I found a little book recently called The Story of a Piece of Coal: What It Is, Whence It Comes, and Whither it Goes (1910), by Edward A. Martin, part of the "The Library of Useful Stories" series (not to be confused with The Library of Useless Stories). A pocket-sized hardback bound in tan cloth and decorated with four illustrations of open books on the front cover, and one on the back, this book is a fine example of the charm of a physical book. It's darn cute. And so well-written!
From the homely scuttle of coal at the side of the hearth to the gorgeously verdant vegetation of a forest of mammoth trees, might have appeared a somewhat far cry in the eyes of those who lived some fifty years ago. But there are few now who do not know what was the origin of the coal which they use so freely, and which in obedience to their demand has been brought up more than a thousand feet from the bowels of the earth; and, although familiarity has in a sense bred contempt for that which a few shillings will always purchase, in all probability a stray thought does occasionally cross one's mind, giving birth to feelings of a more or less thankful nature that such a store of heat and light was long ago laid up in this earth of ours for our use, when as yet man was not destined to put in an appearance for many, many ages to come.
Just try reading that aloud. I'm happy to see a list at the back of the book of the other volumes in The Library of Useful Stories. I think I will get myself a copy of The Story of Books.
Once again, I am behind in recording what I've been reading. I read a novel by Irene Nemirovsky called All Our Worldly Goodsabout ordinary upper middle class French people whose lives are turned upside down by war. The novel is particularly poignant to read given that the author died in Auschwitz, and the book was first published five years after her death. I read half of A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, a novel I found to be too damn annoying to finish. The narrator is a twenty year old college student who gets a job as a nanny for a white couple who have adopted a black baby and rather than plot or interesting characters, the focus seems to be on the unbelievable, precious and quirky voice of this narrator. I read a book called The Sexual Century: How Private Passion became a Public Obsession by Tom Hickman. This was a companion book to a British television show, and is full of great color images and lots of proofreading errors (actually, it probably wasn't proofread) and typos. An amusing, fast read. And, as usual, I've been dipping into various past issues of Granta magazine.