Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A New Kind of Used Book

The main character in Annie Dillard's An American Childhood describes an interesting way of enjoying the library.  Before the days of computers, you'll remember, the back of every library book had a pocket that held a sign-out card.  A patron borrowing a book would pull out the card, sign the first open line, and trade it in at the desk for a date-due slip.  Dillard's character (whom I take to be a barely fictionalized version of Dillard herself) likes to pull down every book on some shelf and read the names on the cards.  In this way, she learns a little history of the book's life in her community: she sees how many people have taken the book out, how they write their names, how many times in a year the book gets checked out, and the like.  But she also learns about the people.  Sometimes she sees names of people she knows; sometimes she recognizes a name only from the cards in other books.  Either way she gets an idea of what books a given person likes and how much he reads.  For books that she likes, she contemplates the bond that links her to the other readers whose hands have cradled the book she now holds.

The days of the sign-out card are over.  But I enjoy owning and reading used books for a reason similar to Annie Dillard's.  I suppose the dearest object in my house is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities once owned by my dad.  It is my favorite book, but that copy of it is particularly special.  When I hold it and read it, I sense my dad as a teen-ager sitting beside me -- or actually inside me, reading with my eyes.  The flyleaf bears a diagonal stamp:

Board of Education

I like to think about how Dad got the book.  Did the school give it to him?  Did he borrow it and forget to bring it back (or "forget" to bring it back)?  Did he ever compare his time in school to Dr. Manette's stay in the Bastille?  (Why didn't I ask him these questions?!)

I also have an old volume of Tennyson with a hand-written inscription:

Flora H. Wanier
Carthage, Ill.
Merry Christmas

Flora fascinates me.  Did she write "Merry Christmas"?  Did she receive the book or give the book?  I know the owner must have enjoyed the book or at least respected its contents: inside the volume when I bought it was a clipped newspaper column defending Tennyson as worthy of enrollment with the very greatest of the English poets: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.  The column includes a recommended list of poems to read in three successive sittings, and I like to think that Flora took three evenings to read the three poems.  The column bears the signature "Prof. J. H. Gilmore."  I think this is Joseph Henry Gilmore (1834-1918), who taught logic and English at the University of Rochester and wrote the hymn "He Leadeth Me."  I like to think of Tennyson inspiring Gilmore, who inspired Flora, who inspires me.  But I couldn't think of this grand path of influence without the used book, the palpable thing that once lay in the hands of another and now lies in my hands.  That kind of human connection doesn't arise with a new book.  And it could never, ever happen with an electronic copy of a book.

Or so I thought.

Last week I read a Kindle edition of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines.  It was a bit of fluff to read while walking, but it came with the recommendation of no less than C. S. Lewis.  Imagine my surprise when I reached the 3% mark and found an underlined passage marked "5 highlighters."  I think it means that five other readers of the Kindle edition decided to underline that passage.  Do my highlights also get stored and counted by the master Kindle computer?  Will they show up on other people's Kindles if a few other readers also decide to highlight the same passage I did?  Who are the people who highlighted King Solomon's Mines?  When did they read the book?  I want to know so much more!  But for now, I only know that five readers responded to an urge to highlight this sentence.  Speaking admiringly of Royal Navy officers, Haggard's Allen Quatermain says, "I fancy it is just the wide seas and the breath of God's winds that wash their hearts and blow the bitterness out of their minds and make them what men ought to be."  Were they sailors who marked the passage?  Sailors' wives?  Non-sailing men who wished they were real men and now knew why they weren't?  Or were they just deconstructionists finding evidence to indict the language for preserving and promoting sexism?  (I'm hoping for option 3.)  I feel almost connected and definitely intrigued by the potential.

Two follow-ups on the previous post:
(1) I thoroughly enjoyed today's reading in James about diseases of the will.  A favorite passage involved the conflict between the impulse to serve a good cause and the caution that prevents us from doing something dangerous.  Both urges are strong, and either urge might win out, but our evaluations of the two possible outcomes are far from evenly balanced.  No coward, explains James, ever says, "After a difficult struggle, I finally overcame my heroism."
(2) I finished the post with a trilemma.  I had three desires and wondered which I would fulfill.  As it turns out, none of the three.  I got up and washed dishes.

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