Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few, But Then Again, Too Few To Mention.

If you thought that I was in a bad mood before Daylight Savings time. . .

Steve, last week, at dawn, or dawn-ish, right before breakfast.

. . .  you should see me now.

I like waking up at dawn — I get to live another day in this wondrous world! I love the clarity and kindness of the early morning light. I like the way we get a spiritual Do-Over with the first cup of tea. I like the hope that comes with toast, a fresh start every 24 hours illuminated by the miracle of daybreak, courtesy of our very own star a mere 98 million miles away.

None of that happens when you have to get out of bed in the dark, shiver into two layers of fleece in the dark, put the tea kettle on in the dark, and back the car out of the driveway in the dark.

Why, o why did the Democrats not get rid of Daylight Savings Time when they had control over both houses of Congress and the Presidency? And, while they were at it, they could have ditched the Electoral College as well but noooooo. . .

A lot happened last week at the used book store that I manage here on the north shore of Long Island and I’m here to tell you all about it. Let’s start with Mike Massimino, a guy who absolutely did not cheat his way into college:

I liked Mike Massimino when he guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory and No, I did not know he was a real astronaut when he first showed up in Season 5, episode 15. His book is fun to read because he’s humble, he’s funny, and he’s smart. He’s also very hard working — he wanted to be an astronaut so badly that he did extensive physical exercises on (with?) his eyeballs so he could pass the vision test. You can’t “money” your way into NASA and to become an astronaut, and you have to be very, very good at science and a whole lot more. Who knew that being fluent in French is a + on your astronaut application?

This first edition copy of Spaceman is not the only astronaut book we have:

We have a second edition copy of Sally Ride’s book about Mars and GUESS WHAT!

Both these books are signed:

I am selling these books as a set for $25.00.

This is my favorite part of Spaceman, on page 121 of Mike Massimino’s life story:


Other than flying in the T-38, one of my favorite parts of astronaut training was the enrichment lectures. Former astronauts and older NASA guys would come by and give talks about the space program. … My favorite lecturer was Alan Bean, who flew on Apollo 12 and is one of the twelve guys who walked on the moon. After retiring from NASA, he became a painter. Alan’s letter was called “the Art of Space Exploration.” He talked about the mistakes he’d made and how he learned to fix them. … the last thing Alan said to us was “What most people want in life is to do something great. That doesn’t happen often. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t be blasé about it. And don’t blow it. A lot of times, believe it or not, people blow it.”


I want to send this to every teenager I know because I wish I had had Alan Bean around when I was in my 20s warning me to not blow it because Oh, yes, I know very well how people blow it.

Haven’t we all? This people typing this right now, for example, has blown it. More than once. And maybe as recently as yesterday. That’s another thing that I love about the early morning: it’s too soon in the day to have blown it yet.

Last week at the used book store we got this in a donation:

It’s a Book of the Month Club edition (basically not even worth its weight in scrap paper) but I’m interested in it because of this:

Ah, those were the days (in this case, 1981) when author photos took up the entire back cover, when writers were important people and the books they wrote mattered (even fiction). And you know why this particular author photo is special to me (hint: cat). But, I wonder, did people not know how to crop photos back in 1981? I know that photographers like to get people’s hands in the picture. . . was John Irving’s left hand doing something weird and they had to crop it out, even though that left a lot of dead space at the top of the frame? Or did the art department have a thing for the tippy top of that background tree?

Working in a used book store gives you a lot of time to think about stuff. These fell out of a coffee table book about Rembrandt:

I was thinking, Oh yuk, a Rembrandt book; but then the New York Times Sunday magazine did a cover story about the discovery of a “lost” Rembrandt and now I’m thinking maybe Rembrandt is coming back in style and I put a $1.00 price tag on it.

And then there is this:

Have you ever heard of Patrick White? I had no idea that an Australian had ever won the Nobel for literature but there you go. You always learn something in a day’s work at the used book store.

There are always people who think the used book store is in desperate need of their ancient beat-up college paperbacks:

This one had a cigarette burn in it, and such useful notes as: Nothing is ever it.

I have a story about Ulysses that I have been saving to tell until just the right moment and that moment has come!

When Vladimir Nabokov was teaching literature at Cornell (1948 – 1959), he made a note of this in his diary  dated March 21, 1951, about a meeting he had with a student who was “explaining to me (after getting a 55 [on a test] that when reading a novel (Ulysses, in this case), that he likes to skip passages and pages so as to get his own idea ‘you know, about the book and not be influenced by the author.’ ”

I can only imagine the look on Vladimir’s face during this exchange. I wonder what that student went on to do with his life.

This is the book that I nominate as this week’s Most Boring Book Ever Published:

It came in with Ulysses. A note on the inside cover says, P. 261 – READ OVER.

So let’s look at page 261:

Almost every page of this little paperback is filled with underlines and yellow hi-lights. This guy really loved Oliver Cromwell. Go figure.

And, next; this is just sad:

The book was printed in 1921, so it was already quite old when it was given away.

Dated Riga, 1 April 1939:

My dear friend Fanni, to remember a time I will not forget.

This is from Wikipedia, translated from the German, about the book’s author, Artur Landsberger (1876 – 1933):

As a sharp-tongued social critic Landsberger was persecuted by the National Socialists.  Finally, he took an overdose of Veronal  at his desk and died by suicide . In the “Third Reich” his books were no longer allowed to be printed.

This book would have been banned by the Nazis in 1939, and I can only guess what it meant to Isi to give it away, or to Fanni to receive it, in the year before Riga was invaded by the Soviets, before the mass deportations by the Germans. This book has survived the worst of the 20th century. I’m not going to throw it out.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, how about this three men on an island self-published fable-with-a-message from 1992:

No more birds, fish, trees, or flowers.

What have we done to this island of ours?

Vantage Press was founded in 1949 and ceased operations in late 2012.

Vantage was the largest vanity press in the United States. In 1990, the State Supreme Court in New York ordered Vantage to pay $3.5 million in damages to 2,200 authors it had defrauded.  According to the plaintiffs, Vantage charged money upfront, but never promoted the books as the authors had expected. (I can relate. My books never got the promotion I expected. . . but that’s how all writers feel.)

But wait, I  saved the best for last!

Published by Octopus Books in London in 1972, this books hits my sweet spot of vintage cook books. It’s got the ’70s color scheme (burnt orange, brown, and more burnt orange) and harkens from a day when life was simple, when there was no such thing as a food stylist. You cooked the food, slapped it on a plate, garnished it with red cherries, and snapped a photo.

If you were fancy, you’d put a copper pot in the background.

But under no circumstance would you go out of your way to make the food look edible.

And so goes another week in the exciting world of used book selling.

This week I got some mail from my publisher. Out of the blue, they forwarded two letters that had been sent to me in care of Bloomsbury in New York City. Both letters were about my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, which on November 15th this year will be eleven  years old.

One letter came from a reader who told me that my book helped her endure the chemotherapy treatments that have made her cancer-free since 2016, and she still re-reads it every month as she gives thanks for her recovery. I can’t tell you how profoundly, and humbly, I am honored to be part of this Dear Reader’s life.

The other letter was a ten-page illustrated booklet about cats and hearts, good soup and wildflowers, stars and talking mice in homage to When Wanderers Cease to Roam. What a treasure, and what a privilege to be a catalyst for such creativity.

Thank you Dear Readers, here today and long distance mind-melding, for bringing me into your kindest, sweetest considerations about the most beautiful and important parts of living and loving on this planet.  (Cats, tea, stars, good books, etc.) I am not worthy.

Have a great weekend, you marvelous creatures. Stay warm, or cool in the shade; whatever is best for your greatness.



25 Comments, RSS

  1. Megan

    Ah Patrick White, I think we are an understated bunch of people… I am sorry to hear about your dark mornings, I used to leave home at 5.45 to try to beat the traffic on my 90 minute commute. Hopefully the days will start to lengthen and you won’t be up in the dark for much longer. Love the cat in the author photo, you have to love a cat lover don’t you? Have a marvellous weekend and pat the cats for me.

    • Vivian

      So you have read Patrick White? Oh, yes, in 1973 Australia was a very exotic and far away land, and there was a rumor going around the schoolyard that you could emigrate to Australia for free — they were so desperate for people there that they would Pay you to settle, like in the old American West. Now, all our most handsome movie actors come from Australia and everybody wants to hold a koala. Everybody loves Australia.

  2. Casey

    Every book tells a story. I mean it tells a story just by being an object that has travelled in time and space. If I lived on L I I would volunteer at your store. Love the stories.

    That was quite brave of John Irving to hold a cat in 1981, when only women were cat people. Well, there’s one thing to love the internet for, for telling the truth about how many men love cats. Cats rule the internet.

    What on earth is that with the raw eggs and gelatinous gravy on ice berg lettuce??? I wasn’t alive in 1972 so someone please tell me if that is really something that people ate back then??

    Vivian, you have written three books that I am not alone in treasuring and savoring over and over. You didn’t blow it.

    • Vivian

      WE NEED VOLUNTEERS! If you know anyone who lives on L I and would like to spend a few hours a week in a used book store, please put him/her in touch with me! I was alive and kicking in 1972 and we got our Chinese food from a can at the supermarket, like good Americans. And thank you — for thinking that I haven’t blown it. XXOO

  3. You would love “The Gallery of Regrettable Food” (James Lileks), which gleefully captures the best photos and text from 1950s – 1970s cookbooks. (Remember jello molds full of shredded carrots?)

    The astronaut book sounds excellent – thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Shea

    I don’t usually comment but I had to this week, so much to digest here as usual but this week especially. Good quote from the astronaut, and I thought the same thing when I heard about how parents cheat to get their kids into top schools, even the girl who went to USC of all places but didn’t really care about school except for the parties. She’s going to go to USC, a top top school, so she can make youtube videos about make up??? Who knows what future astronaut to Mars was rejected to make room for her!

    I did not know who the 1973 Nobel winner was, and the Nabokov story made me smile, and then the story about the German book is so haunting. Possibly a chapter for your next book?

    Thank you for being here. I echo the sentiments of all your fans, you are a treasure.

    • Vivian

      Thank you, Shea, for dropping by! If I get a book about the book store in print, yes, it will include The Folk of the Ghette. Are you named after the Mets’ home field? The real one, the historic one, the only one that counts?

  5. Bunny

    Great post this week, sounds like you’re enjoying your time at the bookstore. Your feedback regarding the package you received from your publisher brought tears to my eyes. I think I’m getting way more sentimental now that I’ve crossed the 60 year mark, than I used to be in my younger years.
    Thanks for keeping us interested in your world of nothingness as JP Sartre would have said. It seems to me, that you can make watching paint dry fascinating.

    • Vivian

      We do get more sentimental as we get older and wiser, about this world. When you’re young, you take it as something owed, that the world should offer itself up to the wondrous You that has finally arrived on this planet. Then you spend 40, 50 years on Earth and you know how random, and unfair, and pointless all this abundance of life and beauty is, and it touches your soul, that you were lucky to have been given a life span of a twinkling in this universe.

  6. Marg-o

    *sigh* This post is perfection. I didn’t know that used books could be so interesting but that’s because I never had a guided tour from the great (not blowing it) Vivian Swift. Note to Bunny: I *have* watched paint dry on this blog and it’s fascinating. I hope you’ll get back to the watercolor tutorials some day but this new *you* is spellbinding. Can you tell I’m a fan girl? 10-page illustrated letter, You ARE worthy.

    • Vivian

      I like that — a “guided tour” of the books that come into the store. I’m going to steal that. Thank you, Marg-o!

  7. Kirra

    Sorry about the daylight savings pain. Loved the update from the used bookstore though! I also have the book ‘The Gallery of Regrettable Food’, it’s so funny and also impressive at the same time.

    As someone who likes mail (letters, postcards, parcels – sending and receiving) I particularly liked the story of your latest fan mail. soubds lovely!

    • Vivian

      Yes, don’t yo love getting a large envelope with pretty stamps, carefully arranged, in the upper right hand corner? With strange post marks, and a foreign return address? Sigh. I wonder if kids these days will ever know what it’s like to wait, and hope, and pine for a letter.


    What a delightful and informative post – – you are the best! You see the humor and the seriousness in so many things, and I just love your thoughts and feelings. It’s always a joy to read your post each week – – thanks!

  9. I’ve never understood why BOMC editions are considered worthless for resale, when it’s basically the same book as the bookstore variety. I’m sure this has something to do with obscure quirks of the publishing world, but to me a book is a book.

    Poor James Thies probably worked a long time on his island fable. I like his wilderness illustration but he wasn’t great with people, was he?

    Those worn paperbacks are hilarious. Some people just have trouble throwing anything away. (I confess I am one of those people — I just donate everything to charity and let them cull it, which is probably not very responsible of me. It’s passing the buck, I know.)

    I am fascinated by old books, their previous lives and all the paraphernalia we often find tucked inside them.

    • Vivian

      One of the ingredients of value is rarity. BOMC books had massive print runs, so there’s no rarity. Then again, rarity alone is not enough to make something valuable, as I used to have to explain over and over when I worked at Christie’s. Just because you own the world’s only working mantel clock made of petrified wood and scorpion skeletons doesn’t mean that there is anyone in the world willing to buy it. And, actually, you need to have TWO people in the world who want to buy your item — then, my friend, you have a bidding war. Also, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s valuable…I used to get three or four queries a year from people who want to sell their great-grandmother’s spinning wheel. These things are not rare, and no matter how old they are, nobody wants them. Now, if your great-grandma ad a nice Faberge picture frame, THAT I could sell in 5 seconds.

  10. Sharon jayne

    There is a wonderful book called ” people of the book” by Geraldine Brooks that follows the ownership of an ancient book through the people who owned it right up to the present.i loved this book and highly recommend it.the book does indeed have it’s own story.

    • Vivian

      Thank you for the recommendation. I’m always looking for a good book and a book about a book sounds right up my alley.

  11. Kirsten

    Hello Vivian,

    Love the postings about the books donated and how they have been treated by their owners. To me it is so fascinating to see what books show up where and so many books I would have not known about otherwise.

    It is rather entertaining to go back and look at photos of food in the older cookbooks. Definitely some of them are not rather enticing to eat or is that our perception of food appearances and the types of food has changed over time? That we have moved from an interpretation of what a particular type of food is to more of how it is actually prepared.

    Of course today we have to share what our food looks like for some reason. Although one could argue that because it looks good doesn’t mean it tastes good.

    If no one wants the space books or the Das Volk des Ghetto, I would be interested in them and of course, the shipping to VA.


  12. I didn’t know that guy Massimo was a real astronaut either! Very cool.

    And yes, those have got to be among the most unappealing photos of food ever published.

    Great post!

  13. Your assessment of the books just makes me smile.
    That food for sure doesn’t appeal to me. I guess food styling has come a long ways.
    Thanks for always sharing a cat or two along the way.

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