A literary travelogue to New York, by Michael Dirda


Suddenly, there seemed every reason to visit New York.

Not only were invitations to appealing events popping up in my email, but my interest in the book I was to be writing about for this column, Alec Nevala-Lee’s carefully researched biography, “Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller,” had begun to flag. After having been a lazy student at Harvard (which family connections got him into despite his mediocre prep-school grades), a lifelong skirt chaser and a glory hog who took all the credit for what were often group enterprises, Fuller — a.k.a. “Bucky” — was just about to launch the geodesic dome when I stopped reading. I no longer cared what this unlikable futurist would accomplish in the second half of his life.

Instead, I remembered that an old D.C. friend now lived in Queens and actually had a guest bedroom.

I generally take the bus to New York but this time managed to find a reasonably priced ticket on Amtrak. As usual, I waffled for an hour over what to read en route, finally settling on Lawrence Block’s just-published “The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown,” an unexpected but welcome late outing for Bernie Rhodenbarr, antiquarian bookseller, genial first-person narrator and professional thief.

I was only halfway through Block’s novel — at 84, this beguiling storyteller has lost none of his flair — when my train rolled into Penn Station. Consequently, I had to break off just after Bernie and his lesbian friend Carolyn had stolen the Kloppmann Diamond from the Trump Tower-like penthouse of a sleazy billionaire. What about all the high-tech surveillance cameras, you ask? Block solves this problem with a bold science-fictional twist you should discover for yourself.

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Kew Gardens, new home to my friend Eric, turned out to be the Queens neighborhood where comedian Rodney “I get no respect” Dangerfield grew up, as well as the site of the shocking 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese (which inspired Harlan Ellison’s Edgar Award-winning story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”). That 38 bystanders did nothing to prevent or even report this horrific crime is now known to be largely untrue.

After dropping my roller bag at Eric’s apartment, I rode the Long Island Rail Road back to “the city” for a small cocktail party celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Folio Society. Over the years, I’ve written a half-dozen introductions to various Folio editions; hence the invitation. While downing bite-size crab cakes, I chatted with, among others, NPR’s Scott Simon, then admired the most recent Folio titles, particularly the 75th-anniversary edition of Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story,” beautifully illustrated by Marie-Alice Harel.

I also learned that Folio, having done well with deluxe facsimiles of classic Marvel Comics, would soon bring out substantial albums devoted to the DC Comics universe. What’s more, one of its editors would be on a panel at New York Comic Con later that very week. Was I going? No, not this year — a decision I regretted when I glimpsed a sexy Batgirl and a muscular Conanesque warrior threading their way through a subway crowd.

Inexplicably, most of Wednesday afternoon seems to have slipped by as I lingered in the basement of the Strand, methodically going through its shelves of literary biography, essays and criticism. Am I alone in finding such browsing restful and restorative? In any event, my taste for cultural byways led me to ship home, to name only four titles, “The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan,” by Ian Bradley; “In the Wake of Diaghilev,” the second half of dance critic Richard Buckle’s autobiography; “The Rare Book Game,” a collection of essays by George Sims; and “Evelyn Waugh: Personal Writings 1903-1921,” a volume in the scholarly Cambridge edition of the novelist’s complete works.

When Thursday dawned, I toddled off to the New York Public Library for a gathering of the advisory board of Lapham’s Quarterly. While this journal — each issue of which explores a specific theme or idea in depth — is named for founder Lewis Lapham, that eminent journalist opened this first post-pandemic, in-person meeting by welcoming its new editor, the best-selling historian Simon Winchester. Then, for two hours LQ’s young staffers along with a dozen writers and scholars — among them Ian Buruma and Francine Prose at the library, and David Cannadine and Linda Colley electronically from Princeton — suggested ideas and texts relating to “Islands,” both actual and metaphorical. Afterward, curator Carolyn Vega displayed island-related treasures from the NYPL’s Berg Collection, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s copy of “Gulliver’s Travels” and a proof page of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” with its author’s marginal corrections.

T.S. Eliot wrote of waste and woe. His private life provided material.

That afternoon the weather turned sunny and glorious, so naturally I sauntered over to another basement, this time to examine Argosy Book Store’s shelves of fiction and literary nonfiction. I picked out a half-dozen books, starting with a handsome first American edition in dust jacket of Nancy Mitford’s comic novel, “Love in a Cold Climate.” I already owned Max Beerbohm’s “Seven Men,” which contains the entrancing “Enoch Soames,” “A.V. Laider” and other imaginary portraits, but couldn’t pass up a copy bearing the bookplate of the noted Beerbohm authority N. John Hall.

On Friday, I enjoyed a nearly three-hour lunch with children’s literature scholar Michael Patrick Hearn, who a few days earlier had hosted a lively panel called “Oz From Page to Stage to Screen” at the Grolier Club. (I watched it online.) Michael and I reminisced about the polymath Martin Gardner and favorite children’s writers and illustrators such as James Marshall, Natalie Babbitt, and Leo and Diane Dillon.

In fact, we stopped talking only when it was time for me to head for the Grolier Club to catch its two current exhibitions: “Aubrey Beardsley: 150 Years Young” (ending Nov. 12) and “Building the Book From the Ancient World to the Present Day,” subtitled “Five Decades of Rare Book School & the Book Arts Press” (ending Dec. 23). Curated by Barbara Heritage and Ruth-Ellen St. Onge, the RBS show displays items used in the school’s courses, including a page from the Mainz Psalter, all sorts of bookbinding tools, a two-sheet mold from the Wookey Hole paper mill, the lithographic stone that printed the cover image of the dime novel “Davy Crockett’s Boy Hunter” and even an old Rocket eBook.

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The Beardsley exhibit, rich in original drawings, rare posters, holograph letters and much else, draws from the nonpareil collections of Mark Samuels Lasner. In talks that evening Lasner related a few of his adventures as a collector, while his co-curator, Margaret D. Stetz, somewhat impishly discussed Beardsley’s life in its relationship to beds. The artist — who died at age 25 from tuberculosis — knew beds mainly as places of illness and rest, but they carry multiple meanings, as well as an erotic charge, in his provocative illustrations.

When I finally got back to D.C. on Saturday afternoon, my wife pointed out that she had rented a power rake from Home Depot and that, if I knew what was good for me, I’d better be spending Sunday dethatching dead grass and weeds from the lawn. Which is just what I did. Occasional gallivanting around New York may be all very well, but yardwork is forever.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World and the author of the memoir “An Open Book,” the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle” and five collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book,” “Classics for Pleasure” and “Browsings.”

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