In the beginning… it was a dark and stormy night… call me Ishmael… it is a truth universally acknowledged…. in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
These are all beginnings. Lines that have kicked off stories, taking readers by their imaginations and leading them into realms of thought and whole new worlds. Stories can be read from the safety of an armchair and promise adventure without the risk. We can follow the story, comfortably making friends with the characters, until an unexpected twist turns the story on end. The conflict builds into a climax to create the arch of the story. Our new fictional friends may suffer for the twist, but we readers love having a front seat to the action.
This gives us a break from the twists in our own lives, which often seem disorienting. We are the characters in this story away from the safety of our armchair and often our beginnings don’t make sense. We wish we could have anyone’s story but our own. It is a mishmash of storylines. Here we are in the beginning on a stormy night, and a man named Ishmael is going to tell you about universal truths while hobbits live in the ground, and there is a frickin dragon looming on the horizon. You can wait for the twist to happen to you, to feel the fire of the dragon’s breath. Or saddle up with Ishmael and take your universal truth to the dragon itself. Go on an adventure and be the best character of your own story.
It’s like the 90s song… “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Tonight, I find my fascination turning once again to the collection of words that we call a book. This strange curation of an author’s imagination pressed in black ink upon the delicate souls of trees bound, tied together and pressed between two covers. What is it about this ordinary item that captures us, that captures me so?
At this point in my life, I’ve handled many books. I’ve rifled through 10-cent book sale bins in surplus, wandered among stacks in the basements of old bookstores, and admired crisp new hardcovers stacked high on warehouse shelves. They are common objects and yet, they are anything but ordinary.
Words on the printed page are intimate. They are chosen, crafted, built upon the geography of a page. They allow you to read someone’s thoughts in your own voice. And their poignancy deepens when met with the unique experience of each reader. For this reason, no story will ever be experienced the same way. A scene conceived in the mind of an author will take on a whole new aspect in the mind of the reader. Some book characters will be your friends, but others will most definitely be your enemies. (And not every reader will agree on who is friend or foe!)
It all depends upon your experiences, your personality, your perspective. This is not to say that the author’s vision isn’t to be considered, but we all have different lines of sight in this world. It’s important for us to consider those beyond our own, and then embrace the opportunities that new ideas present.
“In the end, we’ll all become stories.” – Margaret Atwood
This is why the written word continues to fascinate me. Books are an eternal expression of life, and their impact resonates into our lives long after the last full stop. So I ask, dear reader… what do you bring to the bound pages of a book… and what will you take away?
Reference books are the dinosaurs of print. The meteoric rise of the internet search engine has buried encyclopedias, thesauri, and dictionaries in the back of libraries and used bookstores across the world. Yet, these gems of information, which were once the prized possessions of family households, still have stories to tell. I heard one such story from my grandmother, as we peered over the massive spine of a 1956 publication of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary that used to belong to a woman named Alice.
Listen in as Gloria Kazmierzcak shares her memories of her mother collecting sections of the dictionary piece by piece.
This dictionary was bought by my mother… in pieces. A guy came to the door selling dictionaries. It was probably 1956. She paid for it every week when she got the section that was due that week. After she got all the sections, then the cover came and you could put it all together.
Alice Grabarkiewicz was a homemaker by occupation, and lived in Ohio with her husband, Victor. After she had three children, her oldest daughter, Gloria, babysat the two younger children while Alice walked to work at the Ohio Table Pad Company.
[Alice] enjoyed books. We were in school and I think she thought it might have been a good dictionary to help us in case we needed to look up anything. I think that’s why she bought it. She never really did say, and I was really surprised that she did buy it!
The dictionary was for the entire family to use for homework, research, or do crossword puzzles (which were Alice’s favorite)! The reference book was kept on the dining room table, at all times.
It was more than a dictionary, so to speak. It had… other facts about history and things like that. It was available to all of us. We didn’t have Google back then, we didn’t have cell phones back then, we didn’t have computers. So, this was it! In today’s age, I think I prefer looking [information] up online. Because it’s right at your fingertips.
Although reference books may be outdated, they support a different type of research that is drastically different from googling. Google requires a defined question. Reference books only require curiosity. With a bit of digging, old dictionaries can unearth knowledge that you don’t expect to find. This is something that Alice’s granddaughter, Barbara Shugar can attest to:
All of us kids… were drawn to [the dictionary] to just page through it, and look at words, and look at pictures, and learn new things!
The dictionary is mine now, but Alice’s memory is laced into each section that she collected, and echoes of dining room conversations still reverberate from the cover. The next time I need a word to complete a crossword, I’ll remember great-grandma Alice’s dictionary and spend some time lost in its pages.
Used books are more than collections of beat-up paperbacks and faded texts marching out from musty spines. Used books carry the weight of tearstained pages, notes scribbled in margins, the love of personal inscriptions, and the sunshine of yesterday on their faded covers. Who knows the journey a used book traversed before landing in your hand? This is the question that draws me into bookshops and libraries to search out books with their own unique histories, and I’ve found a few treasures along the way. Some of them contain mysteries that I’ve yet to figure out, but I love pouring over the clues within the pages. So, I give you the first installment of Book Impressions.
Most of us are familiar with the English poet, Robert Browning. During the Victorian era, he wrote plays and poems with dramatic flair and married Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was an accomplished poet in her own right. (Talk about a romance filled with poetry!) This particular book is titled, Robert Browning’s Poems and contains selections from his poetical works. It is small, almost smaller than the mass market paperbacks you see in airport gift stores. The cover, a dove grey with silver scrollwork around the edges, is faded beyond recognition, but still soft to the touch. The cover is stained, with camel-colored paint splattered across the front. Someone must have used the book to hold down a paint tarp during a home renovation project. You wonder if anybody got upset about the book damage. Maybe not. Any book collector would tell you this book isn’t worth anything, especially in its current condition. You slowly open the cover and the first two pages fall in your lap. The second one has writing on it. Three separate lines in different handwriting:
Hettie’s inscription is gracefully written, simple. Fletch sounds like a nickname of sorts. Perhaps they were close. Now you get into the technical bits. You skipped over the publisher: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. located in Chicago. When was this book published? The author’s note, by the great R.B. himself, is dated May 14, 1872. But the inscription mentioned ’96, and the publisher’s history indicates a print date in the 1890s. The book is dedicated to another famous author, Alfred Tennyson. Makes sense, that these classic poets were pals. According to Browning’s dedication, Tennyson’s friendship was “noble and sincere.”
What follows is 368 pages of Browning’s poetic genius. But turn to page 112. As you read, “And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge…” your eye catches a bit of blue at the end of the line. Resting where the page meets the cover, there is a tiny, pale blue flower, a little slip of stem peeking from underneath the preserved petals.
Is it a forget-me-not? It could be. We don’t know who picked the flower and nestled it safely within the pages of Browning’s poetry. Perhaps they wanted to remember line XIV from “By the Fireside.” It could have been a mindless reaction to preserve a pretty flower on a summer day. Or maybe the flower, like the book, was a gift of remembrance.
In this book, worn beyond repair by a poet lost to time, is a flower. So this book speaks about more than just poetry. It tells a story about the wear and tear of life, of painting projects, and wildflowers that grew over a hundred years ago, when Fletch got a book from Hettie.
As a true bibliophile, my summer reading list is quite long. . . or rather, the book stack is tall. The stack may be ambitious for the summer months when outdoor projects and Hulu competes for my attention, but I happily made reading the ARC of The Orphan’s Song by Lauren Kate a priority. When the book comes out next week, you should pick up a copy for your summer page-turning adventures.
This historical-fiction novel is steeped in the culture of Venice in the 1700s. We find ourselves at the Hospital of the Incurables, an orphanage/hospital/music school/church that maintains a rigid social structure for its wards. The girls aspire to sing in the church coro (and swear an oath not to sing anywhere else) until they marry or become nuns. The boys are forbidden to practice music and instead learn the skills of tradesmen. That doesn’t stop the young coro-member-to-be Violetta from singing to the horizon on the Incurable’s rooftop, where she meets Mino with his patched-up violin. Their first song is is broken by the missteps of youth, but it echoes in their memories as they search for family and get swept away by the masked pleasures of Venetian society. (Seriously, there were a lot of masks—or bauta—in the book. As the bauta allowed major characters to operate with certain anonymity, it was a great plot device.)
The Orphan’s Song is Kate’s first adult historical book. (You may recognize her name from the her bestselling title, Fallen, the first book in the supernatural YA series.) As someone who hasn’t read any of her previous books, The Orphan’sSong was a pleasant introduction to the author. This even-paced novel wasn’t earth-shattering, but I really appreciated the musical references and historical immersion. I’m pretty sure I shed a tear midway through the book (you’ll know where, when you read that part) and it wasn’t predictable, like so many historical-fiction romances can be.
I give it 4 out of 5 stars. . . and I really want a bauta of my own now.