One of the most rewarding aspects to immersing oneself in books and its inherent way of life is the discovery of new pathways, threads, heretofore uncovered narratives that once trodden on, become the illuminating points on a personal constellation.
A few years ago, I read the excellent nature/travel book The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane, in which the English poet, Edward Thomas, serves as McFarlane’s inspiration and lodestar. I was captivated by this book, and in particular, the solemn narrative of Thomas’s life, his relationship to Robert Frost, and his development as an influential poet. Thomas and Frost were great friends, trekkers, and nature enthusiasts. But there is an unfortunate point in this otherwise valuable exchange: Frost sent Thomas an advance copy of his much-loved “The Road Not Taken.” Thomas did not receive this poem positively, perhaps, and it is said that the work was responsible for his decision to enlist for service in World War I. Thomas would be killed on the front in the Battle of Arras two years later. Amazingly, many of the poems were written and published in these final years of Thomas’s life. Matthew Hollis has written a wonderful biography on this part of Thomas’s life, which includes many of his poems.
Soon after this I began my search for a vintage Thomas book (it somehow seemed appropriate to find a used and “charming” copy, which of course would include much traipsing and searching, in the Thomas spirit). I was lucky to find this rather worn copy, issued by Faber and Faber, 1941. The salmon colored, paper jacket is a bit spine-sunned, but the text is still sharp. I couldn’t believe it, found in the western expanse of Colorado! Any yet, it gets even better. This modest little volume carries some interesting associations. Pasted to the verso facing the title page, someone affixed a tribute poem to Edward Thomas, uncredited. Flipping further through the book, someone also wrote in ink Robert Frost’s tribute poem “To E.T.” There are also scattered pencil checks throughout the text. I was lucky enough to find a book that a previous reader embodied with the same fascination I had taken to this small poetry narrative.
Now, much, much later, and just recently, I was out scouting for material, and in a general stock bookcase, stuffed full of vintage material, I found this sweet little book, the second, by W.H. Davies. New Poems, published in 1907. Through the Hollis biography I was aware of Davies’s friendship to Thomas, so I plucked the thin, six-inch, green cloth volume.
I was amazed to see the dedication page states: To Helen and Edward Thomas. So now my small, noncollectable, and merely only associative collection of Thomas-iana has grown. My point with this short tale, is that collecting books can have many elements, beyond just runs of favorite authors or “pre-fab” lists of the “best” material. I urge you to seek out the interesting, the small; I would encourage you to build relationships between your books, and to cultivate a personal constellation of material and items.