Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Old books, their writers and readers

I have spent much of the past 2 months reading the minutes of the Literature Club of Hastings-on-Hudson, from 1909 to the present, and to show for it I have a crick in my neck, a better appreciation for good penmanship and a pile of books from the library, books that were read and discussed by the ladies but have since been forgotten, only to be found in library stacks and dusty book sales.
You recall Louis Adamic? If not, see February 22. I have discovered Oliver Onions (not the Oliver Onions with a Dune Buggy video on You Tube) who wrote what some consider the best horror story ever, The Beckoning Fair One. (I would demur but then what do I know about horror stories? I find them unreadable.) I read about Agnes Keith and immediately got her memoir of Japanese prison camp in Borneo from the library. More on that another time. I asked myself, Who was Malvina Hoffman? It turns out she was a sculptor who created a series of life size sculptures of the various races (105) for the Field Museum, as chronicled in her book, Heads and Tales. All of them are now mothballed, being profoundly un-politically correct.
If you are from South Africa or England you probably know all about Laurens van der Post, but I was ignorant. Just yesterday (in the creepy waiting room of a retina specialist that I eventually fled, having decided that I didn’t want to see this doctor who kept very elderly people, and me, waiting for untold hours) I started reading The Lost World of the Kalahari, and discovered the honey hunting Bushmen. They are valiant honey hunters, climbing up rock faces and tall trees with their bare hands and feet to extract honey from hives in crevasses. They use special herbs to smoke the bees. These are African bees, feistier and fiercer than our gentle Italians, but according to van der Post they rarely sting the bushmen, just enough to remind them that they are bees. In her classic reference work, Beekeeping and Honey Hunting,the late lamented Eva Crane discusses in great detail the African honey hunters, but that was not read by the ladies of the Literature Club.

I was especially delighted about the bees because for a while now – often as he rubs the aforementioned crick in my neck – CSB has questioned where I am going with this project. Good question, of course. What are they paying you?” he asks. Very funny, I say. The pleasure of it. I know that deep in his heart – very deep, China perhaps – CSB too thinks this is a fascinating task. But discovering the Bushmen honey hunters felt like an excellent bonus.

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