Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paging History

**This photo essay won a first place award in the 2013 Illinois Woman's Press Association's Communications Contest!

My brand new 2012 edition Kindle, a lovely gift from a friend who thought it was high time I dipped a toe into the 21st century, arrived in the afternoon on the same day I came home in the morning from a garage sale with two books that first saw print in 1912. For a dime each, no less.

I love irony, and I love cosmic symmetry, and somehow that day really stands out in “LOL” territory.

A few caveats to start with. I have always loved to read—in fact I often joke that I read my way through all of childhood, practically wearing a groove in the pavement from my house to the local library. As a young mother, I could devour a suspense novel a day when the children were young and we were on vacation by the shore. Those days are long gone, although when I’m traveling, I’m rarely without a paperback in my hand in an airport or on a plane, reading at the same lightning speed.

But time for recreational reading is sparse these days, and I’ve even canceled my old fashioned three-dimensional newspaper subscription in favor of a digital one. Still, I remember with fierce maternal fondness the countless hours spent reading bedtime stories when the children—now grownups—were wee little nippers. I hope to someday recapture that cozy joy with grandchildren folded under my wing on a soft sofa or a warm, comfy bed. I have to fit those sporadic yearnings in around appeal deadlines and manuscript revisions and the 24-hour news cycle that drives our increasingly tech-happy society to need everything in an instant. Or earlier.

But of late I have become absolutely transfixed by what I can only describe artlessly as “old books.” Call me sentimental. Call me soft-headed. Call me when you have an attic full of old books to sell, cheap!!

I think the hook got set earlier this summer at the Printers Row Lit Festival in Chicago. I had spent the first day under a tent, hawking and autographing my own books, but reserved the second to finally just wander around with friends and soak in the ambiance. I was helping a friend look for vintage Horatio Alger Jr. series books when my eye was caught at a rare bookseller’s stall by a small jade green volume with, I think, gold lettering on the cover. It was a collection of songs and poems and drawings about nature, and it was published around 1870, and it was absolutely lovely…and it had a price tag of $65. Damn! I had budgeted all of $20 for extravagance, and so I reluctantly put the book back on the shelf. In retrospect, I should have written down the title and looked it up online later, because let’s face it, you can find someone selling just about anything on Amazon for about $1.99. But I didn’t, and so the book still hovers at the edge of my memory, the title a blank, like the location of a unicorn I saw once and will never see again.

And with that spark as a backdrop, I rode shotgun with my friend Mary as she did her weekly circuit of garage sales and rummage sales, scouting treasures to put in her booth in an antique mall. She took me back to one sale she had visited the day before, which had boxes and boxes of books. And there’s where the century-old books bit me on the finger. I didn’t know when I’d ever read them, I didn’t know even where I’d put them…but I felt the weight and pull of history suddenly leaning on me. And I smiled and handed over my twenty cents.

One of my little treasures was a very worn copy of “Boy Scout Firefighters,” harkening back to 1912. The other was another boy’s adventure tale, “Ken Ward in the Jungle,” written by Zane Grey and published right before he hit the big time with “Riders of the Purple Sage.” I kept the hunt up in the weeks and months that followed, stopping at thrift shops on my lunch hours and days off, dogging Mary’s footsteps on occasion at garage sales, reveling in the hunt as much as the capture. There were books about horses, books about dogs, books about adventure and romance. And for extra amusement, there was the occasional children’s early reader, with tales and pictures of Henny Penny and the Three Bears and Little Lambikin.

I don’t have a “collector’s eye.” I think you could probably find any of the several dozen books I’ve brought home for a few dollars…or less…on the Internet. Some have even been re-released on Kindle for a new generation interested in experiencing hopelessly dated writing from the early twentieth century.

But in an age of iPods and iPads and more and more wireless, paperless devices…I find much charm in these packages of wood pulp and ink and fabric that harken back to the days before television, before the Internet, some of them before radio, when books with pages were state of the art, and their arrival was cause for celebration. I revel in the innocence, and the enthusiasm, and often, even the illustrations.

A hand-written dedication that reads “From Aunt Margaret to Jimmy, Christmas 1919” can just make me melt. I feel the unspooling of history’s timeline when I hold a 1945 edition of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” printed before the end of WW II “in accordance with all war production board conservation orders.”

Lately I’ve turned my attention to early editions of children’s books like Little Golden Books. Here would be a good place to confess that if I ever am lucky enough to have grandchildren to read to, I pledge to never read them anything involving “Hello Kitty,” “Barbie’s Adventures,” “Dora the Explorer,” or “Smurfs.” And just for the record, I think that the evolution and faster, more fractured pacing of Sesame Street has not been a change for the better. And no, we will not be reading nursery rhymes on a tablet of any sort. Call me a righteous curmudgeon.

And so while these little story books are certainly all much younger than the novels I started collecting, I have been just as entranced, or even moreso, to discover a collection of these tiny story books that I never knew existed. Tales like “The Sailor Dog,” and “Tootle the Train” and “Scuffy the Tugboat” and “Ookpik, the Arctic Owl.” Ookpik?

I’ve finally rearranged my living room bookcase to hold a full shelf of old novels and other hardcover finds, which even include a 1946 first edition of “Home away from Home, The Story of the U.S.O.” (Hopelessly dated in its discussion of African Americans in the service, but still a tangible piece of history to hold in one’s hand.)

I’m not quite sure what to do with the ever-growing stack of Little Golden Books sitting on the piano bench. I supposed I could just pack them away in a plastic tub in the back of a closet until they’re ready for duty. Or, more artistically, find something that looks like an old treasure chest to store them in until they are finally called to action. One way or another, though, I’m going to have to take the time to read a few just for the fun of it…and also to find out how little Ookpik’s adventure turned out.

In the meantime, I’ve bought a faux-leather cover for that new Kindle that makes it look (from a distance) like an antique novel, and loaded fifteen books on to it, waiting for my next flight!

No comments: