"My Library was dukedom large enough.” Wm. Shakespeare
Last week the sibs and I went through remnants of a legacy from Mom and Dad. In two brown paper bags and one battered box was the ephemera of several lives left for us to sort. We tossed trash that had been carefully treasured over a century, identified some odd pieces of lingering memory, counted the hankies and watch fobs and divided up what we wanted to take home for our own children to wonder over after a funeral feast.
I took the books. I have them in a suitcase carefully segregating their seeping mustiness from my own precious library. In these books are the scrawled autographs of school children who became my grandparents. Grandfather Burr Stephens wrote in a margin of “Macauley’s Life of Samuel Johnson” that he was a junior in high school in 1916. I can’t imagine any current high school junior even recognizing this book as reading material. Burr’s spelling lists (folded and tucked into the book for almost 100 years) show that in 1916 he could correctly spell chauffeur and acknowledgement and knew the difference between loose and lose. Burr went on to marry my grandmother, Marie and they both drank themselves into early graves but here I hold bits of their childhood in a musty suitcase. In the book Hiawatha is Marie’s name carefully inscribed with a lock of hair tucked between pages. I see that they read all of Lincoln’s speeches and essays by Charles Lamb. They studied Shakespeare.
My favorite is a tattered copy of The Indiana Educational Series “First Reader,” published in 1889 by the Indiana School Book Co. My great-grandmother’s name is written on the frontispiece: Florence Jackson. Even then she was using the Palmer method with cursive if not yet connected letters. When her parents and younger sister left for Canada to homestead, eighteen year old Florence was left behind with her new husband. She grieved the separation for the rest of her life, but here I examine a book she held in her five-year-old hands and imagine her blue eyes widening just a bit as she understands that reading is in her control--that the world is available to her through this small, square device.
The sibs and I received a remarkable inheritance from our forebears: an insatiable love of reading and learning. The faded pictures; the alcoholism and its sequelae; all those women's handkerchiefs; the watch fobs; the pervasive anxiety--these bits of inheritance we may pass along to our children but we won't brag about it. The love of reading is better than all manner of stuff. Stuff gets kept in brown paper bags for grieving relatives to sort. Reading, learning---now there's the stuff of dreams.
"Books have always a secret influence on the understanding; we cannot with pleasure obliterate ideas: he that reads books of science, through without any fixed desire of improvement, will grow more knowing; he that entertains himself with moral or religious treatises, will imperceptibly advance in goodness; the ideas which are often offered to the mind, will at last find a lucky moment when it is disposed to receive them." Samuel Johnson.