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Posts Tagged ‘Boston athenaeum’


In Reading on June 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

Boston Athenaeum

Whatever the afterlife holds, I hope reading is included.

I am not sure when reading became an essential part of my life.  It’s like a wonderful part-time job — something I have to do — but also want very much to do.

A therapist once told me that I didn’t need to meditate because reading performed that function.

My reading habit had a slow start, but through the years, it gradually grew, as did my curiosity.

There was some fiction in college but not much.  I had read some novels on my own – mostly Waugh, E.L. Doctorow, Salinger, Baldwin, and Capote. I’ve always liked the theater and read lots of plays.  My graduate school reading was in political science and public policy and I’ve taken a few graduate courses in history but no fiction courses.

When I turned 40, I realized I hadn’t read a lot of the books I had planned to.  So, I decided to read Crime and Punishment.  It remains the most psychologically and politically complex novel I’ve experienced and I loved it.

In the past year, I’ve read Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Madame Bovary, Cousin Bette (Balzac), and The Merchant of Venice, among others.  I am about a third of the way through Ulysses and have just begun Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  I mention these titles to show what I had failed to read before now. My reading list could be a high school syllabus.

Reading is unlike other endeavors.  Take distance running; you feel pretty good after a marathon because among other things, you know how few humans can do it.  It’s a punctuation point.  You’ve done it and most people are not ready to do it again any time soon.  But when you read, all you feel is how much more there is to read and how you’ve just begun.  Reading does not respect time — there’s no beginning or end – just more reading.  Sounds like heaven.


James Allen, Highwayman, Who Bound His Memoir in Human Skin

In Boston Individualists on May 27, 2011 at 12:13 am

James Allen’s memoir of his days as a highwayman is one of the rarest books in the rare book collection of the Boston Athenaeum, America’s oldest private membership library.  The one man who fought back when Allen attempted to rob him was John Fenno.  This impressed Allen so much that he asked to have a copy of his memoir bound in skin from his own back and presented to Fenno.

But is this true?

Yes, within the past several years, the Library had a visitor:

The interpretation always accepted here has been that the highwayman’s own skin was used (as the book binder). This belief has recently been confirmed in a striking manner. A visitor to the Athenæum a few months ago announced himself as the son and namesake of one George Arnold, who did cataloguing work at this Library some ninety years ago. The visitor’s grandfather, Peter Low, had come to Boston from London, where his father and grandfather were in the book business. Here he was engaged in bookbinding, for the Old Corner Book Store and other clients. The grandson relates the story that the skin used for binding Walton’s book came from Massachusetts General Hospital on the very day of his death. Walton was a Jamaican mulatto, and the skin, taken from his back, had been treated to look like a gray deer skin. Peter Low had not realized at first the precise nature of the material placed in his hands. By the time his day’s work was done, however, he was in great distress of mind and nightmares filled the night that followed.

–Boston Athenaeum Website