Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is celebrating 20 years in print, but when it comes to the book’s beloved pastime, really who can say how long the thing has been around? Quidditch, depending on which version you’re inclined to believe, was either invented in the year 1050 by a half dozen or so wizards with a passing knowledge of ancient broomstick games and access to a swampy area known as Queerditch Marsh, or in the mid-1990s, by a woman in a Manchester hotel room who had just gone through a bad breakup and was having a deep think on just what it is that keeps people and societies together, or in 2005, by a group of college students in Middlebury, Vermont, who, bored of a Sunday, decided they would fashion capes out of bath towels and go make a spectacle of themselves on the quad.
The alternatives may sound stark but they’re nothing too far out of the ordinary for sports. Tetherball, for example, may or may not descend from a Tatar decapitation ritual. Baseball, who knows? Myths are part and parcel of our games, an active ingredient in the intoxicant that keeps us coming back for more winning and losing.
Quidditch, as much as any respectable sport, and not unlike the fictional universe where it was first dreamed up, is steeped in myth and occasionally bedeviled by it.
Across languages, cultures, and time, blue is humanity’s most novel color. As far back as we can track human words for colors and their appearance in art and artifact, black and white were first, then red, yellow, and green. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey there is no mention of the color blue, despite his numerous descriptions of the sea. Neither is blue found in far more ancient texts, from China to India, to the original Hebrew bible. The ancient Egyptians, for whom the color blue denoted celestial status, were the only exceptions. Though their influence was vast, words for blue didn’t appear in the world for millennia.
The eighteenth-century British novel appeals to an apparently dwindling taste. With intrusive narrators, slatternly plots, odd punctuation, and long, ambling digressions, books like “Tristram Shandy” and “Joseph Andrews” try the patience of many contemporary readers, and modern efforts to emulate them—Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle spring to mind—are frequently greeted with exasperation. Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding couldn’t help writing like that, but what, some people wonder, is Pynchon’s excuse? The appealing qualities of the period’s literature—its humor, its frankness about sex and power, its omnivorous curiosity about humanity and the world—can be squandered, by present-day revivalists, amid defunct slang, semicolon dashes, and promiscuous capitalization.
Francis Spufford’s first novel, “Golden Hill,” which is set in New York in 1746, doesn’t make that mistake. It is trim rather than bulky, refrains from indulging in too many antique spellings, and tells its story with crafty precision. The novel begins with the arrival of Richard Smith, a young man from England, in a city that is still more small town than metropolis. Smith comes bearing a bill of exchange, drawn upon the debt of a local merchant, for the staggering sum of one thousand pounds sterling. (Or “one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money,” as the newcomer specifies; the baffling complexities of pre-Revolutionary currency and finance become one of the novel’s running jokes.) Smith refuses to state the nature of his business, but agrees to postpone collecting on the bill until the arrival of further documentary confirmation. “You don’t know me,” he concedes, “and suspicion must be your wisest course, when I may be equally a gilded sprig of the bon ton, or a flash cully working the inkhorn lay.” Rumors circulate that the amiable Smith is rich or a charlatan or a Turkish conjurer or—worst of all—a Catholic.
The book unfolds – and succeeds – as a deftly choreographed dance of words and pictures, with Cole’s characteristically allusive style of writing here condensed to what he calls “fragments”. Sometimes, but not often, the words refer directly to what is in the picture, but more often the photographs are conceptual starting points for musings on his now-familiar obsessions: memory, myth, culture, politics, race and dreams.
And this is why it is a major asset to this book that Rentzenbrink isn’t a doctor or a therapist. This is not an academic text. It may be chicken soup for the soul, but this isn’t a wiser-than-thou self-help book. One of her tips, as an avid book lover, is to read “gentle, comforting, funny things” and that is what she herself is offering here. Not just a comfort in the advice she offers, but in the reassuring way she is choosing to offer it. Very often Rentzenbrink is giving advice to herself, as much as to the reader, acknowledging that she as much as any of us is a work in progress.
Before the Internet, you would just sit in an armchair with a book open on your lap, staring into space or staring at a decorative broom on the wall—kind of shifting back and forth between those two modes of being.
Before the Internet, you might take it upon yourself to do a drawing. You’d quietly start sketching something in a notebook, not sure what it was, but you’d let inspiration guide you and then—woop!—turns out you’d drawn a squiggly alligator with a cockeyed approach.