I recently unboxed some of my grandfather’s old books. Since he died years before I was born, these books provide a connection to a man I never knew. They represent a part of my family history and a reason for my lifelong love of books.
Until his death in 1920, my grandfather accumulated books. Inside each cover he either stamped or wrote his name so that everyone would know it belonged in his library. Since the small community had no public library, he would loan out books to students or friends. But he kept track of them and ensured they were returned.
Picture barrister bookshelves with glass doors covering one whole wall, floor to 12-foot ceiling, in my grandmother’s living room. More books filled shelves and cabinets throughout the house. This awe-inspiring world of books impressed upon me the value of the written word.
After her husband’s death, my grandmother meticulously maintained the library. I can see her holding the big, hand-written journal that listed every book and its location on the shelves.
By the time I reached high school, my grandmother deemed me responsible enough to borrow a book, but she always made sure I returned it. As she aged it became harder for her to keep track of the books. Gradually some went missing or were misplaced on the shelves.
My bachelor uncle lived with my grandmother. As the youngest child, born after his father’s death, he continued to live in the home place after his mother’s passing in 1977 and became the custodian of the library. My uncle was brilliant and yet not quite normal. He lacked his parents’ sense of order and probably had some mental disorder. Over the years we have speculated on his possible diagnosis but, of course, we will never know. His original condition was exacerbated by his stint in the Army during World War II. Drafted, he never made it through basic training. He was hospitalized by the army until war’s end, then given a disability. According to my parents, he was never the same. When I read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I immediately associated my uncle with Boo Radley. All the kids in town were either afraid of him or made fun of him. To me he was just my uncle, a little different, but part of our family.
Always suspicious of people, my uncle let few people into the house after his mother’s death. He knew more about family and local history than anyone around. He would have loved computers and the internet, if they had been around back then. And he might have had many online friends, instead of the few people in town who would talk to him. In his latter years, a local man gained his confidence and convinced my uncle to lower the ceilings in the old house to save on his heat bill. To do the work everything had to be moved. Things went missing in the confusion, including some of the books. By the time my uncle figured out that the man was taking advantage of him, the damage was done – to the house, to the antiques and to the books.
After my uncle’s death, my brother and sister-in-law went through the house, inventoried everything and arranged for a sale. (Bless them for their hard work.) As the youngest of nine and with no children, the estate had to be divided up over many nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.
The boxes of books I purchased at the sale are the ones I finally unboxed and put on my bookshelves. I have sets of books by Jules Verne, Bret Harte, Victor Hugo (including Les Miserables), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Winston Churchill (yes he apparently wrote fiction), Rudyard Kipling and other less-familiar authors published around 1900. There are books by James Fenimore Cooper, essays and poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a history of the Italian earthquake of 1908 and a history of the Cuban struggle for independence.
Many other authors filled my grandfather’s library. His interests were diverse and provide some insight into who he was. I remember Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, a huge dictionary and a 1903 Encyclopedia Britannica, to name just a few. In a time with no television or computers, when radio and movies were strange novelties, the library provided entertainment as well as knowledge to my grandparents and their children. For me, his books open a window into the past.
With all the talk today about e-books, e-readers and the demise of books as we know them, I wonder what today’s readers will leave behind. Will they simply delete the electronic files after they read them? Will they even think about transferring the files to someone else? Even paperbacks can be passed on to others. Why not e-books?
Although my old books have been damaged by dust, heat, humidity and the deteriorating acid paper, they can still be read. They have provided a legacy to several generations by inspiring a love of learning and literature. I believe that children who grow up surrounded by books, who are read to and who see their parents and grandparents reading will become readers themselves. Technology is wonderful, but I think books will be around for a long time.