleep that night with the sculptures laid out in his bed. “They mean so much to me,” he said; adding, “people wouldn’t understand that perhaps unless they were collectors themselves and had a very special affinity with something that they possess that virtually became part of them.”

I am not, of course, a collector of ivories. But I have strong attachments to resonant objects, places, times and loved ones both living and dead. My grandfather’s portable Underwood typewriter, a gift years ago from my mother, which sits beside some of my father’s favourite books in a bookcase in our home library. My collection of hag stones, found mainly in gravel bars along Duffin’s Creek. And books, of course.

Recently we acquired, via curbside score, a lovely old glass-doored china cabinet that now houses my collection of antiquarian domestic manuals; guides to deportment and etiquette; books on gender and sexuality; interior design, architecture, landscape and gardening; and old cookbooks. I’ve been collecting these kinds of books since first buying a copy of Woman: Maiden, Wife, and Mother (1898) at a yard sale for a dollar in 1997—a remarkable, proto-feminist book that advocates for women’s full partnership in society even in the late Victorian era. I love what these volumes reveal about the culture and norms of their era, for good as well as ill. [I love all kinds of quirky old books, having volumes on phrenology, and patent medicine, and … oh: just all kinds of weird topics, but will write about these another time.]

Every day or so I open the doors of my new-to-me cabinet and visit my old books, breathing in their distinctive smell of cellulose and smoke (more here about the fascinating science of historic odours) tracing the gilt on their spines, and browsing their instructions, say, on invalid cookery or Accompanying a Lady to the Theatre. Each book contains a story, made up not only of the material within its covers but also of the story of the book’s history as an object. I have always been interested in marginalia, and inscriptions and bookplates, and laid-in papers, and notes scribbled in the end-papers (recipes, calculations, reviews, reminders). I am also interested in how books have traveled over time, including how they have come to the place—a book sale, and yard sale, a box of books set out at the curb—where I first encountered them. Some of my oldest books have journeyed across the ocean in steamer trunks, while others have remained in the same city, passed down through inheritance until, at some point, being discarded or sold. Each one is a treasure, and I am well aware of being only a custodian along their journey.

This has been my first year attending the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair and, after two years of bookish events being affected by pandemic-related shutdowns, it has been a particularly good fall for book, publishing and literary events. The Fair felt like a homecoming event for antiquarian book aficionados, many of whom clearly knew one another. I am not entirely sure I belonged there: I am not a large volume (nor large budget) buyer of books, and my collecting is undisciplined and sometimes haphazard. I just like books. But I did chat with The Monkey’s Paw proprietor Stephen Fowler, and was pleased to make the acquaintance of the owners of The Scribe Bookstore, a new (since 2021) antiquarian bookshop located in Toronto’s east end. I also visited with booksellers I have bought from over the years, including Attic Books (of London ON) and Contact Editions (which seems to have sold much of its stock to Karol Krysik books, operating out of the same location, but running a separate booth at the Book Fair this weekend). Two booksellers I would have loved to see were Steven Temple of Steven Temple Books, formerly of Queen Street in Toronto (now based in Welland), and the late, lovely Nelson Ball, poet and bookseller.

I bought a few treasures at the Fair, including the following:

Toronto Survival Guide (Holy Trinity Church, 1973), a remarkable—and apparently now very scarce—guide to low-budget living in seventies-era Toronto. Edited by Brian Grieveson, of Rochdale College fame (and author of the memoir Rochdale College: Myth and Reality; 1991) and publisher of Charasee Press (and introduced by none other than then-“tiny, perfect mayor” David Crombie!), the book is geared toward hippies, Draft Dodgers and folks ‘Goin’ Down the Road.’ Its practical chapters, on topics including Accommodation, Food, Legal Rights, Education, Recreation and Transportation, provide a vivid picture of the city’s counter-cultural interests in this era. The book includes medical advice for drug dealing with drug overdoses, STDs and pregnancies; information for gay Torontonians; a discussion of labour rights; a list of entertainment establishments; a guide to local bookstores that even, in the book’s fine print, fills more than a page; random insertions of Grieveson’s poetry, and illustrated instructions for making furniture out of salvaged material. It’s really a remarkable book, one I’d heard about but never seen. I’m totally hepped to add this to my library. [P.S. Apparently—according to a 1973 issue of  University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity—the Carling-O’Keefe Brewery had planned to sponsor the book, and paid some costs, but eventually backed out on the grounds that the book’s content was aimed mainly at “transients under 30.” Holy Trinity Church covered remaining costs and absorbed the loss—perhaps one reason why the book is so scarce now.]

Canada’s Greatest Crimes (Harlequin, 1958). Written by noted Canadian pulp writer Thomas P. Kelley (of The Black Donnelleys fame), this book includes lurid accounts of crimes, the facts “a matter of record,” the descriptions reportedly “accurate in every detail.” This may (or may not) be so, but Kelley certainly went for the sensational, writing in the introduction that the chapters “present the cream of bizarre crimes” and “reveal stories of murder and of mass murder; cases of diabolical cunning and unbridled sex, so fantastic as to seem incredible.” Fitting, one supposes, given that Harlequins, like other pulps of their era, were sold in newsstands, drugstores and bus stations to travelers looking for light (and often lurid) reads. The chapter titles are evocative: “While Satan Smiled,” “The Corpse Went Wandering,” and “Wild Women and Dr. Buchanan.” I myself was not immune to Kelley’s sensationalized approach: I bought the book because one of the stories, “The Toronto Terror,” sounded too exciting to leave behind. I’ve only begun reading, but if the pathetic fallacy that forebodes so heavily in the chapter’s introduction—

On a raging fall night, over a hundred years ago, a flash of lightning split a Canadian sky and lanced downward to illuminate a small cabin in Northern Ontario, as well as the fields and thickly wooded area around it.

—is any indication, I’m up for a roller-coaster ride.

I have an enduring love for twentieth century interior design books, from the Edwardian period through to the 1950s or so (or, if I am honest, right up until the kitschiest and most hideous 1970s). How to Decorate and Light Your Home (Coward-McCann, 1955) is, as its title suggests, a double-header of a book. It is also a bit of a Trojan Horse, having been co-written by an engineer with the General Electric Company, then in the midst of the Live Better Electrically advertising campaign it ran in concert with Westinghouse. Reportedly one of the most effective mass marketing campaigns of its era, Live Better Electrically spurred homeowners to purchase and install electrical appliances in hopes of winning recognition as a Medallion Home.

Recently at a yard sale I happened to buy a copy of The Electric Cook Book (1960), presumably produced as part of the same campaign, which similarly extolls the virtues of electrical appliances. The cookbook is emblazoned with the Live Better Electrically slogan and logo and makes explicit the view that electric living is “gracious living.”

The Live Better Electrically campaign may seem ridiculous six decades after its heyday, but in 2022 homeowners are being urged to landfill natural gas powered appliances, particularly stoves, and switch to electrical heating, on the grounds that natural gas appliances contribute more carbon gases and emit noxious fumes (e.g., nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide) than their electric counterparts. Perhaps the ongoing campaign, delivered in the hectoring, moralistic language of far too much contemporary environmental activism (before the shouting begins let me say I note this with dismay as a person very deeply committed to environmental preservation, and as a person, incidentally, who line-dries all her laundry, but who cannot quite see the environmental merit in tossing her four year-old gas stove), would have more success if it took a page or two from the Living Better Electrically campaign of yore.

My final treasure from the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair was Social Dynamite; or, The Wickedness of Modern Society, an 1888 book compiled from the discourses of T. DeWitt Talmage, an American preacher, orator and supposed social reformer. Speaking of hectoring, Social Dynamite thunders at its readers against sin and social evil, with illustrations of “unfortunates” brought to ruin by licentious living. At the same time, it must be noted that the book also reads like a rather enthusiastic field guide to sin, with chapters like “Evil Companions” (this one includes the note, “No One Goes to Ruin Alone”–how comforting!), “Dark Deeds,” “The Babylonain Feast,” “High License, “Profanity, Drunkenness and The Social Evil” (I hastened to look up The Social Evil in this veritable encyclopaedia of sin, but, sadly, remain unclear whether he means drunkenness, prostitution, self-abuse, sodomy or all the above — but it seems Brooklyn was the place to go, with its streets “now night by night rivaling upper Broadway in its flambouyant wickedness.”), “Immoral Literature,” “The Theatre.” No evil is overlooked–not even Mormonism, Dancing or “Society Women.”

I love these old moralizing books, seemingly unvarying in their overuse of colourful description that must have made the sins their authors warned of seem thrillingly alluring to late Victorian readers.

Social Dynamite has already found a home in my cabinet of old books, and the other treasures will shortly be shelved with their kin.

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Holding Tight and Letting Go

One of my Christmas gifts was a copy of The Faddon More Psalter: The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure (John Gillis; National Museum of Ireland, 2021). The Faddon More Psalter is a circa 800 CE book of psalms dug out of an Irish bog in 2006. This is remarkable in itself, but more remarkable still is that the book, despite being very degraded after having spent more than a millennium in a bog, was nonetheless intact enough for its conservators to reconstruct much of its structure and portions of its text. Two important discoveries during this process were, first, that the psalter remained in its original jacket (reportedly a very rare finding for a surviving early medieval codex, as most were rebound over the centuries) and, second, that its leather jacket contained fragments of papyrus, evidence of cultural and trade linkages to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of all the fascinating analysis in Gillis’ illuminating book, the subject that interests me most is how the psalter ended up in the bog in the first place. Gillis considers the possibility that the psalter had gotten into the bog inadvertently, perhaps dropped by an errant monk or lost during flight, before determining, based on available evidence, that the book was likely deposited intentionally.

But if so, why? Why would someone deliberately bury (or sink, as seems closer to the case) a holy book in a relatively remote corner of a bog? Gillis discounts the possibility that the psalter was concealed from marauding Vikings or hidden during local conflict, given that its simple cover and humble contents made it unlikely to have been considered a material treasure — or threat. It could have been stolen and buried out of malice–but the presence of a leather satchel and calfskin pelt (used, it is inferred, to cover the psalter) at the find site suggest more tender motivations. With this in mind, Gillis posits a third option: that of a ceremonial burial or votive offering. Speculating, Gillis suggests the psalter could have been buried as a deathbed request: perhaps a monk, nearing the end of his service on Earth, asked that the psalter be buried near the place of his ministry.

However the psalter ended up in the bog (and Gillis suggests we will likely never know), its deposition seems to have reflected one of the most consequential and bifurcated kinds of choices: between holding tight and letting go. And its discovery, similarly, highlights the paradox of its deposition. Had the psalter been held onto, like the dozens of other psalters that would have been in use at monasteries then operating in the region, it almost certainly would not have survived to the present day. Conflict, migration, fire, wear, indifference, revisionism, and time itself have done away with most ancient books. To read about the lost libraries of Alexandria is to feel some tug of the tides that sweep writing and ideas away, but most books vanish quietly, without fanfare or mourning. Even books that have survived have often done so only in greatly altered form. Medieval codices were regularly reworked into new books, and the study of fragments has become an exciting subset of medieval studies. But it is exceedingly uncommon for an early medieval book to survive in its original form, thus the paradox that deposition in the bog–letting go–was the reason the Faddan More Psalter survived.

What people hold tight to and what they let go of is a subject of considerable and longstanding interest to me, and has more recently become a major focus of my research. Why do we keep the things we keep? Why do we throw so many other things away? What forces (perhaps beyond our control, as forces so often are) compel us to leave things behind, and what hold do those things–abandoned, taken, lost, destroyed–retain on our souls? What are the consequences of holding on when we should let go–or letting go when we should be holding on?

It is a strange time for our culture, one in which the holding or persistence of an object receives so much less attention than the cycle of its manufacture and marketing and its disposal or repurposing. Objects, like people, are now in seemingly constant motion–and we seem to notice them only when, suddenly, they stop. Hence, perhaps, the widespread public fascination with the saga of the Ever Given, a Japanese/Taiwanese/Panamanian/German cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal in March of 2021, blocking nearly 400 container ships and holding up billions of dollars in trade–a potent metaphor, in multiple ways, of globalization, the state of the pandemic, and concerns about the contradictions of consumer capitalism.

I am very interested in what happens in moments when the movement of things pauses, and this is one of the reasons why I find the Faddan More Psalter so fascinating. Through its discovery and the process of its conservation, the book has become a kind of still life: a moment snipped out of the tapestry of time. As such, it is not only a revelation (of book history, of early medieval religious culture in Ireland, of the nature of trade and communications networks prior to 1000 CE) but also a meditation (on vanishing and persistence, of time itself, and of the consequences of keeping or letting go). The mystery at the heart of the Faddan More Psalter–what it meant to its possessor; how (and how long) it was kept; why it was deposited in the bog; what it can mean to its contemporary conservators and viewers–is the most enduring thing about it, so close to the heart and yet as ineffable as a thing can be.

Image source: National Museum of Ireland, via Brent Nongbri’s Variant Readings.

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Gardens in their Seasons

This morning when I woke up, the house was cold. I went around, closing windows and doors. The sunrise was fuchsia, signalling a change in the weather, a shift in the season.

At mid-morning the air is cool and breezy. There are cardinals in the cedars, and finches at the feeders. The east-facing tips of the trees are turning colour, and the gutters are littered with leaves.

For breakfast I had wild apple sumac jelly on toast. A warm treat on a chilly morning. A good day for seasonal tasks of keeping: sorting the mittens and scarves, decorating the front porch for Thanksgiving, making a rustic apple pie. Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown: Shanah tovah um’tukah to all who will celebrate.

The picture above is from an old book, Gardens in their Seasons, published in 1912 (my copy a 1919 reprint). This is a charming, gently instructional book, written for young readers and wonderfully illustrated. I bought my copy at The Monkey’s Paw moving sale in the spring, and have kept it on my desk ever since, consulting it nearly as regularly as one would a book of days.

Of fall, the book notes, “Autumn has come; it is the time of ripening. [….] The hush and the stillness of late summer has been broken.” During this season, the book explains, the trees and flowering plants expend the last of their energy generating seeds to be spread by passing creatures or the wind. Readers are invited to “gather the prettiest and the best of the coloured leaves of the autumn,” to press into biscuit tins between layers of sand to dry and preserve their rich colours.

There is melancholy in the air, when soft days give way to chilly nights and the moon rises silently above the trees, overseeing this time of gathering in, this season of contemplation.

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