Excuse me, Mrs. Chili?

Your geeky is showing…

books.JPGI went to visit my mom yesterday. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to sit with her for a while; she has a particular talent for helping me work troublesome things out and for forcing me, in that loving but oh-so-insistent way she way she has, to clarify my thinking. It was a good visit.

Before I left, she sat me down and asked me how important history is to me. Most of you know – some of you do not – that I was taken in by this woman I call Mom when I was a teenager fleeing an emotionally abusive home. Because of that, I sometimes feel that I have no legitimate claim to a history. She had something she wanted to give me, and she wanted to tell me how to came to her and what kind of path it had traced through my adopted family to come to me. I was all ears.

When she was a little girl, her father would take her to flea markets on Saturdays. It turns out that one of the flea market vendors had a staggering collection of books – thousands of them – and when this man decided to retire from the flea market business, Mom’s dad bought all the books from him (she said that her father’s motivation for the purchase was that he was sure someone had stashed cash within some pages somewhere, but she loved sneaking away old volumes just for the reading of them). When her father died, she inherited the books, and she recently selected a few to pass on to me.

She’s given me five books; a copy of American Prose (I’d underline the book titles like I’m supposed to, but I can’t figure out how to do that. Sorry) which was published in 1880 and has a GORGEOUS quote that expresses exactly why I love Nathaniel Hawthorne so much – I’ll get to that in a minute; Victorian Literature by Clement K Shorter (author of “Charlotte Bronte and her Circle”) published in 1897; English Literature by Alphonso Gerald Newcomer (Associate Professor of English in the Leland Stanford Junior University), published in 1905; History of English Literature by H. A. Taine (translated from the French by H. Van Laun), published in 1879; and the piece de la resistance, the prize of the exhibit, is Lessons in English: A Practical Course of Language Lessons and Elementary Grammar by Albert N. Raub, A.M., Ph.D., published in 1880.

I am SO excited to have these books.

Part of my thrill at having them is that they’re so stinking old. While I don’t often value things simply because of their age, I think books are one of the things that I’m willing to reserve a little age-related reverence for. Feather, over at Tatterdemallion, is thinking about how important it is to have a sense of history when one is studying literature (my mom, I think, would heartily agree with that, and would likely expand the direct object of “studying” to include pretty much anything. It’s all about context). I’m looking forward to spending time with these books to see what pieces were included in them, and to try to get an understanding of why the editors thought these were the important works of writing at the time. The books feel, to me, like little windows into the past. They hold clues about what scholars in my field valued 100-some-odd years ago, and that sense of history and connection is exciting to me as a teacher and as a student.

I’m LOVING the English textbook. Seriously – I’m going to photocopy some of the lessons and pass them on to my own students (and give copies to Organic Mama, who’s teaching grammar classes next term). It’s a hoot and a half. It demonstrates how to graph sentences. It defines the different tenses of verbs with examples like (I kid you not); I might see, Thou mightst have seen, He might see. It’s GORGEOUS.

I flipped open the American Prose book to see what they had to say about Hawthorne a mere 16 years after his death. Remember that bit I gave you about my favorite quote from old Nate and why I love him so much? Well, here’s what I found in the book Mom gave me:

He (Hawthorne) had a strong taste for New England history, and he found in the scenes and characters of that history favorable material for the representation of spiritual conflict. He was himself the most New English of New Englanders, and held an extraordinary sympathy with the very soil of his section of the country….One is astonished at the ease with which he seized upon characteristic features, and reproduced them in a word or phrase. Merely careful and diligent research would never be adequate to give the life-likeness of the images…

Yes, indeed.




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8 responses to “Excuse me, Mrs. Chili?

  1. 1) Thank you for the help with the grammar. Landon begrudingly declared me the winner….wahoo!! Manicure here I come! (I may pick up a Ribwich the next time I see him just to keep the peace.)

    2) I LOOOOVE old books! My Dad has a zillion and when I was little I would make my siblings play “old-fashioned school”. We would use the old musty books as textbooks.

    3) Is it wrong to say, “I just like the way old books smell!”???

  2. Well, Cassie, you should come on over to Chez Chili, because we’ve got “old book smell” in abundance!!

  3. Cool gift from anyone, but from Mom…with that story? Priceless! Please scan in some pages if you can, would love to see ’em!

  4. In one of the many ways we tend to differ I put an enormous weight on history. I really believe the whole, if we don’t learn from it we’re doomed to repeat it. I’m a slow learner, I have to dwell a little in order to get the lesson.

    Those books sound fabulous. I have a bunch of old books, I love having them around.

  5. What a wonderful, precious gift. You must share more as you find those hidden gems within them.

  6. I am droolingly jealous of those books. Wish I could come over and read them. Or maybe just smell them.

    I don’t know if wordpress is better about HTML than blogger, but the code for the proper underlining of text is [u]title[/u], with the replacement of the brackets with the triangle ones, the lesser and greater alligator mouths. I don’t know their proper names:

    Um, sorry, that was unrelated. I was thrilled when I learned it and now feel compelled (or is it impelled?) to pass it on. I only italicize on my blog because blogger does not have an easily accessible way to underline.

    The History of English Literature especially pleases me. It looks weight and delicious. I really love weighty, delicious old books.

  7. I was so eager to get to the bits about the books that I missed the part where you talked about me. I agree with your mom about history. I am perhaps over-preoccupied with it. I expand my reverence of it to all things in life — I just talk about the history of literature because words are what I think about the most — but context is terribly important to me. It makes it hard for me to have serious discussions with anyone — I qualify too much, and am too aware of what I do not know.

    History in regards to peoples’ lives is trickier. I’ve studied enough psychology to have thought a lot about the lifelong influences that early childhood environment, experiences, and even, yes, genetics have in determining the life story of a person. I think — I hope — that these things can be changed, but I can’t discount their importance any less than I could ignore the role that the Bible has had in shaping western literature. It isn’t the same at all. But at the very least I think it’s vital for an individual to understand their personal history before it can be changed. I find myself wanting to fall back on Freudian terminology and say that it’s necessary to bring history to the conscious level to prevent it from festering in the shadowy subconscious and spawning one or many of his rather brilliant defense mechanisms.

    Since I’m speaking Freudishly, I don’t mean to project or assume. It’s just that it’s hard for me to think about the history of literature without equating it to the much more immediate personal histories. This is because, in moods of grand idealism, I tend to think of literature as the most perfect reflection of human nature, a centuries-spanning illustration of the pains and joys we grapple with in our own relatively small lifetimes. So, for me, thinking about the importance of history to literature is almost the same as considering personal histories in human lifetimes. Same concepts, different scales…

  8. Organic Mama

    I, too, drool in anticipation of allowing various of my senses to behold, inhale and caress the old books. I grew up with a mother whose mother’s maiden name was Boekman, whose family owned a bookstore in Amsterdam, and whose basement contained thousands of books. Books are a vital backdrop for life and I am thrilled to say my daughters firmly agree with me. They have the reading bug firmly planted and I could not be more thrilled. Um, MAYBE when I cannot drag them OUT of books.

    I can’t wait to see those books!

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