One of my most prized possessions is a map that the poet John Ashbery drew for me many years ago on the back of an old business card. This was at the end of a long celebratory dinner — the purpose of which I’ve now forgotten — and a great deal of wine had been consumed. Though almost illegible, the map provides directions to Rodgers Book Barn in the Columbia County town of Hillsdale. “It’s a wonderful place,” Ashbery assured me when he learned I had a home not far away. “You must go there.”
The literary world has piled its most glittering prizes — Pulitzers, National Books Awards, Genius Grants — at Ashbery’s feet. I’m not sure he’s noticed. “Few poets have so cleverly manipulated, or just plain tortured, our soiled desire for meaning,” the poet William Logan has written. “Ashbery reminds us that most poets who give us meaning don’t know what they’re talking about.” However, in the case of the Book Barn, Ashbery’s meaning couldn’t have been more to the point. It is a wonderful place.
Finding it, however, is not easy. Ashbery’s map, like his poetry, is circuitous and difficult to follow. Roads are left out. One is mislabled. A switchback in his drawing, turns out to be a critical curve in the opposite direction. With or without the aid of the map my husband and I have gotten lost almost every time we’ve driven to the Book Barn. Over the course of many years, we’ve discovered that getting lost on the way to the Barn is almost as pleasurable as getting lost in the rabbit warren of books you’ll discover when you finally arrive. In fact, getting lost is in many ways the whole point of the expedition. These days, there are just too few opportunities to lose your bearings and start wandering in a direction you didn’t really intend to go. And, by doing so, discover something new and wonderful that you didn’t even know you wanted.
In our case, what we discovered this past weekend at the Book Barn was Anita Pollitzer’s wonderful portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe called A Woman on Paper, Donald Hall’s elegiac book of poems Without, an illustrated biography of Edith Wharton by Eleanor Dwight, Alan Bennett’s Writing Home, John Sedgwick’s In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family, and — a happy coincidence — A Writer in the Garden, edited by Jane Garney, which brings together the wit and wisdom of writers and gardeners, including this pithy insight by the garden writer Allen Lacy: “Show me a person without any prejudice of any kind on any subject and I’ll show you someone who may be admirably virtuous but is surely no gardener.”
The books were gently used, if at all. Many were coffee table quality and even gift-worthy. The whole marvelous cache came to less than $25.00. None of them were books we were looking for, but they’ve already given us hours of pleasure.
If you’d like to get lost and find some unexpected treasures of your own, please click here: http://www.rodgersbookbarn.com
To read some poems by John Ashbery, click here: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/john-ashbery