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.

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