Categories: Essays

A Soft Old Book with Handwritten Notes as Memento of a Life

“Be always a poet, even in prose.” Charles Baudelaire

Yesterday, I inherited a first-edition (1961) paperback Baudelaire by Pascal Pia published by Grove Press with notes written in the hand of my beloved brother-in-law who died at the age of fifty-six of dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, an excruciating four-year battle. He was born on September 5, 1957, the day On the Road was published and proclaimed by Gilbert Millstein in The New York Times as “an authentic work of art.”
Paul loved poetry and studied English at the University of Tampa with Professor Duane Locke, Poet in Residence. The fifty-two-year-old book is gently worn by time, the binding is unglued, notes appear in margins, words are circled and sentences underlined, and it reflects the personality of a young Paul, a young poet, a lover of English language and romance, his idealism, his interests, and his book—now a special possession—will help me remember him as that young university student seeking knowledge and adventure through the world of a sensitive and tormented French poet.

Last month, at the well-known and well-regarded independent St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village—where Allen Ginsberg would stop in to use the gent’s—I asked the kindly proprietor how things were going there. “Not well.” Landlord problems continue to plague the store and the owners are being forced to relocate. “Books,” he said, “are an endangered species.” I’ve been hearing that since 1987, when I worked for a nonfiction children’s book publisher before electronics took over the world and forever changed publishing.
I have the soft Baudelaire that will serve as a remembrance of Paul, and the book is made unique by his handwriting. According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal article “The New Script for Teaching Handwriting Is No Script at All” young students are not being taught to read or write script. That article struck me the same way as the fact that fewer and fewer American university English departments require Shakespeare. Burroughs knew Shakespeare, Kerouac knew Shakespeare, Ginsberg knew Shakespeare, and they wrote cursive and wrote in notebook upon notebook and page after page, and those papers survive and the interested observer can see the handwriting of worthy writers and glean something from it, the humanity of the person creating sentences and paragraphs and finally a finished work, a book, a folio, a collection of poetry. Handwriting reflects so much of the writer’s personality.
Book lovers take a stand and fight back. Go out and buy a book, a book of substance, a book that will touch your heart by its beauty and wisdom, a book that you can open and close, and inscribe with your thoughts. Squawk like Professor Sea Gull reciting “The Barricades,” even if you’re the last poet standing, reading, and writing, and alienated from the rest of the world. Don’t go gently into the good night accepting a world without books and a world without handwriting. How would Mentor Burroughs react? Brother Kerouac? Holy Ginsberg? Ginsberg’s father the poet and teacher Louis Ginsberg? William Carlos Williams. Walt Whitman and all who have gone before them.
It’s difficult to fathom that books will become obsolete, and one reason to hold out hope against this is the reemergence of vinyl records. The sound is simply better and provides a more pleasing experience, just as the pleasure of holding a book is more rewarding than looking at an electronic device. Would I have gotten the same feeling of intimacy and continuity if Paul had left me an electronic book?
At the start of Paul D. Newman’s early onset Alzheimer’s he wrote a memoir A Cruel Twist of Fate in the hopes of helping others by documenting his journey on La Via Dolorosa. Pia states that
though Baudelaire left but one single volume of poetry the Fleurs du Mal published in 1857 (one hundred years before On the Road, a book written in poetic prose) “it is, in sum, a confidential journal of an exceptionally sensitive being” and the author “must have gone through great suffering, my poor boy.” Baudelaire says that “poetry represents the beautiful hours of one’s existence, that is to say, the hours when one feels happy to think, to be alive.”
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

GK Stritch

GK Stritch is a contributor to Beatdom and the author of CBGB Was My High School. The book is available at the St. Mark's Bookshop, New York City, and and

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  • Hello,
    It seems kind of a good book because of the story behind it. I think we should digitize the book so that the memories live on forever. what do you think? If your answer is Yes, reach out to me via email and I can type the book for you.

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