Sunday, February 24, 2013

Who Collects Old Books?

There’s something about old books that appeals to me. When I say old, I mean anything published in the early 1900’s (or even earlier). When I hold a really old book in my hands, I think about all the people who owned the book before I did. I look inside for inscriptions and make up stories about the previous readers. 

            “lot’s of love to Elaine From Janice and Karen- 30-6-65”

There’s even a long row of xxxxs under the inscription. Who were Janice and Elaine? Were they siblings? Other relatives? They spelled ‘lots’ incorrectly but that doesn’t tell me much. The date is written differently than I would expect, so were they from another country? I’ll never know and I’m fine with that. It’s still fun to wonder.

            My favorite books are the really old ones. I have a book of Andersen’s Fairy Tales with a color cover plate that was published in 1884 and purchased in a used book store in New Jersey sometime in the early 1970’s. The book has been in my possession ever since and while it’s not in the greatest condition (for some reason, the little mermaid on the cover looks like she has a moustache), it is still a pleasure to pick up and read. 

            “Pilgrims of the Night” by Frederick William Faber was another old book I discovered in a used book store. I bought it just a few years ago, drawn to it by the simple fact that it was published over one hundred years ago. I’ve never even read it (Christian poetry just isn’t really my thing) but I couldn’t walk away from another book published in 1884. It even had a handwritten inscription inside, dated 12/25/1885. 

            Of course, my absolute favorite old books are the ones in my Oz collection. I think I’ve written about these before, so I won’t go into detail, except to say that there is nothing like pulling out an old copy of “Rinkitink in Oz” or “Kapumpo in Oz” to make me feel like I’m eight years old again. 

            And finally there are the books I read as a child and tracked down as an adult. When I was four or five, my father read me a book about a little boy who lived in an electric house. The only thing I remembered about this story was that one day something happened and he ended up doing everything backwards, including taking a shower upside down while a machine scrubbed his feet.

          Memories of this book lingered for years but I never had any luck finding it. Then a few years ago the wonders of the Internet solved the puzzle and I was able to not only learn the title of the book, but find a copy in a used bookstore on the other side of the country. 

         “Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead” now sits on a shelf in my office, reminding me that books are powerful enough to keep a hold on us for a lifetime.    

       Do you have old books you’ve discovered or rediscovered? I’d love to hear about them.  
Pilgrims of the Night by Frederick William Faber

Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead by William Pene DuBois

Pinocchio in America by Angelo Patri

Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Mother West Wind "How" Stories by Thornton W. Burgess



Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day

            Quite a few years ago I visited a neighbor who had the most beautiful raspberry plants in her yard. Huge bushes towered over us, and we stood in the warm July sunshine and picked berries by the handful. I came home determined to grow my own berry bushes. A quick visit to the nursery, an hour or so of digging, and soon there were six small raspberry plants lined up along the back fence. 

            It took a few years, but they did grow and begin to produce berries. Not quite the bucketfuls that grew in my neighbor’s yard, but enough for us to enjoy and there were more each year. The plants became bushy and overgrown and every now and then I would prune them back, but for the most part I ignored them until mid-summer when it was time to go out there and pick some berries.

            A few more years and the plants were finally producing lots of berries. There were enough berries to eat, turn into jam, and use for pies. I loved watching the small fruits begin to bud in the spring and eventually turn from green to red in the warm sunshine of July and August. 

            And then came Valentine’s Day. February was mild that year. In a burst of energy and romantic enthusiasm, my husband decided to clean up the yard for me. The sounds of the lawn mower and the weedwacker splintered the air all afternoon as he worked. Every now and then I would glance outside. The lawn was edged in ruler-straight lines, bushy dandelion weeds had disappeared from the grass, and fresh bark was sprinkled around the garden island. The yard looked beautiful. And then he came inside. 

            “Honey, you are going to be so happy,” he said. “I finally got that overgrown area by the fence cleaned up.”
            In the middle of washing dishes at the kitchen sink, I froze. “Which overgrown area?” I asked. Images of the yard flashed through my mind. There was only one area by a fence that could be considered to be overgrown, but he wouldn’t, would he? He knew what raspberry bushes looked like, right?


            “Show me,” I said. I’m sure he could tell from my face that something was not quite right.
            I followed him outside and he pointed at the back fence. All that remained of the raspberry bushes were a few scraggly canes sticking out of the ground, each no more than a few inches tall. 

            I bit my lip. “You didn’t.” It wasn’t a question.
            “I didn’t what?” The excitement was gone from his voice and his forehead was furrowed.
            “Those were the raspberry plants. They were supposed to look like that.”
            “I cut down the raspberry plants?”
            I didn’t say anything and we both stared at the bare ground.
            “Will they grown back?” he asked, his voice hopeful.
            I giggled. “Probably. In about ten years.”  There wasn’t anything else to say or do. They were just plants, when it came down to it. And he’d meant well. 
             “I’m sorry.”
            I knew he was.
            “It’s okay,” I said. I went back inside to finish the dishes. 

            In a few minutes he zipped through the kitchen. “I’ll be right back,” he said, grabbing his car keys. 

            My Valentine gift that year was a landscaped yard and six small raspberry plants he managed to find at a local nursery. We planted them the following weekend and he promised to leave them alone the next time he cleaned up the yard. It took time, but they did grow, and the old canes grew too. Eventually we had a large raspberry patch along the back fence, and on warm summer days I would grab a handful of berries for my valentine.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Reading Writer

            I have always loved books. I have vivid memories of reading under the covers by flashlight. I hid books in my desk at school and read when I was supposed to be finishing workbook pages. I read while walking home from the bus stop, glancing up occasionally to make sure I wasn’t going to walk into a tree or street sign. 

            As an adult, I live surrounded by books. There are books in every room of the house, including the bathrooms and laundry room. There are boxes of books in the cupboard under the stairs (because we ran out of shelf space in any of the other rooms in the house, but I couldn’t bear to give them away). 

            Each book I own contains multiple stories. There is the surface level story. That’s the one the author wrote. That’s the story we all read, more or less. But there’s another story that lies underneath the surface level story. And that’s the story of my own life as I read that book. There are books I own that transport me back to my childhood. When I reread “Little House on the Prairie”, “Eddie’s Green Thumb”, or any of the Beverly Cleary books, I can visualize the Dixie School library, the classrooms with their reading alcoves, and the friends I played with at recess. My third grade self imagined myself as a pioneer girl, heading west in a covered wagon. Laura’s story became my story. 

            Other books became my books when I was a teenager. Judy Blume’s “Forever” was probably my first “romance novel”, paving the way to novelists such as LaVyrle Spencer, Nora Roberts, and Debbie Macomber. Some of their books taught me about what I wanted in love, and others what to watch out for. Reading these books remind me of first loves, unrequited loves, messy break-ups, and enduring partnerships. 

            As an adult, I am an eclectic reader. I wander through the rooms and see evidence everywhere. A short list would include books on: gardening, women’s health, childrearing, teaching, writing, young adult fiction, mysteries, classics, narrative non-fiction, short story collections, and much more. When I fall in love with authors I tend to buy as many of their books as I can find, so I have entire shelves devoted to Maeve Binchy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Torey Hayden, Agatha Christie, and my Oz book collection (started when I was in third grade). 

            And, of course, none of this takes into account the books that are loaded on my Kindle. I won’t even go there right now. 

            The one downside to being a reading writer is that I am forced to choose between my two favorite pastimes. If I am reading, I’m not writing. But if I’m writing, the books beckon to me from their shelves. “Come read me,” they call. “”Just a short break.”

            Sometimes I surrender and find myself curled up in an armchair, listening to the fire, snug inside on a dreary, rainy day, lost in the world of Firefly Lane or Ally Condie’s “Matched”.

          And then I finish, shake my head to bring myself back to my current world, and sit down at my desk to build my characters, tweak my story, and hope that someone out there finds themselves lost in the world I’ve built for them.