I love books. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor of my bedroom, back propped against the bed, reading. I read it all–the Treasury of Children’s Illustrated Classics sprawled across the shelves in the family room, my mom’s old copies of the Bobbsey Twins, Judy Blume, Babar, Raggedy Ann, Highlights magazines; too many to remember or list. My favorite was Bear Circus by William Pene Dubois–most likely for the simple reason that I’ve always adored Koala bears. I was also a huge fan of horses and Secretariat.
Don’t get the wrong impression: I didn’t sequester myself in my room my entire childhood. On the contrary, I virtually lived outdoors. Our neighborhood was heavily forested, and all of the kids that lived there spent their youth among the trees and ponds and streams, I was an expert tree climber (never fell out of one; never got stuck in one) and frog catcher. Summer evenings saw us catching fireflies and playing flashlight Tag. I don’t know if we appreciated it then, but it really was an ideal childhood.
Books followed me to college. As an English major with a French minor, books were requirements and my shelves were always struggling under their increasing weight. Shakespeare, of course. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, da. Dumas, Stendhal, Flaubert, oui. My senior honors thesis, done absurdly on “Nietzsche’s Will to Power in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (can you even imagine?) led to a collection of Lawrence, but luckily, all paperback.
You can imagine what it’s like to have four book whores living under one roof.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, I married a book reader. Why unfortunately? Because you get to a point where you simply run out of space for the books. You know what I’m talking about: The books are stacked two deep vertically, with more lying horizontally over them, the shelves are curving, and the bookcases themselves are leaning away from each other in defensive positions. Your obit might actually read, not “Read herself to death” as you had hoped, but instead “Crushed under an onslaught of books–the Riverside Shakespeare Anthology surely struck the fatal blow.”
When we were expecting our oldest child, we culled our books. It was a sad day, deciding who would make the cut and who wouldn’t, but I was ferocious. After all, we needed room for all of the children’s books! If I hadn’t read it, or didn’t ever want to read it again, it got dumped. Unless it was Shakespeare, Lawrence, Hardy, Faulkner. Honestly, the low-brow books got it first. Stephen King, bu-bye. (As his books got larger, my interest in his writing shrank, truthfully. The man needs a ruthless editor.) The J.A. Jance books from Doug’s grandmother, outta here. Double copies of books got quickie divorces, and all the pretentious French books went au revoir.
But there was one shelf of books that I just couldn’t get rid of, and that was my small collection of vintage and antique hardcovers. Would I ever read them? Probably not. But I’d bought them for a reason when I ran across them in antique bookseller’s piles and from estate sales. For me, they’re not just about their age, but also about their ownership. Somebody a century ago put this book on their shelf and Oh, if books could talk.
When I opened the book to tell them its age, I noticed the signature there for the first time.
Back to the present. I can happily tell you that Doug and I have raised two more readers. Though you can imagine what it’s like to have four book whores living under one roof. I had to limit the kids to two books a piece at Book Fairs, just for self-preservation.
James has recently discovered the stories of John Green, and became interested in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass because of its large part in Green’s book Paper Towns (a great book, by the way!) and also because of a class assignment of “O Captain, My Captain!” (Cue the Dead Poet’s Society soundtrack.) I remembered that I owned an older copy of Leaves of Grass (I think it’s only from the 1940s) and went to show him this morning.
Getting to that remote shelf of older books requires a stepstool and some deft rearranging of tchotchkes, so I showed them a few of the books: Villette, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights. Then I took out Beowulf–it’s small, simple and pretty nondescript, actually, but I liked the feel of it in my hands when I bought it. And who knows? Maybe I’d read it again one day. (Not bloody likely, but miracles do happen).
When I opened the book to tell them its age (it’s from 1904), I noticed the signature there for the first time. I’m pretty sure my eyes bulged a bit; I know my jaw dropped a little. Nothing like freaking out the kids at breakfast. “Oh my God!” I said quietly. “I never noticed that before!” What, what? the kids hate suspense. (And so do you, right? This is a pretty long-winded post.)
A previous owner had signed his name right there on the front page and I’d never noticed it before.
Likely anyone who has gone through high school English classes in the U.S., and especially college-level classes, uses the style Bible known as Strunk & White. It’s full name is The Elements of Style, with Strunk being William Strunk, Jr.–the original manual writer and Professor of English at Cornell University–and White being E.B. White–the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
Strunk & White is touted as the Writer’s Bible. Generations of teachers have held it up as the standard of style; a small compendium of writer “rules.” These are the ones writers are supposed to know like the back of their hand before they break them to write in any way they want. Some people hate it, some people love it. Either way, that little manual influenced a huge portion of the authors and poets and essayists writing over the last century.
William Strunk, Jr. owned what is now my copy of Beowulf. As an English professor, I’m sure he owned a whole bunch of books. But I’m willing to bet that he looked at Beowulf. <VBG>