Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January 1: Elena Passarello on the Book of Days

I am never eager to make resolutions on January 1st. I’m pretty crappy at resolve at any date, and I find it difficult to come up with New Year’s resolutions that excite me enough to try and keep them. If I do think of a thrilling resolution, it usually turns out to be impossible. The last New Year’s resolution I made in earnest was in 2009, when I swore to see a moose by December. I never did, despite my limited efforts.  I also made the resolution in March.

One thing that does excite me about the first of the year, though, is the opportunity to adopt a new principle for organizing that year. I think this is why I get a bright new coat every after-Christmas sale season; I imagine the world seeing a punchier arrangement of me walking about. And I love to get a blank calendar and notebook, which I never immediately treat like my old calendars and notebooks, instead devising for myself a fresh course of annotating and remembering and thinking. It is the idea of not just commemorating the year, but curating it, that charms me.

An amplified version of this charm is available in Robert Chambers’ Book of Days, a 1672-page, single-spaced home reference that could be considered the world’s wordiest—and most essayistic—calendar. Published in the 1860’s after a writing and indexing process that nearly killed him, Chambers’ book is subtitled A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature, and Oddities of Human Life and Character. It is more than an almanac, encyclopedia, or annual, because to peruse it is to step inside a singular and biased mind. It is one polymath’s vigorous and desperate attempt to organize time for the benefit of a larger audience.

The book moves through the days like a factoid magnet, capriciously attracting notes on holidays, important births and deaths, facts of the natural and folkloric world, and--my favorite—what Chambers calls “curious, fugitive, inedited pieces.” 

January 1st, for example, begins with an essay on birthday boy Edmund Burke --“A wonderful basis of knowledge was crowned in his case by the play of his most brilliant imagination.” This appears near a discussion of the Scottish New Year’s tradition of “first footing” (which turned deadly in 1812, as Chambers somewhat gleefully reports). Then comes an entry with only the loosest of connections to the date: a 400-word reflection on understanding the “happy” in “Happy New Year”--“God certainly has not arranged that any such highly intelligent being as man should be truly happy.” January 1st ends with a loving profile of Old Hobson (1544-1630), a proto-mailman who seemingly made the Book because he lived for eight decades and was good to his horses.

Other days treat readers to an explanation of how snow crystals are made (December 13th), a play-by-play of how villages shame bad husbands (October 29th) or bad wives (February 1st), and a diatribe on the ring finger (February 3rd). The different guide words at the tops of the pages are delightfully mixed:
“Animal Comedians” (Feb. 24)
“Priests’ Hiding Chambers” (Mar. 28)
"A Brace of Cavalier Poets"" (April 28)
“Whipping Vagrants” (May 5)
A Balloon Duel” (June 22)
“The Prophesies of Nostradamus” (July 2)
“The Legend of the Pig-faced Lady” (Aug. 23)
“Michelmas” (Sept. 29)
“Lighting Old London” (Oct. 3)
“Mermaids” (Nov. 24)
“Primitive Styles of Ice Skating” (Dec. 30)

When read more carefully, the book gives an intriguing picture of Chambers as curator; there is a lovely personal stamp on his organization of information, which grows with each passing day. He seems obsessed with both public humiliation and hot air balloons. He is also prone to commentary; Chambers does not appear to revere either Henry VIII or Montaigne, though he is cool with Thomas Cromwell. He is nervous to report any scatological detail. His Book tells us not just all these facts, but of the man who decided that March 23 is best represented by only four things: singing in the Sistine Chapel, an analysis of the handwriting of the Castilian king Pedro the Cruel, a fire that destroyed Kensington manse, and this one time in Edinburgh that a lady swallowed a padlock.

But why not use this quartet to mark a day in March? And why not match a sober recounting of the Battle of Hastings with a celebration of the pun and a history of the back scratcher? These groupings are the true pleasure of the Book. What they allow isn’t the chance for readers to learn the most important contributions to humanity that occurred on a specific day, but to stitch their own senses of significance and companionship among the motley raw materials Chambers offers. 

And there is an accuracy to this essayistic coursing of human events; I imagine that many days in my 2013 will be, more or less, a ragged and confusing assembly of epic battles, plays on words, and itchy backsides. There are so many possibilities as to where the next 365 days will take us all that a mismatched bunch of high and low points in history seems the only way to offer proper companionship.

I know that the Book is not an anomaly; Chambers takes organizational cues from earlier reference almanacs (though few were as exhaustive and none were as idiosyncratic), and many other books of days have followed his lead since 1864. A British publisher even released an updated version of the Book eight years ago, but the inclusion of new facts watered down Chambers’ voice, and something about pairing discussions of balloon dueling with Spice Girls record sales numbers leaves me cold. One could also argue that reading a few pages of the Book mimics more contemporary fact-based reading pleasures, like falling down a Wikipedia wormhole or perusing someone else’s Pinterest board, but I say nuts to that.

Though I loathe resolving, I think I might vow—or at least strongly suggest to myself—to open the Book of Days every day of 2013, and to read just a little. The whole tome is, of course, indexed online, but I got a 112-year-old print version from my library, and it is so much more satisfying—Chambers and his brother laid out each busy page gorgeously, so it hums with tightly-packed words and fine-ink illustrations.

And I swear the entries keep changing, like in a Hogwarts book. I just turned back to that page with the hot air balloon duel and discovered a story of a cod-fish found in the river Cam with a book of religious treatises in its belly. I know that anecdote wasn’t in there when I last landed on the page (but then again, the print is really small). And that magic is just another joy to be had in Chambers’ book: this attempt to curate the timely world into meaningful volumes, years, months, days, anecdotes, and meditations; this Russian doll of essays and essaying.


Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat, a collection of essays on famous human voices, out with Sarabande Books. She teaches in the MFA program at Oregon State University and in the low-residency MFA program at Murray State University. She is a-Twitter as @elenavox.

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