Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Christopher Boucher writes about Golden Delicious from Melville House.
Used bookstores are some of my favorite places on earth, and among them, the Montague Bookmill — in Montague, Massachusetts — might take the cake. It’s not just the idyllic setting (though that’s always what brings me there — the Bookmill is a converted gristmill perched on the Sawmill River, with an amazing café, abundant quiet corners and reading nooks, and the river hushing outside every window), but also the store’s track record. Books find me there, and more than once those books have changed my life.
Such was the case with The Apple Book, which I found sticking out from a shelf near the front register at the Bookmill one summer afternoon a few years ago. At the time, I’d been writing stories which I’d hoped might somehow cohere into a second novel. A few weeks earlier, I’d learned something interesting: that the folk hero Johnny Appleseed had once lived in my hometown of Longmeadow, Mass. That fact, among others, had started me writing about my life growing up in Longmeadow. But I didn’t yet see how — or if — any of this would yield a novel.
Photo: Lisa BastoniThen The Apple Book found me. Rosanne Sanders’ 1988 compendium (published in association with the Royal Horticultural Society, with 288 illustrations, the book flap told me) is everything I love about used books. An oversized hardcover, the book is faded and ripped in places, with a musty smell and mildew stains on the top edge. All of these qualities remind me of The Apple Book’s physicality, of the years it spent on shelves and in the hands of other readers. This book had lived a whole life without me already, had taken ill, had died and been revived. Now it cost seven dollars. It was the kind of book that, in the age of digital research, wasn’t worth much. And yet, it was worth everything to me.
I remember being immediately taken by the book, finding a seat on the bench in that aisle, and cracking it open. Inside The Apple Book was a strange music: trills of “Jonagold,” “Bess Pool,” “Keswick Codlin” and hundreds of other cultivars. I read about cross-pollination, trees like the Feathered Maiden and the Dwarf Pyramid, pests like the Woolly Aphid (“It is in the spring that the over-wintering eggs of aphids and caterpillars hatch out,” Sanders writes. Hatch out? Over-wintering?) and the Apple Sawfly, diseases like Apple Scab and Powdery Mildew (”…a fungal disease mainly of the apple foliage, though it can dull and russet the skin of the fruit.”).
Obvious metaphors aside, there was a whole world here: birth and death, mystery and menace. Studying the diagram of an apple on page 8 — the Eye Basin, Sepals and Stamens — I wondered: could a book be shaped like an apple? Could one read to a book’s core?
Every day for the next year or so, I’d keep The Apple Book on my desk as I wrote. If I got stuck, I’d open up the book at random and read about a new cultivar — the sub-acid Tower of Glamis, for example, or the Idared, which was “raised by Leif Verner at the Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station.” There was something surprising and fun on every page. I’d write from not-knowingness, pick the words I wanted and cross-breed them with my stories about a town called Appleseed.
Line by line, my novel grew. I’m not sure it would have, though, without that visit to the Bookmill and the seeds I found in The Apple Book.