THE MODERN LIBRARY

Talking about myself isn’t attractive to me this evening so let’s just riff on my students once again. It seemed to work out well in the last post.

These silly kids write about stuff. Let’s talk about EBOOKS vs PRINT BOOKS. No, seriously… eBooks… It was a “Kindle Christmas” for the Cooney’s this last December.  My brother was gushing to me about his ereader on the phone last night. It did actually sound a little enticing. Here’s the thing about that though… the feeling of a connection to something old? I know, I know. That’s the first (emotional) reaction we have at our disposal, and hypocrite that I am, I don’t allow my students get away with that. There’s nothing researched about sentimentality, but as long as convincing rhetoric is all we’re after then do we need anything beyond that?

The wife’s family has had a difficult start to their year. An estate sale was just recently organized for her grandparents. This is how I came into a book of poetry by Robert Frost. If it is possible to apply the adjective ‘beautiful’ to a book…

This book is not a first or second edition or anything particularly valuable. It’s a smaller volume that surprisingly comprises seven discrete books of Frost’s poetry. The pages are thin, onion skin, and when you open it you find that they number almost 500. It’s part of a greater “classics” collection called THE MODERN LIBRARY, a series published by Random House, the kind of thing that you used to find advertised in the back pages of National Geographic. At the bottom of the title page is this message from the publisher, “The publishers will be pleased to send, upon request, an illustrated folder setting forth the purpose and scope of THE MODERN LIBRARY, and listing each volume in the series.  Every reader of books will find titles he has been looking for, handsomely printed, in definitive editions, and at an unusually low price.” Did you catch it? In the back inside cover of the book is an advertisement for The American College Dictionary.  It features a drawing, yes a drawing, of the American College Dictionary in the foreground standing upright on some sort of ornate desk with shelves in the background that are filled with books of uniform height, probably leather binding.

This book was not the only one purchased from THE MODERN LIBRARY. That’s not speculation. I have another one. The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky is very similarly bound. That volume has a red canvas cover as opposed to the earthy green of The Poems of Robert Frost. Here’s what I notice about Dostoevsky though: The color of Dostoevsky’s spine is significantly more faded than the rest of the cover.  The spine is stiff and resists opening.  The book has been on a shelf for quite some time.

The Poems of Robert Frost is faded uniformly from the spine to the front and back covers. When you open it you get no resistance, and on the title page the blank beginning pages to the left have separated from the interior surface of the spine, exposing thread and stitching. This book has been read loved.

On the title page is also the inscription of the original owner, my wife’s grandfather. I’m not sure that inscribing books is a custom that many people continue these days, and his script reflects the value that generation placed on penmanship.  The pages of the book that contain Frost’s actual poetry are unmarred though.  I say unmarred because, while I value previous readers’ marginalia in prose, those marks on a poem seem wrong to me.  Poems are much more immediately consumable than longer prose passages, and while good poetry will reward sustained reading and focus, there is also a larger surface aesthetic to appreciate as well.

Well I wrote more than I thought I would this evening, and if you’ve stuck it out this far then I figure you are probably waiting for an obligatory quotation of Frost’s to close this out.  Sorry to disappoint. It’s late and my creativity is waning. I will leave you instead with this ponderance: if the vessels of our history and culture are not worth this sort of unabashed sentimentality that I’ve displayed here tonight, then what is?

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