Sunday, May 8, 2011

Trapped Betwixt the Pages

Every book tells a story.

By that I mean every bound volume you hold in your hands yields secrets, carries a history of palms and fingers, a provenance of readers which may or may not begin with you.  It's the difference between buying a new book in a bookstore or finding an age-grimed book in a box marked "25 cents ea. or make offer on all of them" at a garage sale.  Most times we never know who came before us on these pages; but sometimes evidence literally falls into our lap.

This was the case of a book of poems by Edgar A. Guest which I bought two days ago at a yard sale here in Butte, Montana.  Once I got home, I started riffling through the pages and came across a fascinating trace of previous owners.

Before I get to Guest, however, let me share with you the other book I bought that day, one which also hints of previous readers and the world in which they lived.

Wedged between book-club editions of Judith Krantz novels in a cardboard box gathering dew from the "yard" of the "yard sale," I came across Corporal Cameron--a 1912 novel written by Ralph Connor, a Presbyterian minister from Canada who wrote "frontier adventures with strong themes of morality and justice" in the early 1900s.

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The cover was loose and the pages were like an old man's hands aged with liver spots, but I knew I had to have it--not just because it was "a tale of the Northwest Mounted Police" (cue Nelson Eddy singing in my head), but because it carried the weight of years and a multitude of readers.  I'm always fascinated by what and how people read at the turn of the last century.

When I opened the cover, I found this sticker, glued there nearly a century ago by a school librarian in Jefferson County, Montana.

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They took the principles of lending and returning very seriously back in those days.  If I read between the lines, I imagine borrowers could also be subject to waterboarding for "the loss of a volume."

There is more gentility to be found in The Path to Home, the book of inspirational verse by Edgar A. Guest* which I found in another cardboard box at that neighbor's yard sale.  Guest ("The People's Poet") wrote the kind of poetry which could only charitably called "Hallmark Lite."  My cavities started aching after reading only one or two selections from this book published in 1919.

In the forest-green hardback I brought home, the inscription on the title page showed it was a Christmas gift to "Anna & Henry" from a lady named Selma.

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I was about to shelve The Path to Home in the bookcase which holds my vintage (pre-1925) books when a scrap of paper fell out from where it had been tucked between two of Guest's poems:

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At once, a story opened up in my hands.  In my mind, Henry was a mid-level manager for the Anaconda Copper Company here in Butte, one of the "copper collars" who oversaw the hard labor of men working in the shafts of the Neversweat, the Orphan Girl, and the Speculator.  Anna was his wife who spent most of her days on the chaise lounge, reading novels by authors like Mary Roberts Rinehart and Temple Bailey.  Her afternoons were spent writing letters and postcards to friends and relatives in Chicago or Indianapolis--including her cousin Selma, a switchboard operator who was always so tired when she came home at night she just didn't have the time or energy to return Anna's correspondence.  Over the years, I imagine, bad blood started to simmer between Anna and Selma until it came to a head one autumn day when Anna placed a long-distance call to her cousin, concerned about her well-being and welfare.  Selma, exhausted from pulling plugs all day and connecting impatient callers, was unfeelingly abrupt with her cousin living way out west in Montana.  Words, regrettable words, were snapped in exchange.  Anna handed the phone to a baffled Henry and fled to her bedroom in tears.  Maybe it was the next day, or maybe it was the next month, but eventually Selma grew self-aware of how she'd "neglected" Anna by not answering her letters.  And maybe she came across this poem by Edgar A. Guest and decided to make amends that Christmas:
I have to live with myself and so
I want to be fit for myself to know.
I want to be able as days go by,
always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don't want to stand with the setting sun
and hate myself for the things I have done.
I don't want to keep on a closet shelf
a lot of secrets about myself
and fool myself as I come and go
into thinking no one else will ever know
the kind of person I really am,
I don't want to dress up myself in sham.
I want to go out with my head erect
I want to deserve all men's respect;
but here in the struggle for fame and wealth
I want to be able to like myself.
I don't want to look at myself and know that
I am bluster and bluff and empty show.
I never can hide myself from me;
I see what others may never see;
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself and so,
whatever happens I want to be
self respecting and conscience free.
And I see them, Henry and Anna, on the floor of their sitting room, the bright globes of Christmas ornaments convexing their image a dozen times across the slope of the tree.  On the Victrola, John McCormack is singing "Keep the Home Fires Burning."  The room is warm, they are alone together and they make private jokes about some of the well-intentioned but disastrously off-base gifts they've received this year.  Now they have come to the last present to be opened.  They have untied the ribbon from the package postmarked from Indianapolis and now they sit in the middle of the floor, tissue paper like snowdrifts all around them, surrounded by "heaps of love."  Now Anna gives a startled cry.  "It's Selma," she says.  "Dear, dear cousin Selma."  Now Henry has his arm around Anna's shoulders, his own body starting to shake from her sobs.

These are the things which come to me when I open my old books and the ghosts of past owners drift up in motes of page-dust.

*Trivia note: his great-niece is Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

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