Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
– Billy Collins, Marginalia
Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time. Lucky. I always feel temporally challenged. My chronological failing is usually to become mired in the future. Recently I had lunch with someone from high school, and was shocked at how little of those years, and the people with whom I spent my days, I remembered. Was I so disconnected from my classmates as I wandered the halls, planning my escape? Seize the present; it becomes the past in an instant anyway, and at least if you pay attention you will have something to look back on, if you’re so inclined.
Things change, and I’ve spent a good deal of time in the last year walking around in my past. Objects surprise you with their layers of meaning as memories float to the surface of things. Pictures, furniture, bluebirds, rings, books – like the wardrobe leading to Narnia, I step into another world whenever I enter my house.
I have a new perspective on old things, not just my own. Other people’s stuff holds a voyeuristic appeal. A child’s picture blown onto the front lawn gets magneted to the fridge door. A handmade bookmark unearthed from the pages of a library book is adopted. I order used books when I could buy them new.
The beginning of my desire for a collection of used books was my mother’s copy of Elizabeth and Her German Garden. It’s not valuable, not a first edition and it’s falling apart, but it was one of my mother’s favourites, and so perfectly combines her love of books with her love of gardening that it practically radiates her presence when I hold it in my hands. It’s prompted a desire to have the rest of the Elizabeth Von Arnim books, but only in old hardback editions. I have some, but not all…
Another book I inherited is Herbs: How to Grow, Treat and Use Them by Ethelind Fearon. (There’s a girl’s name you don’t hear much. You know that book must be old.) It has a torn dust jacket and my grandmother’s bookplate on the inner cover. Several of the herbs listed in the front have checkmarks next to them (as Elsa planned her garden?) and the book is filled with useful advice and recipes from 1953 – “Wipe and cut up a hare, carefully preserving the liver, heart and blood….” – my mouth’s watering already.
This is the kind of discovery that gets you on the internet looking for anything else you can find. And in this case, that’s a lot, because Ethelind Fearon wrote several other useful books, including The Reluctant Hostess, Flower Gardening for Ungardeners, How to Keep Pace with Your Daughter, and Without My Yacht: How to be At Home in the South of France, all of which I now covet and at least one of which I will never need.
Most people who collect used books are looking for copies in the best possible condition, but I enjoy discovering the tracks of previous readers. Read a book with notes in the margins, names, underlinings, stars and checkmarks, and now it’s not just you and the author, but another reader too – it’s friendly.
Sometimes the notes you find are hieroglyphs of past relationships, raising questions as you try to decipher their truth. I purchased a copy online of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing signed by Melissa Bank. When it arrived, it was inscribed, “For Len – I’d love to meet a friend of Carol’s (you lucky man)”. Did Len consider himself lucky no longer? Did he sell his gift in anger or sadness? What was Carol trying to say when she gave Len Bank’s acerbic stories of lapsed communication and missed connections?
Recently A ordered a copy online of a childhood favourite, Pollwiggle’s Progress. The book arrived, releasing a flood of memories for A, and a window into a little known author and artist (to me, anyway) named Wilfrid S. Bronson. Originally published in 1932, Pollwiggle’s Progress is stunningly decorated with evocative and funny black and white illustrations,
and Bronson wrote many other animal books for children including Cats, Beetles, Starlings, Coyotes and, yes, Goats. Only my budget and the slimmest ounce of self control prevent me from ordering them all.
The previous owner of Pollwiggle’s Progress (was it Frances, who signed the frontispiece? Who or what is “Buzzy”?) handcoloured some of the pictures, but apparently became bored by page eleven. Frances (if she was indeed the delinquent artist) has done a lovely job, carefully applying her coloured pencils within the lines of the original drawings and selecting a palette that enhances the illustrations with natural, yet heightened, colour, lending them a magical quality. Or so it seems to me, as I gaze fascinated at the page, which has become a meeting place for the writer and readers, past and present – and sometimes those are the same person.
The writer writes, a reader adds her own commentary in colour, you come to the story for the first time, then years later, adding layers of meaning from your memories and your conversations with the past. You’ve experienced the alchemy of a book, and you’re unstuck in time.