Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eleanor's Library

My dears, thank you all for the kind wishes you left while I was under the weather. I'm still somewhat cloudy, but as my father the pilot might say, visibility is improving.

No knitting today, if you don't mind. Knitting soon. Books today.

You may recall that a little while ago I wrote about buying books for a colleague's daughter, newly turned thirteen. In that post, I delineated at length my opinion of most novels being published for the not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman market. In brief, they want to make me gouge out my own eyes with a grapefruit spoon.

I don't wish to retract a word of what I wrote, although one or two commenters did make me wonder whether I ought to have been nicer about Meg Cabot. Thanks to your dizzying 194 comments, I did think deeply about the books we read when young, and how dear they can become to us.

I turned from my desk and faced the five-foot Victorian case where I keep humor and children's books, with Eleanor's Library on the topmost shelf.

To tell you about Eleanor's Library you'll have to step back with me to the early nineties, when I was a recent graduate working for starvation wages at New England Conservatory in Boston.

One good thing about starvation wages: they really teach you to focus your spending. I was quite the thrifty housekeeper in those days, making one chicken and two dollars' worth of vegetables bought from the stalls at Haymarket last for a full week. I didn't eat in restaurants, I didn't go to movies or theater, and I didn't buy clothes that weren't marked "final clearance."

Looking back, I wouldn't have minded so much, really, except for one thing: the budget left me little or no money for books.

When I really couldn't stand it any more, I'd let myself shop a little at the Brattle Bookshop near Downtown Crossing. In the vacant lot next to its tall, old building, the shop would wheel out a fleet of library carts piled with hundreds of books in absolutely no order whatever. They were unguarded and totally unprotected from the elements. These were the rejects, acquired en masse in estate sales and deemed unsellable at retail prices.

And every book cost a dollar.

However, on the money I was making even that was too pricey for more than carefully planned visits. I was pretty careful to stay off Winter Street if I hadn't made sure of my finances in advance.

One day, however, I slipped. I was in the neighborhood to buy dress shoes. My only pair had crumbled to dust. I had to either replace them or go to the office barefoot in February. I got the shoes, but was left with eight dollars: enough to just pay for food until my next check arrived three days later.

It was an awful feeling, and I walked toward the subway in a gray stupor, head down. Passing Winter Street, something in me snapped. I felt sick, and I needed a book to make me feel better. One book. One damned book, or I might well go insane. Surely, I could spare the dollar. Far cheaper than a month in a mental hospital.

I'd been among the carts for about ten minutes when I spotted a decorated spine with the title Hester Stanley's Friends. I picked it up; the cover design was classic Edwardian:

Cover

I was surprised to see it outside; normally the Brattle (and most shops) charge a premium for this sort of artwork. Looking inside, I found this inscription on the flyleaf:

Inscription

I was torn. On the one hand, this was a splendid binding. On the other, it wasn't something I was likely to read. An interesting curiosity, yes. But my circumstances did not permit spending on interesting curiosities. I decided to put it back.

Then I noticed the book next to it. Another decorated spine: Kitty Landon's Girlhood.

Inside, an inscription:

Second Inscription

I looked at the shelf again. More decorated spines. Inside each, the same name the same bold script. Somehow, in the midst of all this chaos, these six of Eleanor's books had landed together in a neat row.

My heart started beating. For a bibliophile, this was a moral quandary. I felt like I'd stumbled over a basket of abandoned, infant sextuplets and been asked, "Which one do you want to save from certain death?"

I pulled them all off the cart and held them, debating. I wondered who Eleanor was. I imagined what these books might have meant to her, since they'd been kept together all this time. I wondered if she'd sold them herself, or whether they simply arrived in a mass shipment after her estate had been broken apart.

I looked at the inscriptions again. Eleanor. Eleanor. Eleanor. From Mother. From Uncle Bill. A Happy Birthday. A Very Merry Christmas 1911.

And then it started to rain.

I was hungry for a couple of days, but a sense of Having Done the Right Thing can be very sustaining.

This has been a long post, longer than I intended. More about the books themselves will follow, if you're interested. Plus knitting, I promise. Believe it or not, the christening shawl has grown.

99 comments:

Sharon Rose said...

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
- Arnold Lobel

marie in florida said...

a lovely story. i would have done the same thing. i have an old knitting instruction book that i bought from our large second hand bookstore and didn't notice till i got home that it's from a house up the block from me

PICAdrienne said...

You are leaving us wanting more, that is for sure. I would love to hear more about the books, and have you ever found out anything about Eleanor?

I would like to see the christening shawl as well.

I am glad you are feeling better.

Linda (trufan) said...

Welcome back online, and here's to your good health. Love your writing, Franklin. I feel as if I'd been to the Saturday matinee to see the latest Flash Gordon serial...I'm on the edge of my seat, chastened that I have to tune in again, to find out MORE!

PennyZ said...

Definitely more about the books. I am a great fan of late 19th/early 20th century novels written for young women/teens.

KnitNana said...

I'm not surprised that you decided saving the books was more important than food...

I have some of my grandfather's books with similar inscriptions. He was a poet and walked all over Vermont selling his self-published books from a little cart. And then spending the grocery money on more books for the "feeding the minds" of his 8 children. (They all excelled academically, of course)

I can't wait to hear more about Eleanor! Do you know more about her??
(((hugs)))

sara 14 said...

That is beautiful. I would have bought them too (and read them!).
I used to scavenge books of a similar age from a dump. I still have most of them.
Glad to hear you are feeling better.

Jeannie said...

Nice, very nice. I greatly enjoy it when you write about books.

I am just the same, cannot pass up an obviously well-loved book (or old, odd book, or almost any book, for that matter). I once found a copy of a children's book called Beyond the Snow, by P. Fishe Reed, published in 1873. Cost me all of fifty cents. Inside are the following inscriptions:

To Sarah E. Boyce
For a Birthday present
From the Author
P. Fishe Reed

AND

Edward Cole Durfee
from his Grandmother
Sarah E. Boyce
Aug 19, 1900

Kathleen said...

Franklin, you're making me "homesick" for Boston, which I just left to come back home to the Chicago area. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking words. Hope you're feeling better and that we get to see progress on the shawl soon.

Melinda said...

Yes, please more on the books...I've occasionally had that feeling of being connected to another place and time when finding an inscription in a book. They do carry some sort of identity, some spirit, across the years...so yes, more please. You've got me going to my shelves to revisit some old friends.

And so glad you are on the mend.

Pamela said...

Glad you're feeling better.

Your words took me there and I saw it. I'm glad you saved them... don't you feel Eleanor smiling?

Anna-Liza said...

I absolutely want to read more about Eleanor's Library! What a great story!

I also want to know about the shawl, but I know you'll tell us, with illustrations.

I'm very glad you're feeling better.

Knitting Addict said...

I too, would have done EXACTLY the same thing!!! GMTA!!! I would have gone hungry for as long as necessary to save them from being ruined in that rain :)

So glad you're back! I was going through withdrawals, very glad you're getting better! And the weather is improving as well -- so that should help as well!

Catherine said...

Eleanor Maud Edmands, born July 7, 1897, Newton Massachusetts. Daughter of J. Wiley Edmands, greatgrandson (maybe 2nd ggson) of the founder of the Boston publishing house Lincoln & Edmands.

Good save, Franklin.

Catherine said...

oops, July 7, 1895. I plead undercaffeination.

Jenn said...

Catherine! Wow!

Somehow, somewhere, I got an idea in my head as a child, that people were in heaven only as long as they were remembered. Then they were reincarnated. It's stuck with me. Eleanor gets to play in the clouds for a little while longer.

Tomme said...

ACK, this is like an unresolved chord! I'll be eagerly awaiting the continuation of the tale. Did you ever find out anything about Eleanor? Are the books first editions? Are the stories they contain as rich as the bindings? You actually could write a young person's book based on this real-life adventure!

Laurel said...

So evocative of Boston in winter; dreary and grey. I'm glad I don't live around there anymore. Do let us know more about the books and Eleanor. Can't wait to see the shawl, and glad you are starting to feel better.

doodah said...

A beautiful post. I have a few rescued orphans myself and often wonder what their previous mothers were like.

Carol said...

One of my especially treasured books belonged to my mother: Janet Hardy Goes to Hollywood.

Many, many kisses.

Beverly... said...

As a person who finds herself inexplicably drawn to certain books, I completely understand your need to adopt these as your own. I would have done the same.

Jenny said...

I have a copy of the census record with her on it. If you'd like it I can email it. Her father was an electrician. Might be neat to tuck in one of the books to carry on the story.

Bonnita said...

Wonderful story! I'm glad to see that I am not the only one to save signed books.
It seems that the books that have that personal touch sing to me every time.

Fiona said...

Interested to hear more? Yes, of course! And glad to see that you are feeling better, as well.

Cathy said...

Welcome back, Franklin! Glad you are feeling a little better. Yes, I would love to hear more about Eleanor's books. I am delighted to hear you are search of something suitable for your colleague's daughter (would like to hear about those treasures as well), and interested to hear more about Eleanor's library.

Suzanne said...

Found this bit...

EDMANDS, John Wiley, (1809 - 1877)

EDMANDS, John Wiley, a Representative from Massachusetts; born in Boston, Mass., March 1, 1809; completed preparatory studies, and was graduated from the English High School at Boston; interested in woolen mills in Dedham, Mass., and the Pacific Mills Co. in Lawrence, Mass.; elected as a Whig to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853-March 3, 1855); declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1854; treasurer of the Pacific Mills at Lawrence in 1855; presidential elector on the Republican ticket in 1868; died in Newton, Mass., on January 31, 1877; interment in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass.

http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=E000050

LindaR said...

What a lovely story. I often wonder where the used books I stumble upon have been - who loved them - how they came to be discarded. It's a sad fact of life that when one passes, the possessions loved so much are considered just so much crap to the beneficiaries. One more thing crazy Aunt Beatrice clung to.

I buy them all. All I can afford.

But the most painful things to find at yard sales and estate sales (worse even, I think, than old family pictures): grandma's recipe file box. I buy them and cry over them each and every time.

Sap. ;-)

Suzanne said...

More...

Congressman J. Wiley Edmands Representative in Congress from Massachusetts, 1853–5. Founded a public library at Newton, Massachusetts.

and wiki has notes on a John Edmands, a librarian:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Edmands

Apparently the Edmands name is still quite significant in Newton, Mass.

Lisa said...

Franklin,

Please proceed with the story. I too would have gone without the food in favor of the books. I love to rumble around the local antique shops and garage sales looking for knitting books and gardening books. I am always drawn to the inscribed ones, and to this day, I do not give some one a book as a gift without an inscription placed inside.

Please finish the story ....

Alwen said...

[sniff]I'm bawling, here.

Anonymous said...

Franklin, if you were inclined in a different direction I would gladly bear your love child. Seriously. (well I'm actually a trifle on the old side for that, but still.)

This story made me weep. You are my hero today.

I have to stay anonymous now, of course ...

kgirl said...

perfectly done - I too would've done that exact thing! Food is vastly overrated, but a collection of some-one's treasured possessions left out in the rain - sacrilege!

Rabbitch said...

The mother of "the other Eleanor" thanks you. And besides, a little starvation helps you keep your youthful figure.

Misstea said...

Franklin,

I seldom comment, but this post moved me to tears. On Sunday, I connected, after 13 years, with the woman who taught me to knit. And, she loved books.

I know exactly what you mean, and your reverence for artwork and binding is very similar to hers.

Thank you for reminding me of yet another reason why I am glad to have found her again.

Deb said...

You are a kindred spirit, Franklin.

Mary said...

I buy up very old autograph books -- there's something so sad about them. Young girls with their books so full of the future now turning to dust. I can't bear to see them--the young women and their books--sitting on a shelf unappreciated.

Janet said...

wonderful account Franklin. Thanks so much. Keep us posted if you get any more information about those books and their owners/provenance.

Anonymous said...

Do tell us more about the books. I have scads of books. I've purchased a lot of them at a big annual charity book sale we have in St. Louis. I wasn't able to go this year because I lacked funds. Nearly broke my heart but I knew there was no point in going when I couldn't buy anything. Last year I spent $40 there.

CT

Mary Lou in Central New York said...

More, More, More!!!

Also, take a look at A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, the next time you need a gift for a teen girl. Wonderful story. No fluff. Amazon has a good editorial review.

Who was it that said something like "If I had to choose, I would buy a book and a flower to feed my soul, rather than a loaf of bread"?

Thanks, Franklin, for being you.

Stacy said...

Franklin, I love your way with words. Over a decade after the fact and many states away, I am very gratified that you did the right thing.

I'm glad you're on the mend.

Sharon J said...

What everyone else said. Not a dry eye in the house here.

Gauss said...

Tell us more, tell us more! I love a good real-life mystery, especially one that involves books.

Linda said...

I'd have done the same thing. Strange the mixed feelings we have about the days of intense poverty in our past.

Riin said...

Sometimes you need food for the soul more than that other kind.

lizbon said...

Oh what a beautiful story. And there happens to be a young woman named Eleanor who is very dear to me in real life. I love it.

stash haus said...

Remind me to show you my father's prep school latin class textbooks sometime. I just couldn't let them be thrown out.

I also have my Grandmother's copy of The Settlement Cookbook, given to her for her wedding - in 1925, I think.

marcia in austin said...

There is that familiar quote..."When I have a little money, I buy books. And if any is left, I buy food and clothing."

Longhorn Diva said...

Oh, more Eleanor, please!

Carson said...

Made the right and only choice- it makes for a great story.
You couldn't blog about "Great peanut butter sandwiches I have eaten"
(although I suppose some do).
But this you will always have.

MonicaPDX said...

So glad you're feeling better! And what else could you have done about Eleanor's books?

I've have gone insane long ago without books. Whenever money's been close to nothing, I've frequently needed a book more than food. I know it's a trite quote after being so overused, but hyacinths for the soul...

Mini said...

I have "rescued" a few books from that Brattle Books myself. Now, my bf likes to go across the street to the Antiquarian bookshop. Oy! talk about needing to stay on budget!

:)

sue said...

Franklin, you write so beautifully. I wish I had the pleasure of knowing you in real life.

Cindy in Happy Valley said...

I cannot claim the bibliophile title, however, I too harbor very deep affection for the books we read (or were read to us "Mr. Grabbit the Rabbit" comes immediately to mind) as children.

Favorite gifts of my husband's are the vintage Chip Hilton sports books. Any time I am in a quandry about a gift I search for a Chip Hilton book, in good condition, from the 40's. Alas, in the last few years they have become very dear.

Deborah C. said...

I'm glad to hear you are feeling better! I would have done the same - those poor orphan books sitting in the rain, not to be thought of! Hunger was a cheap price to pay for the rescue of Eleanor's Library.

Bibliovixen said...

"Real poverty is a lack of books." -Sidonie Gabrielle

I've eaten more Top Ramen due to book purchases. It's nice to know others are out there like me.

v.j. kohout said...

Do tell more, Franklin. Any topic, really. It is all a great read. vj

Anonymous said...

Hi Franklin - I would love to hear more about the book Hester Stanley's Friends . . . because my name is Hester S. Actually a different last name, but this is the first time I have ever seen a book about another Hester S!

Thanks - Hester S from Atlanta

datatech57 said...

Bless your little pea-pickin' heart.

Ruth

=Tamar said...

Tears in my eyes. Bless you, Franklin. I have rescued books from rainy yard sales, but my triumph was buying a book I had sought for 30 years from eBay, and it was the
exact volume, with my great-great- grandmother's notes still pinned to the last page! (Blasted relatives didn't even ask if we wanted anything.)

Mel said...

Let me just chime in - yes, 100% totally and completely interested in hearing more. If there is one thing I love doing more than knitting, it's collecting and reading books. The smell of the graduate library stacks at UW is in my top ten of favorites.

Mary said...

what comes next? do tell, do tell....

deepa said...

I am so glad Eleanor's library ended up with you. You chose to feed the soul over the body- I'd have done the same.

Glad you're better!

Sean said...

I really liked this post, Franklin. I love that there is a connection to the past through these books — what ever it was. I used to buy old Time Magazines with Barbra on the cover at that Shop! It was great, I can almost smell that old-book-smell.

Sweet, sweet post!

yarnkat said...

I loved your story.
My husband and I are going through the arduous task of moving, and as we clean out the clutter and try to pare down, apart from my knitting stash, it is the bookshelves that give him the most pause. Every very time he asks, "Do you really need that one?" I have to say, "Yes. Yes I really do." Books are such rewarding treasures, and hard to let go or pass by. Enjoy your collection! :)

geogrrl said...

I love books like that. I'm so glad you rescued them, Franklin. I likely would have done the same thing.

Anonymous said...

You so have a way with words...my heart was in my throat thinking, ohhh I hope he saved them, I hope he saved them, I hope he saved them...in a few short sentences you managed to make me fall in love with Eleanor's books. Lovely story and I know what it is like to seriously sacrifice food for the love of something (books, yarn, plants) non-essential to life, but absolutely essential to one's soul.

Peggy in Conshohocken said...

Please, do continue this lovely story, Franklin. You brighten my day, no matter the topic. I came for the knitting and stay for the delightful wit and wisdom. Take good care of yourself. You have been missed.

5elementknitr said...

How lovely! I'll take books over food any day.

Red said...

Good for you! Tell us more.

Seanna Lea said...

I have never been to Brattle Books even though I work down the road from there.

I used to work in a cruddy dental office, and across the street was an old used bookstore. I would go in once a week or so to explore the dark corners of the store and escape the ringing phones. Being surrounded by books was a soothing anodyne to a hectic world. Hm. I need to go book shopping again.

David said...

Boy, I'd lived that budget more years than I'd care to think. Glad you are feeling better.

Anonymous said...

You were the perfect savior for those books. Please keep the story line going for us. I walked past that shop by mistake (got on the wrong street for the errand I was on) the other day, but it was crappy Boston weather and I kept going. Guess where I'll be spending a few summer lunch hours!
Glad you're on the mend - have missed you.

Kristen said...

Yes, you had to rescue them. I would have definitely done the same, even if it meant a month of ramen. BTW, Nancy Pearl has a new book guide out aimed at the adolescent set. It's called Book Crush.

Ann said...

You are simply, absolutely wonderful. Thank you.

ejprosick@verizon.net said...

I can't pass up a good book sale either. In 1984 I picked up a copy of "Knitting Without Tears" by Elizabeth Zimmerman for the price of $1.00. The rest, as they say, is history. I consider it the best single dollar I've ever spent. Glad you are feeling better.

Joey Prosick

Sandy said...

how lovely that you saved them...I have a set of my greatgrandmothers that I treasure but have mostly not read

sonja poor said...

An absolutely wonderful story. Glad you saw them, glad you bought them, glad you keep them. Thanks so much for sharing. Happy you are feeling better.

Cara said...

As someone who owns (or is close to those who own) A LOT of items (cars, clothes, shoes, 1950s magazines) from a woman none of us as met your story made me tear up a bit.

Eleanor, wherever and whoever she is, must be glowing...

canknitian said...

I'm very interested and cannot wait to hear more about Eleanor.

Also, the Arnold Lobel quote proffered by Sharon Rose is new to me and perfect. Maybe someday I'll paint it on the wall of my (for now imaginary) home library and cover it up as I collect new books.

Cherice said...

More about the books!! I love old books and would have spent my food money to rescue those books too.

Glad you're feeling better.

martian77 said...

Another Eleanor here. I would have tried to do the same thing...

Carol said...

Thank goodness you were there to save those books! Can't wait to hear more.

Lee Ann said...

You make me happy, sweetie. Many of my days in Boston involved a grumbling stomach and an armload of treasures inscribed to someone else. It was necessary.

Glad to know you're feeling better.

StarSpry said...

I'm glad you're starting to feel better. I'd love to hear more about the books, and if you found out anything about Eleanor!

PURLEWE said...

As one who has bought a book with a pretty cover just for the pretty cover.. And as one who has bought a book with a pretty cover b'c it contained the name of a relative on that cover.. I look forward to hearing more of this tale.

Katje said...

Yes, more please! I'm in tears at your story... and I'm so glad you did the right thing!

If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left,
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul
~Muslih-uddin Sadi

For me, books are the things that feed my soul. Well, those and wool...

Rosane said...

Oh, Franklin, what a beautiful post. I know exactly the feeling you describe and have succumbed to it a few times. I think I'll look at some of my 'finds' when I get home from work today.

Take care,

Rosane.

Faith said...

How precious! I look forward to hearing about the books in future posts.

Puttermeister said...

I think your long posts on are a wonderful thing--a treat to look forward to. Thanks so much for a great anecdote that evoked so many memories.... I can't wait to read more.

Mary said...

I picked up a copy of a Jennifer Jones biography at the Brattle. It had been a gift from Bill Blass. His note was on lovely monogrammed stationary, still inside the matching envelope.

FiberQat said...

Food can be scrounged. Books like that can't. Good choice.

Judi said...

I really enjoyed reading about Eleanor's library and got warm fuzzy feelings knowing that it is now safe and well cared for.

Laiane said...

I would have bought them, even without the rain.

I stumbled across your blog today -- not sure how I got here. If all your posts are as intriguing as these few I've just read, I'm looking forward to reading much more from you!

Cheers,
Laiane

Karen said...

This clinches it.
You are, in fact, ME, in a swarthy-Mediterranean-gay-man's (lovely) body.

The Stephen Fry clock is ... well, ... brilliant.

And if the pre-recorded phrase about "the Earth's pleasure" ... "only requir[ing] your presence" doesn't have the same impact as "do me again," well,...

The world's still a slightly imperfect place (viz: Threadingwater's amazing, but sadly necessary project).
I am whipping out the credit card as we speak.
(No, for the clock, you nasty man!)
Thanks for another *fabulous* post, yet another in a long string which I felt compelled to read aloud to my fabulous Spousal Equivalent (who, sadly, does not have a brother, but a lesbian sister, who will not suit.).
Doctus decorusque es et te amamus, Franklin!
Good luck ending the indentured servitude.
The knitting world would only prosper.

owl knits said...

I am inspired by your work, and the way you make putting a shawl together sound so easy.

Plus, I work in downtown Boston and still cruise the books in the empty lot next to the Brattle Bookstore.

Anjie said...

Thank you for saving the books! Eleanor is my daughters great grandmother!! We were with her on her 100th birthday and she died soon thereafter. If you are interested in selling the books to us please let me know as I know my daughter would love to have them!! I found this post because my daughter is applying to her GGrandmonther Alma matter (Wellesely College)and we did a google search. Eleanor loved books, she was a women ahead of her times! Thank you again

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Anonymous said...

Might I use an image from this post?

-mark

m_scuhma@uncg.edu

Anonymous said...

OOPS !!

m_schuma@uncg.edu