Sunday, August 29, 2010

Breaking the Rules in Buckfield, Maine

One of the three cornerstones for evaluating the worth of a collectible book is condition (the other two being scarcity and importance). As I’ve written quite often in this blog, the idea of “condition” means different things to different collectors; for someone interested in owning the ideal original form of the book in pristine condition, any mark whatsoever instantly devalues the book (with the possible exception of association value from the author’s signature). For someone -- like me -- interested in the life of a book (that is, in the way it has been used and abused in the years after its appearance in it original form) markings in a book, while taking it down a notch in “condition”, actually increase its value. They connect us with real people, past owners and readers, through the indirect experience of seeing how they saw the book in our hands.

Children’s books are often short-lived material objects; those that do survive tend to bear extremely vigorous wear, tear, damage, and markings (I hesitate to call these markings “marginalia”). As my fiancĂ©e gets ready for the start of the school year this weekend and prepares her new first-grade classroom, this week’s book seems appropriate.

The book is a heavily used copy of The Heath Readers Primer, published by D. C. Heath & Company of Boston (Heath, a leading publisher of educational materials since the late nineteenth century, was acquired by Houghton Mifflin in 1995). The first twelve pages of the book -- including the title-page -- have been torn out (as well as several internal pages and the last twenty-two pages), but using Google Books I was able to find a whole copy of the book. It was published as the first part of Heath’s “Readers” series of schoolbooks in 1903; the rest of the series included readers for first through sixth grades.

Sentence-based primers such as the Heath Readers appeared in the early 1880s and remained popular into the 1920s. They were seen as a useful tool in promoting silent reading opportunities that helped students make connections between the words they were encountering and the meaning of those words (prior to the 1880s, early school readers emphasized individual words and sounds in isolation). A leading proponent of the new system, with its emphasis upon sentences and stories, was Harvard President Charles Eliot (whom we have met, previously, in my post on his famous “Five Foot Shelf” of literature). For a clear and well-illustrated guide to the history of early educational literature in America (1640-1925), visit the Monaghan Collection and University of Kansas 2001 joint-project Young American Readers.

Each page of the Primer contains a series of simple sentences using repeated syntactical structures and words. The content of each sentence is often linked to those around it, creating a network of parallelisms, antitheses, and pseudo-narratives that provide a window into the kinds of popular and epistemological ideologies that were being promoted through the turn-of-the-century American school. Consider, for example, the non-negotiable gender instructions on p. 22 (“Girls like to play with dolls. Boys like to fly kites.”) and on p. 90 (after Fred lands a fish and drops his line again over the side of the boat, we are told simply, “Nell does not care to fish.”). On p. 88 the duty of the boy to protect the girl is made explicit (“The little girl is May.... Is it safe for her to be alone? She will not be alone long. Fred is coming to her.”). Much of the book is concerned with the activities of Fred and Nell, who are brother and sister; their content emphasizes cooperation, sharing, and kindness.

It was intended (or at least, assumed) by the writers of the book that boys would make up its main readership: “Have you a little sister?” the disembodied voice of the narrator asks, “Are you kind to her?” (p. 32) Some of the text seems a little too figurative at times; I would think that passages such as “This is Fred’s horse and wagon. Fred’s horse is a goat. The goat makes a good horse.” (p. 87) might be a tad risky for children still working to master “I am a big boy. My name is Fred.” (p. 22) Also, as a new dog owner, I’m not sure I can condone the way Fred encourages his dog, Dash, to beg for meat (pp. 37-8). What kind of lesson does that teach the dog, let alone the child reading the book?

The book is bound in cardboard boards in cloth; a colored illustration (now faded and over-written) decorates the front cover. The cover of my copy is intensely damaged and the spine is essentially gone. The pages are 13.5 cm x 19.5 cm and are of an unexceptional machined stock. It was printed in octavo format. Beside the text of the sentences, most pages also include black-and-white illustrations relevant to the content on that page; in the latter half of the book, the illustrations are often replaced with photographs that provide intriguing vignettes and glimpses into the early twentieth-century context in which these children grew up (livestock, hoops, blacksmiths, etc.). Several of the pages have (or rather, had) color illustrations; most of these have been torn out of my copy. Some of the black-and-white art has been subsequently colored-in (rather imaginatively) by past readers (such as the blue and yellow cows on p. 80).

Two other aspects of the text bear noting. Some of the early pages (again, many that have been torn from my copy) introduce the subjects of the ensuing pages with a page providing color illustrations immediately next to text in cursive font (the font on the other pages is block printing). Also, to help the reader focus on key words, a series of three or four words appears along the bottom of each page; these footer words are from the text and are essentially the learning objectives for that page.

As I’ve mentioned, my copy of this book has been heavily used in its time. Simply saying “heavily read” would be insufficient: the pages are torn and worn from being turned over, but throughout there are scribbles that indicate how the student(s) who used this book approached the task of learning how to read and write.

These marks mainly take one of three forms. First, some of the footer words are underlined, suggesting that they were used like a check-list: once the student had found that word in the text and learned how to use it properly, they put a line under it in the foot. A similar system of marks in the text itself appears on some pages, with certain words underlined as if to draw attention to them, and even a few broken into syllables by vertical lines. Second, wave-like squiggles cross many pages, often interlined between the text; these are attempts at linked cursive minims -- essentially, the student is mimicking the motion of a writer that he or she is watching (suggesting that the book was being used in the presence of a teacher or some other adult who was modeling how to write). Finally, there are a number of places where the student has copied the printed text (more or less successfully) into one of the blank spaces on the page, usually between the lines.

There is, of course, an abundance of other markings in the book. Some are in pencil, some in pen, and some in crayon. They range from single “orphan” words that seem to be unrelated to the printed book to attempts to copy out the whole alphabet (including a complete set of cursive majuscules and minuscules in pencil inside the back cover) to the usual doodles and nonsensical scribbles made by all bored students, of all ages.

This copy was part of the school library in the small Maine town of Buckfield, located in Oxford County, about ten miles north of Lewiston-Auburn. I was amused to find that Buckfield’s town slogan is the vaguely threatening, “Where Good People Live”. What happens to the bad people?

Pasted inside the front cover are a list of “Rules” (printed by Lee and Shepard of Boston) for the use of library books, including the usual warnings about lending items (and a reminder that the town imposes a ten-dollar fine on parents of children who damage school buildings by inscribing “obscene pictures, language, marks, or descriptions” on them). One of the rules concerns the problem of damaging the book:

Any writing in, marking upon, or otherwise defacing of a book, will be considered a material injury, for which such book must be replaced or paid for.

The use of the phrase “material injury” personifies the book and implies that damaging it would be like harming a person. But, of course, the intended readers of this book are unlikely to read -- or, at least, read and understand -- the tiny print legalese on this pasted label. They’re still working on

Look at my feet. I swim with my feet. Look at the chicken’s feet. They are not like my feet. Chickens cannot swim.

So it’s not surprising that a healthy dose of scribbling, ink spills, and doodles have been scrawled across the inside of the front cover. Including across the “Rules”. So much for the town slogan.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Over One-Hundred Years on the Shelf

Just off the road from a trip down to New Jersey to visit my brother, doctor-in-law, and their beautiful baby girl, I’m going to have to keep this week’s post brief. Here’s a short write-up on a beautiful early twentieth-century book that was part of my haul at the estate auction that we attended last month.

The book is a nearly mint-condition copy of Emerson: Poet and Thinker, written by famed New York art and literature critic Elisabeth Luther Cary (1867-1936). Her biography and literary study of Emerson was part of a series of well-received similar books she wrote on Tennyson (1898), Browning (1899), the Rossettis (1900), William Morris (1902), and Henry James (1905). In 1905 the prolific Cary began to focus more on art criticism and scholarship, eventually attracting the attention of Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, who hired her as a critic and columnist for the paper. Over the nearly three-decades that she wrote for the paper, she gained a reputation in the New York art scene and beyond for fairness, diplomacy, extremely good taste in art, and a keen eye for both talent and dross.

Cary finished writing Emerson in early October 1904 and the book was published in November 1904 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York and printed by the Knickerbocker Press (at its founding in 1874, Knickerbocker was an office of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, but it split off as its own independent business in 1889 and moved out of New York City to the landmark Knickerbocker Building in New Rochelle). It retailed for the substantial sum of $3.50 (about $85 in today's currency). In advertising the book, G. P. Putnam's Sons indicated that

[t]he author has endeavored to present Emerson as he appears to the generation following his own, and to connect his writings with his mental and spiritual characteristics and the quiet round of his direct interests. The book is addressed not to the student but to the general reader.

The book is bound in pebbled green leather with decorative marbling on the front and back boards and six compartments on the spine, with gilded titling (the spine is slightly faded in comparison to the boards, indicating that it was kept on a shelf exposed to sunlight for a long period of time). I suspect that this is a rebinding; according to most dealers’ listings of the book, it was originally sold in blue cloth boards with a grape-and-leaf pattern (and included four pages of ads, which my copy lacks). The top edge of the leaves is gilt and a white satin book ribbon marks a page that it appears to have been holding for many, many years now (the start of Chapter Two, at page 18).

The pages are 16.5cm x 24cm and are of a very firm, machined stock, bearing decoratively ragged fore-edges (known as “deckling”). It was printed in royal octavo format, comprising 18 gatherings of eight leaves (with the exception of the final gathering, which has only six).

The book includes twenty black-and-white illustrative plates, from a variety of engravings, drawings, photographs, and prints, printed on sturdy art stock (oddly, most other copies listed online only indicate the presence of nineteen plates); intact tissue bearing a descriptive caption in red ink protects each plate from any acid in the facing page of text. (Neither the tissue sheets nor the plates they protect are integral to the gatherings in which they occur.) In addition to this art, the printer has included some beautiful decorative ornaments at the top and tail of each chapter and uses a gothic font for the running titles that causes them to really pop off the page.

The contents of the preliminaries run as follows: blue and gold marbled pastedown conjugate to marbled front flyleaf; two blanks; frontispiece plate of an older Emerson from a drawing by George T. Tobin and accompanying tissue; title-page on glossy stock, with maroon decorations and with copyright on verso; dedication (to Cary’s father), [i]; preface, iii-iv; contents, v; illustrations, vii-viii; half-title.

The book’s main contents include thirteen chapters tracing Emerson’s life and career, as well as an appendix of the tables of contents for The Dial, a transcendentalist publication Emerson co-founded with Margaret Fuller, assigning authorship to all of the anonymous pieces published in the journal for its first four years (1840-1844). The main contents run 284 pages (including the index); two blanks conclude the book, along with another marbled flyleaf and pastedown.

There is no marginalia or readers’ marks (with the exception of a couple of dealer’s pencil marks in the corners of a few of the blanks); the spine is tight and there is no chipping, bumping, pulling, foxing, tearing, folding, or any of the other usual signs of wear typically found on or in a book that’s over 100 years old.

The pristine condition, combined with the beautiful binding that some owner evidently had made for the book, makes me suspect that this copy of Cary’s Emerson was a show-piece. That is, it was displayed on a prominent bookshelf as a piece of decoration, meant to show off the erudition and taste of its owner. Suspicion of this fact tempts me to end its streak of “un-readness” and, on this brisk and windy New England summer evening, crack it open and enjoy the company of Emerson, Thoreau, Carlyle and the rest of that tribe...but I’d be afraid to damage its near mint condition.

Ah, the sad ironies of beautiful books!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Last Leverett Book

It’s been a quiet month here at the Bookcase, but that’s because it’s been quite a hectic one in real life. The planning for our wedding is in full gear, we’ve been traveling to visit family and get some vacation in, and we’ve moved out of our small apartment and into a large house!

Our move has taken us out of the tiny town of Leverett and into the neighboring small town of Montague. This week, therefore, a brief post on a book that is not particularly rare or valuable, but that nonetheless has special sentimental value: the last book I rescued from the Leverett Book Shed before we left town.

The book is a well-kept copy of Polly Oliver’s Problem: A Story for Girls, written by Kate Douglas Wiggin and published by Houghton, Mifflin, and Company of Boston. The book was printed in electrotype by The Riverside Press of Cambridge. The first edition appeared in 1893, but my copy is dated 1895; I can find no comparable listings for a 1895 edition on dealers’ websites or in the usual online catalogues. The book itself was not tremendously rare (it went through further U.S. editions in 1894 and 1896, as well as a U.K. edition in 1896), though my copy is prominently numbered as the “twenty-fourth thousand” printed.

Wiggin (1856-1932; right) was a noted American children’s author and educator, famed as one of the pioneers in the kindergarten movement. In 1878 she became the first public kindergarten teacher in the state of California and in 1880 she founded San Francisco’s Silver Street training school for teachers. In order to raise more funding for her school, she began writing children’s stories, a practice that she continued after the death of her first husband and her subsequent move to Maine in 1889. In Maine she re-married and continued writing stories, novels, music and songs, books on early childhood education theory and method (including the ground-breaking Children’s Rights [1892]), and plays, sometimes with the collaboration of her sister, Nora Archibald Smith, and sometimes with illustrations by noted American artist N. C. Wyeth.

Her most famous book was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) which was made into a popular film in 1917 and adapted into a miniseries for U.K. television in 1978. After her death, her ashes were scattered on the Saco River and her house (below) became the Hollis Public Library. Many of her papers are kept in the Kate Douglass [sic] Wiggin Collection at Bowdoin College -- the institution that granted her an honorary degree (its second to a woman) in 1904 and that she continued to support throughout her life. A rival collection of her papers exists at the San Jose State University Library Special Collections & Archives. A bibliography of her works is available at the Fantastic Fiction website and Project Gutenberg.

The book was machine printed in sixteenmo. The pages are 12cm x 17.5cm and are made of a firm but unremarkable stock typical of the turn of the century. It is bound in light gray buckram cloth, with blue border decorations and titling on the cover, spine, and back. Eight illustrative plates on a sturdy glossy stock appear throughout, depicting black-and-white line-drawings of scenes from the chapter in which they occur; these are not integral to the gatherings in which they appear. The frontispiece of Polly is guarded by a tissue sheet that is -- remarkably for a circulating juvenile library book -- fully intact. The contents consist of 212 pages of text in 18 chapters, plus 7 leaves of preliminaries and 2 blanks at the back.

Polly Oliver’s Problem was a sequel to Wiggin’s enormously popular young adult’s novel The Birds’ Christmas Carol (1887). The tale follows the adventures of the eponymous hero, whose endeavors to find employment brings her (like Wiggin herself) to California, where she ultimately finds rewarding employment reading to young children (again, like Wiggin). Though largely conventional in its form, Wiggin's book does make some interesting use of letters and other texts within the story. The book was somewhat successful, going through several editions (and still available in print today), but it was not a tremendous critical success. The review November 26, 1893 review in The New York Times was unimpressed by the narrative and writing style:

This little story by Mrs. Wiggin, while it possesses much of the characteristic charm of the graceful writer whose “Cathedral Courtship” and other delicately-humorous sketches have been so greatly admired, is rather strained and fine-spun and a little too artificial and pedantic to be a very popular tale with growing girls. We are afraid it will never be classes with the writings of Miss Alcott and Mrs. Whitney and the other mistresses of art of entertaining very young women. It is to be commended for its purity of tone and lack of cant. Polly is frequently a vivacious and entertaining heroine, but her nerves are a trifle overstrung, and something of the enervating influence of Southern California atmosphere, which a few of the many folks who go to the Pacific coast from the East complain of, permeates the story.

Polly is a poor, well-bred girl with ambitions for a “career”. She finds this career as a professional story teller for children. She begins in the hospitals, and there is perhaps a trifle too much of sickness and misery in the little volume to make it entirely agreeable reading, yet it is certainly not an unwholesome book, though it lacks the fresh charm and buoyancy of much of Mrs. Wiggin’s other work. The heroine’s mother dies after a spell of nervous prostration, and the symptoms in her case are set forth with admirable clearness.

This reviewer clearly suffers under delusions of his own cultural importance. First -- setting aside the condescending quotations marks around the word “career” in the first sentence of the second paragraph and the description of Wiggin's book as a "little story" -- there is an implied message that it is Polly’s “ambitions” that mark the book as too “pedantic to be a very popular tale with growing girls”. Books lauding “ambition” in young men at this time are rarely dismissed for being too “pedantic”. Second, there seems a distinct, almost willfulness ignorance about the value of realism in literature in this reviewer’s sniping suggestion that “there is perhaps a trifle too much of sickness and misery in the little volume to make it entirely agreeable reading”; one might point out that there is also a trifle too much of sickness and misery in life as well. The praise of Wiggin for “set[ting] forth with admirable clearness” the symptoms of nervous prostration is completely useless and marks the reviewer as utterly unclear on the concept of priorities in literary priorities. It’s a little like praising the chef at a restaurant for the way in which the napkins are folded.

My copy of this book is remarkably tight and clean for having once been part of the circulating collection in the juvenile section of a public library. Only one page bears a reader’s mark (a dog-eared corner to hold a place) and occasionally scattered throughout there are some stains and grubby finger marks. There is some discoloration on the spine and some pink stains on the cover. Otherwise, it is in very good condition. A letter “J” (for Juvenile) is penned on the spine and the recto of the front flyleaf bears the bookplate of the Egremont Free Library (Volume number 616, no shelf number) and a “Discarded” stamp. The stamp is repeated on the inside of the back cover, along with the remains of a removed card sleeve (too bad the card is missing -- it’s always interesting to see to whom and how often an old library book is checked out. With the exception of some penciled dealer’s marks, these are the only evidence that the volume has been used.