Books and Kitchens

Ours is a house where books are apt to be found lying around anywhere and everywhere. There is always one under Christopher’s bed, where he can reach it while he is waiting his turn at the morning tub. There is generally one on the staircase, about to be carried either up or down, according to the location of the bookcase where it belongs. At the present moment, Christopher’s boot-blacking kit is incongruously surmounted by a very flossy blue-and-white volume of Browning’s lyrics, presented to me when I was a schoolgirl; and under my knitting-bag lies a copy of Bleak House. In the summer there are books on the piazza chairs, on the front steps, in the garage, and in the woodshed; and in the winter the living-room table is strewn thick with them.

They are very adroit in their adaptation to our whims; no matter where we leave them stranded, they always manage to make themselves at home. But they have their preferences, and they look happier in some places than in others. The volume of Lamb’s Essays which I found bravely sticking it out on the lid of the ash-barrel had by no means given up hope of Christopher’s return to sit on the cellar-stairs and divert himself with ‘Poor Relations’ while the furnace fire went through the mysterious process called ‘burning off’; but meanwhile it wore a distinctly melancholy air. They don’t like to feel themselves forgotten, these gentle, unobtrusive friends: that is the only trouble. If they can feel sure of continuing to serve, they are willing to stand and wait indefinitely. Nevertheless, under the best and most attentive circumstances, they still have their favorite spots; and I have recently discovered one of them which I should never have suspected. It is the kitchen window-sill.

No less a volume than Henry Holt’s On the Cosmic Relations manifested to me this local felicity. I was reading it one morning when my bread was rising, and, being unwilling to forego either vital interest, I closed the kitchen door, thereby politely suggesting seclusion to my family, and established myself in a big chair in the west window. Never shall I forget the hours which ensued. They gave me one of the best bouts of reading I have ever had.

Our kitchen is very pleasant. It looks west and north, into an apple orchard and a flower-garden. It is far too big for modern ideas of convenience, but just for that reason it is restful. Wide, comforting floor-spaces intervene between the various stove-and-sink-andtable centres of activity. They lend a certain element of rhythm and detachment to the preparation of our simple meals. I have always liked the room,— everybody likes kitchens, — but only since our last Bridget’s final departure have I come to realize the fineness of its spiritual atmosphere. Essential domain of vital forces, hand-maiden to the great act of creation itself, minister to life and immortality, when looked at aright, a kitchen is seen to be more august than homely, and its serviceable fire becomes an altar flame. I take shame and sorrow to myself for all the long years during which I have handed over to a paid alien the absorbingly interesting mysteries of what seems to me now sometimes almost a religious cult. Bread, the staff of life? Yes, but also the substance of our dreams, the foundation on which we build our philosophies, the means by which we keep ourselves aware of everything that matters. Its preparation is a sacred business.

Perhaps it was just for this reason that the particular volume I sat down to read on the morning in question, while my bread was rising, felt such a happy fitness in its environment. Cosmic relations are not extended alone to subliminal and telepathic matters: they concern also the intimate interplay of the affairs of our daily lives. It is doubtful if Mr. Holt knows much about kitchens himself; but his book was happier in my kitchen than it had been in the living-room or in my study or anywhere else I had carried it. How do I know this? By the contented look it wore on the kitchen window-sill when I came back to it after putting my bread in the oven. There is no mistaking the look of a book when it feels at ease in a certain environment. Well-being radiates from it as from a person in similar circumstances. It broods and smiles and invites and — in the case under discussion, I am not afraid to say that Cosmic Relations, waiting for me to return to it, echoed the subdued song of the kettle on the stove.

The whole experience taught me a lesson by which I intend to profit to the extent of turning the kitchen west window-sill into a permanent bookshelf. I am even now in process of selecting the fifteen or twenty volumes which I intend to establish there. But the choice is not simple: it involves a new and searching test which, loving all our books as I do (well, almost all), I hesitate to apply. They all want to be chosen — yes, even Pater and Henry James, whose physical presence in a kitchen is unthinkable. I foresee that I shall have to change them often, making a sort of Tabard Inn affair of the window-sill.

But what shall I begin with? Well, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Oxford Bookof English Verse, a Dickens novel, a volume of Emerson’s Essays, Hugh Benson’s The Light Invisible, Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp, the Hebrew Psalms, Sarah Cleghorn’s Portraits and Protests, Robert Frost’s North of Boston, Lamb’s Letters or Essays, or both, a volume of Montaigne, Thoreau’s Walden, Plato’s Republic, Cowper’s Letters.

As I name these books, I wonder if there is any principle guiding my choice beyond that of personal predilection. Why do I think them volumes peculiarly fitted for a kitchen sojourn? I conclude that it is because they are utterly sincere, — simple and candid, — caring nothing at all for the shams and pretensions of life but everything for its realities. So patient and wise are they that they open their pages and offer their best under all circumstances; but the simpler and more essentially real their environment, the more accessible they are. They are quiet books, — deep, steadfast, profound, — books to be dug into and mused over. While the bread burns? Oh, I hope not! That would spoil everything. I must prove myself such a good reader, so cosmically related, that I can ponder a sonnet of Shakespeare and a pan of rolls at the same time, and do fuller justice to each because of the other.

My kitchen will be more attractive than ever when I get my bookshelf established, and I shall probably spend more time there, laying hold on the substance of life with both hands, a mixingspoon in one and an immortal book in the other.