Once on the door of an appealing restaurant a hand-lettered sign said: “CLOSED – because sometimes it’s good to do something different.” And the last week of October, we did just that – traveled to Boston and circled home through Los Angeles – a trip to see the young people – a weekend in each place.
A main goal was to watch our niece race in the world’s biggest regatta, the “Head of the Charles.” When she was a freshman and a new rower, our niece seemed intrigued and inspired as shells glided by, one after another, oars in unison. This year, as a senior, she rowed in the important “stroke” seat just in front of the cox, and her team finished third in their large division.
After the race and her return to school, we filled our extra day and a half. In spite of the Beantown label, Boston seems Booktown to me, with so many universities (where people lean over books or modern forms of books), and libraries – temples of books.
An impression of the Boston Public Library depends on which door you enter. In the morning, to inquire about attending a lecture, we went in the old entrance on Copley Square – underneath the John Singer Sargent murals, up wide stairs to a reading room with green-shaded lights on old wooden tables. Scholars toiled, many with laptops, all with an air of concentration.
That evening we entered a modern part of the library to hear Alexander McCall Smith deliver the Lowell Lecture. Smith spoke to an overflowing, thrilled audience of fans. Jolly, and wearing a kilt, he meandered though his talk, exploring his theme – that small and inconsequential things can add up to describe a life lived, in novels and in reality, giving texture to character and place.
Smith said he loved Precious Ramotswe so much that he developed a whole series from an initial short story, and didn’t know till he wrote the line, that Precious Ramotswe would open a detective agency – a choice that made all the difference. “You grow a picture of the world with small things,” he said, adding that quotidian things let the novelist talk about profound things.
At the Boston Museum of Fine arts a small exhibit reinforced that thought, with painters who make the ordinary extraordinary in their work – Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Scott Prior (his statement spoke of “the painted intimacies of ordinary life”).
In the Houghton Library on the Harvard campus, a glass case displayed nine of the letters with drawings Beatrix Potter wrote to the children of her former governess – pictures from the same mind and the same pen as the handwriting. Peter Rabbit and his associates first appeared in such letters – in one letter, a little drawing of a rabbit like Peter accompanied a comment that he might want a jacket he could take off. These drawings – so familiar from the books – were beginnings of work renowned and beloved the world over.
I came away from these visits thinking how surprisingly often that which is saved, in museums and libraries, is the utterly personal. It’s a thrill always to see the real object – knowing it was held, used by its maker – and preserved.