From the Annals of Book Collecting — La Crosse, VA

(Photo by Jeff Wills)

We headed south last weekend to attend a big family and friends get-together being held down in La Crosse, Virginia.

One of the grand gentleman of the event, knowing I was a book collecting type of guy, invited me to his nearby home to scan his shelves for any books I might want. At 80, he insinuated, he didn’t see a good reason for holding on to all these books when there were others who might actually enjoy reading them.

The above picture are the ones I picked from the shelves and decided to add to my own library….whether I get around to reading all of them before I’m 80 is a fair question.

I picked out a total of 6 books for my collection:

1. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was assigned—as so many kids were over the past decades—to read Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby in High School…though I seem to recall avoiding that assignment and, like more than a few other high schoolers at the time, hunting down the Cliff Notes instead. A taste for fine literature is something acquired, not assigned, and I would eventually acquire this taste myself in college and beyond.

Since high school—roughly 30 plus years now—I’ve read Gatsby twice…maybe three times. And none of those times had anything to do with college either. I’ve returned to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby because, for me, it was about experiencing the power of words and storytelling. It was about art. I wanted to see what so many others had seen and felt from reading this great literary masterwork. Each time I read it I got something different out of it. That, my readers, is what makes great art so great…it lives on and on in each reading.

But I will say this about literature and books like The Great Gatsby and being a high school student. I think there is a small number of teenagers—especially teenage boys—who can truly appreciate books like Gatsby at that stage in life. Sure, we should expose our teenagers to great literature, but it’s unlikely at that young age they’ll truly appreciate art of that quality. To really appreciate books like Gatsby requires some experience with the tragedies of life, and for the most part high school kids are just too young and self-absorbed to appreciate how novels like Gatsby deepen the mystery.

So when I saw this book of Fitzgerald’s letters on my friend’s book shelf I immediately reached for it. It was the first book I took. My thoughts were about the inner life of this literary artist, his thoughts and concerns, and the quality of his prose in personal letters. Tragically, Fitzgerald died young. He was only 44. American letters lost so much.

2. The American Language.

This is a study of the American (English in North America) Language by H. L. Mencken. Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mencken. He was one of those silver tongue journalists and critics who was famous for his caustic wit. I really haven’t read much of his work to be candid, but so many great writers, like William Manchester and Russell Baker and some others I can’t think of right now, have referred to him with affection and recommended his works.

So thus I picked this book off the shelf. I couldn’t let this well known book—at least to bookish people—slip past my hands. Such is a book collector’s life. A so we collect on!

3. Lee Lieutenants. (4 volume set)

I had just the abridged (single book) version of this multiple volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman until this day. The subtitle of the series is “A Study in Command.” The books, as I recall, were at one time standard reading for West Point Cadets. I’ve read most of the abridged version and it’s a very interesting history of Robert E. Lee’s subordinate commanders and how they performed during the American Civil War.

In addition to the books themselves, I was taken by the fact that this particular set of books came from the Palmetto Junior High School library in Miami, Florida, where my friend had been a principle and retired from in the early 1990s.

Sunrise on the Beach

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(Photo by Jeff Wills, August 24, 2018, Myrtle Beach, SC)

Even on vacation I rarely sleep past 7 a.m. Decades of being up at o-dark-thirty for work have worn some solid grooves. And, truth be known, whether by habit or disposition, I love the early morning.

So while everyone was still asleep this morning, I was up and out of our vacation condo walking down to the beach. The time was around 6:30 a.m.

Walking along the access path, through the dunes, and out into the open beach at this time in the morning has a spiritual feel to it. It can feel like you’ve entered some sacred space, some verge, between two worlds. (I suspect a yearning for this religious feeling is partly why some people love to live near the beach.)

Usually there are other fellow supplicants on the beach at this time in the morning. There are joggers, meditators, shell hunters, couples and individuals walking, and all of us, it seems, in a solemn silence, our souls mesmerized by the sound of the surf and the gentle, caressing light, of the emerging sun illuminating that infinitely awe–inspiring horizon.

Great Falls

Yesterday we hiked at Great Falls National Park. It was a lovely autumn day to walk the trails along the rocky heights of the upper Potomac river. I think the Falls and its environs burst the seams of the word beautiful and flood the mind with a visage of something bordering on sublime. It is one of nature’s great works of art.

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A Stop Over in Charlottesville, Va

My wife and I traveled to Charlottesville, Va, this past weekend to do some sighting-seeing, wine tasting, a little bookshop browsing, some restauranting, and other general touristy things that probably annoy some of the locals. We’ve been here before but only to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. We hadn’t really taken in the town itself.

From the Washington D.C. area we headed south down route 29 through the beautiful undulating hills of the early autumn Virginia countryside. It’s a nice ride. It’s only about 2 hours from the Washington D.C. area. We didn’t have time to stop but I can say from the number of signs, there were a number of wineries along the route. An area with apparently so many wineries there are companies that specialize in busing people around on tasting tours of various wineries in the area. We actually passed a wine tour bus along the route.

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200 South Street Inn

Charlottesville is labeled a city but it feels more like a big town. Its claim to notoriety is that it’s the home of our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson, and the college he founded: The University of Virginia. My wife and I were headed south to stay at a resort for our 25th wedding anniversary and planned this one night stay over in Charlottesville. We chose to stay at the 200 South Street Inn, which is located in the downtown area within 2 blocks of Charlottesville’s renown outdoor pedestrian mall. It was the perfect spot.

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The Inn’s Library

The main Inn is a large 4 story building (guessing early 20th century construction) with a large wrap around porch. The inside is absolutely charming, with a mostly mid 19th century decor. The library, where they serve wine and finger foods (cheese, crackers, grapes, nuts, etc) in the late afternoon for all guests, is the dream of any book collector. For tourism it happened to be the slow season—what luck!—so the Inn wasn’t near full. The Inn has 24 rooms and I’m guessing maybe 5 or 6 rooms were taken the (Thursday) night we stayed. So we had just about all the wine to ourselves! Another reason you want to stay at this Inn is because you can walk just about everywhere—because you need too. Okay, so we actually had only one glass of wine and headed out.

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Pedestrian Mall

Charlottesville’s famous pedestrian mall is 2 short blocks away. We emerged into it from a side alley street. The mall is 8 blocks of paved brick walking area, nice and wide, with a number of boutiques, a lot of nice restaurants and pubs, a lot of outdoor seating (“community living room”), a number of art galleries, a fair number of bookstores, and in general I’d describe the whole feel, people and environs, as being “artsy.” I love the smell of civilization in the morning.

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Bookshops on the Mall

So I browsed through 3 bookshops. A proper vetting of these shops would take a weekend dedicated to it, but with other sights to see and dinner reservations, I quickly browsed—giving each shop maybe 10 minutes—and moved on. My catch, for various reasons, was small. I ended up with a special edition of Mark Twain’s Roughing it, so I upped my Twain collection again. And I found a nice paperback edition of Tom Wolf’s Pump House Gang which I’ve been wanting to read. Believe me there was a lot more there waiting to be found, but hardcore book browsing takes some time which was limited this particular evening. That was it for this trip. I’m thinking a trip next autumn for a weekend of just booking and wining in Charlottesville! What a great town!

The next morning we checked out and headed south toward our weekend destination…after a stop at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard for wine of course.

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Our Lunchtime View

The Calvert Cliffs at Brownie’s Beach

After paying a modest fee we headed up the path, loaded up with beach bags, cooler, towels, chairs, and water float. Brownie’s Beach is a small beach (part of Bay Front Park) on the southern end of the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. We live down the road from the town.

The walk from the small parking lot is not over sand or through dunes but along a blacktop path through a thick of woods. All along the path are educational plaques naming particular flora. The only other sign which attracts notice (I paused briefly) is a warning sign nailed to a tree. There are cliffs near by so “by order of the town council” you’re told not to enter the “cliff area.” Directly under the warning sign is a well worn path leading toward the cliff area revealing just what people think about the town council’s order.

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Warning Sign

As we approached the beach area we could hear the faint sound of boat motors off in the distance and the muted voices of fellow beach goers. The thick canopy of trees had dimmed the sun light, and along with the surrounding thick woods, marsh and brush, it had made the path feel almost like an entry point between two worlds. Walking behind my youngest son and his friend, I snapped the following picture of them about to emerge from the entry path.

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The beach area is a slim strip of sea sand and the various accretions from the eroding cliffs—shale, sandstone, clay, and fallen trees. Dropping our bags and looking south we see parts of the rock face of Calvert Cliffs. The Cliffs start at Brownie’s Beach and extend about 25 miles south, ending in the Drum Point area of Calvert County. The cliffs at Brownie’s Beach are at the lower end in height. They get much higher (130 feet in some places) as you head south. (See this search stack of photos.)

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The mind is definitely a mysterious thing…it’s also an associative thing. So, to be candid, my immediate thoughts weren’t of the beauties of nature (those were a close second) but were actually, oddly enough, of Julius Caesar and his Roman invasion fleet as it approached the Dover Cliffs off the coast of southern England in 55 BC. Though the White Cliffs of Dover are far more imposing, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sight of the Calvert bluffs might have meant to the various minds observing them from sea for the first time over the centuries.

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The nature lover sees bleached rock, a sandy beach, green trees and the natural beauty of it all. The scientist sees geological formations, tectonics, and flora. The historical mind sees the beauty and the science but with the added dimension of how geography has played a big part in the course of human history. I’m not a scientist or historian, but having read a small library of history, especially classical history, has obviously stamped my associative mind. So my imagination tends to randomly dart across time, historical events, and the scenes of famous characters.

The boys and I started walking down the beach toward the cliffs. This beach, and all up and down the Calvert Cliffs, is well known for its fossils. It’s a paleontological heaven. One of the first people I talked to was a young lady, who appeared to be a college student, hunting for fossils in the surf. In particular, there are a lot of fossilized shark teeth along these beaches that in some cases belong to sharks from hundreds. My wife and I have friends who’s home fireplace was inlaid with hundreds of shark teeth collected from the Calvert Cliff’s beaches. My friend’s house was located (they’ve since sold it) in a community along these cliffs, called, appropriately enough, Scientist Cliffs. It’s a beautiful community where all the homes have a log cabin exterior.

The water along Brownie’s Beach is surprisingly clear for Chesapeake Bay water. You can see the rippled sandy bottom and schools of fish swimming by. The water is not deep in this area either, making it good for younger kids and for those just wanting to enjoy wading in the water. I can also report that Brownie’s Beach is rarely ever crowded. A big plus.

Typically, here in the east, the summer ritual of beach going involves trips to the large beaches along the Atlantic coast line, with large expansive beach areas, dunes, and the touristy beach town near by. Well you won’t get that here. Here you get a slim beach, calm shallow waters, the soothing sounds of a sea shore, no crowds, and the beautiful view of the Calvert Cliffs.

This trip to the Brownie’s Beach took place on Sunday, July 2, 2017.