You can tell the books that have more than one story to tell.
They are faded. The corners are frayed. They are a mystery you pull from a pile of books. When you open such a book it’s age, like dust, rises up and out as you flip through the pages.
Holding such a book you know you are holding history. I’ve been there many times. You don’t put such a book back in the pile. You want to protect it.
So I can relate to Kim Beil’s personal project. Earlier this year she decided to write an essay about the trunk full of 19th-century schoolbooks that her mother found in an old farmhouse in the 1960s.
We’re not talking great literature. She found herself paging through pasteboard readers, parsers, dictionaries, arithmetic texts and leather-bound volumes on public speaking.
“Nothing special, owned by no one famous,” she said, writing about her experience for lithub.com.
What she was exploring was another time, a different stage in the evolution of our education system. I had to look up “parser” to find it involves grammar exercises that break down and explain the basic parts of speech.
Beil was going to photograph the books and try to sell them online, but she couldn’t let them go.
“Once you’ve become their caretaker, you can’t relinquish them,” she wrote. “Their worm-eaten leather and dog-eared pages smell too much like mystery. All the sensory pleasures of archives, closed to me for a year and a half during Covid restrictions, were suddenly here, in my own home. I bought a bookshelf and started a simple project: write a short essay about every book in the library. The books are a three-dimensional syllabus.”
Beil wrote about her experience to share lessons learned.
“I’ve learned about rare book terminology, about the public school movement, the scandalous introduction of the waltz to the United States, the tradition of oratory, almanacs, American spelling, autograph albums, itinerant singing masters, and more,” she said.
The “more” part is interesting.
Each book was an invitation to research, which means discovery through flashes of history and then seeing yourself as part of that continuing history.
“Last year when the world shut down, tangible things seemed to evaporate in a cloud of hand sanitizer,”she said. “I was separated from my family by an impassable distance. I longed for connection to something real, something that had endured. The wear on these books, their elegant ownership signatures, the scraps of paper stuck between their pages all pulsed with life. I longed to reanimate their history — and my own. The project reveals you to yourself.”
Beil counted pages, learned the language, traced genealogy and even read every page in an 1827 pronouncing dictionary.
“I think of it as knocking on the doors of the idea in order to find my way in,” she said.
“Investigative journalists follow the money. I follow the wear patterns.
“What’s well-used was once special. On my first pass through the library I didn’t notice the 1823 copy of Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book, popularly referred to as the blue-back speller. Over two centuries, its cover has faded to a wooly gray. Inside the chipped and broken boards is the owner’s name: Roxanna.
“Eventually she would be mother to the boys whose books make up the bulk of this library. Like generations of women before her, Roxanna was probably responsible for the first years of her children’s education in the home. In this way, the speller points to the frontispiece in another book: The Child’s First Instructer [sic]. I imagine Roxanna as the mother who has put down her sewing to teach her children how to read.”
Then she quotes from the Instructer, putting a brilliant focus on her project.
“The art of letters does … revive all the past ages of men, and set them at once on the stage, and brings all the nations from afar, and gives them, as it were, a general interview; so that the most distant nations, and distant ages of mankind, may converse together, and grow into acquaintance.”
“Each one of these books was once someone’s project,” Beil said. “Through reading, I grow into acquaintance with them. Through writing, I project myself into acquaintance with the future.
“Here’s the secret: it’s not the project that’s important, it’s the practice. You’re building a habit of curiosity.
“You learn that if you can write about yet another parsing book, then you can write about anything. And not just that, but you can find anything interesting.
“An octogenarian photographer I know says that when he holds the camera up to his eye everything becomes amazing. The wonder hasn’t ceased for him. Having a project is similar. It intensifies everything you see. It inspires connections to things you already know and projects you towards things you don’t know yet.”
So, clearly those aging textbooks in that trunk continue to teach relevant lessons today. Thank you Kim Beil for sharing them.
LONNY CAIN is the retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa and was a reporter for The Herald-News in the 1970s. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.