DIRECTOR OF CREATIVITY // MICHELLE BLAISDELL, GRAPHIC ART & PHOTO EDITOR // JULIE ERDMAN – JEDESIGNS
PHOTOGRAPHY // JENNY LANE STUDIOS, HAIR & MAKE-UP // SALON 465 GOODRICH, Michigan
A SPECIAL THANK YOU TO IAN MCDOWELL & SEDGEWICK + FERWEDA ARCHITECTS FOR LEVERAGING YOUR TIME
& SKILL SET IN CREATING OUR LARGER THAN LIFE STORY BOOK.
A huge thank you to our super model Riley B. for taking time out of her busy day to work with us and this issue
along with her parents Ronnie & Debbie for collaborating with us. We will cherish these memories always.
When my mother died last year at the age of 95, she left me, among other things, approximately a thousand books. She had retired in June of 1995 as librarian emeritus after 20 years of service at the University of Michigan library, so it’s pretty clear that one of the things she revered in her life was her books. Even after she had ceased to work, she catalogued most of them in various bookcases in selected rooms in her condo where she lived until the end.
But my mother didn’t just have the books she had accumulated all by herself through a lifetime…oh, no, she also had many books which had belonged to other family members, going back to my great-grandparents, as well as some books that had been passed down to her from uncles and cousins twice removed on both sides. Now, to add to the number of books from her that I suddenly needed to accommodate, I had to take into account all the books I had amassed by myself over the course of my life as an avid reader, a student and a teacher for 30 years. Needless to say, I have had to face the dilemma of where to put them all.
“Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” – Plato
Many well-meaning people have advised me to get rid of my “surplus” books, saying either the books from my mother were old (and by implication, obsolete) or probably not to my taste anyway. I rejected that solution, although I did give some of her literary largesse to the Genesee District Library. One of the main reasons I want to keep them is that in an increasingly disposable world, I feel that some things are well worth preserving, especially those that represent one’s heritage, such as many of the works that other members of our family had handed down to my mother.
Some of these publications include my grandfather’s medical books, my grandmother’s recipes in print, a whole narrative on 1850s farm life in Indiana by my great-grandmother and a wonderful collection of Civil War histories of my father’s. In addition, some of the books I discovered in her collection turned out to be valuable antiques (which in itself makes the case for keeping them).
However, the one really intriguing discovery I made was a New Testament Bible bearing an inscription that said, “Taken off a confederate soldier in 1864.” I presume this Bible once belonged to the uncle of my mother who had served as an officer in the Union Army. Thus, sorting through this vast number of books which I now need to find space for has given me a fascinating glimpse into my family’s heritage.
But that is only one reason to value the published written word. I grew up in a household that respected it, in the form of both books and magazines, and as a result, I have always found a reason and a time to read, a reason to own my own books – or to borrow them from libraries – and above all, a reason to treasure them, since they represent trusted companions and in some ways, intimate objects.
Among the many reasons to read books, despite the fact that we have so many technical devices on which we rely for instant gratification in reading and research, is that there is something so very personal and intimate in holding a book in our hands and turning its pages one by one. Most of us could probably name some book that we hold dear as having influenced our lives. By virtue of the books we read over a lifetime, we learn and grow in knowledge, intellectual ability and experience into the more fully actualized people we are constantly becoming. For example, as a child who went to the downtown branch of the Flint Public Library, I intensified my existing love for animals, especially dogs and horses, by “devouring” all the books I could find about them on the shelves. Similarly, some readers may have been steered toward a career choice later in life as a result of reading books in their youth about firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, teachers, librarians or even journalists. This might prove especially true if someone special had read to them about such professions early on. Thus, books can inform young, impressionable readers about the possibilities life has to offer – firing childhood imaginations to pursue, as adults, more inviting and rewarding paths than might otherwise have been followed. The influence books can exert over us is considerable, whether in the utilitarian realm of career influence or simply for our entertainment and enjoyment.
Whether fiction or non-fiction, books take us out of ourselves and into “other worlds” – ones we might never visit in the flesh but which we can share by virtue of merely turning a page. Narratives can captivate, and we all could probably name a few favorite works that have stayed with us over the years. In my case, it was Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, which I must have read five times starting at the age of 12, until my mother, whose lovely leather-bound copy I always borrowed, said to me, “Here, it’s yours. You’ve gotten more mileage out of it than the author did.”
Once, in the course of a literature class I taught, someone asked me what book had made the most lasting impression on me over my years of attending school and teaching. I could answer, without hesitation, that it was John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. I couldn’t follow it when I had to read it for an undergraduate class, but when I was getting my master’s degree, I took a seminar entitled “Milton,” taught by a professor (the best I ever had) who made it come to life. I had an epiphany then, and sometimes I still read parts of it, along with all the notes I wrote in the margins during that class. But for the sheer pleasure of losing oneself in a book, my encounter with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind when I was a teenager stands as a testament to reading for pleasure. I stayed up all night on the tail-end of a weekend during summer vacation to finish what I had begun to read the afternoon before. I was stunned to see when I had finished that the clock read 6:30 a.m., especially because I had to get up and go to work that day. Needless to say, I remember that book very well.
A third reason for reading books lies in the sharing of them with children – in the daytime to break up playtime, while riding in a car, or perhaps as a distraction in the waiting room of a doctor or dentist (although most kids spend that time watching YouTube videos on their parents’ phones). But probably the most notable and important time to read books to kids is at bedtime. This activity provides a closeness at the end of the day that can’t be matched, nor can the memories derived from the joint experience between parent and child. The companionable coziness of reading a favorite book together before a child goes to sleep is the stuff from which whispers of the past drift into and out of our conscious minds. At an early age I remember listening to one or the other of my parents read to me one of the four Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne, a collection I still have intact to this day, and which I, in turn, read to my children, especially the two youngest. These books speak to the preservationist in me, I guess. Beyond that, I read Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book so many times to one son that I know whole sections of it by heart, while my daughter loved a book called Liza Lou that we got from a book club, a book that I think, as an adult, she took home with her. My four grandchildren got the same treatment, and I still have a bookcase filled with books they enjoyed in my spare room where they would sleep when they visited me. Long-held traditions live on, as I’m sure holds true in a great many households–our favorite books defining, in part, who we are.
There are many justifications for the preservation of books, but the most prominent and influential lies in the needs of particular communities, needs that are met in the form of libraries. The most familiar kind of library to the greatest number of people is the public library, which caters to the needs of the general citizenry by offering collections and catalogues of both informational and recreational materials through taxpayer-funded services. They are often, especially branch libraries, exceedingly accessible as well as child-friendly. In fact, many parents of young children may take their offspring on a regular basis, and together they enjoy not just the reading material available but activities geared to kids’ interests. My mother took me to the library years ago, and I took my four kids when they were young, and since then, my grandchildren have also enjoyed, in the same way, the resources that these public facilities have to offer.
Another important library is the academic kind, attached to an institution of higher learning – a college or university – whose function is to support the school’s curriculum as well as provide resources for the research that goes on there. It also provides a place for students to work and study. We can’t get through our college days without our reliance on these facilities and the resources they offer to aid us in completing our degrees. And it’s not unheard of for students to fritter away valuable time in academic libraries, talking about things with one another which have nothing to do with intellectual pursuits. In other words, they have their social value too. For my part, I was very fortunate to have my own private librarian in the form of my mother when I was getting my master’s degree, so I spent a great deal of time in the university library. Of the two kinds of libraries, the academic is the one I most appreciate.
However, it is the “private” library, whether professional but restricted, or simply the product of a life-long love affair with books, that reveals the most about the person to whom these collections belong. Some may represent, as many of my books do, a personal heritage. Books owned by my parents, my grandparents and my favorite aunt and uncle all speak to not only who they were, but who I am as well. In sorting through these many volumes and tomes, I have learned several things about my family members that I never knew before, and I find these little discoveries better than any DNA test at revealing connections between their past and my present. It is almost like retaining something of those loved ones who are no longer living, while defining and synthesizing a common background with those still here.
I have searched through many of the books I inherited for any pieces of paper with writings on them, as well as for any forgotten documents that might have been stashed between pages long ago, and one of the things I found was a handwritten paper by my grandfather, a pathologist at Hurley Hospital in the 1930s. He was a diligent researcher, as I had always been told, and was working on a particular cancer study before he died. So on this piece of paper, I found facts about cancer cell division written up in an almost poetic prose form, from my grandfather’s hand straight to my own eyes.
This discovery stunned me. Here was this remarkable paper found tucked away in a book that was his–ironically, a book about history. So for me, the books I own, my little private library, might say as much about me and where I come from as any public library says about its community, or as much as an academic library represents the institution it serves. I can re-read or revisit any of my books in my now considerable
ollection just as a patron, student, professor or researcher can access material in a public or academic lending institution. And I like to think that I am preserving all these books as a legacy of sorts for my grown children and even my grandkids. They might, after all, play a role in each one’s individual odyssey through his or her lifetime.
Last of all, I think of books – whether housed in libraries or collected, owned and cherished by individuals – as if they were old friends. And that is especially true of old or antique books. Though merely being “old” doesn’t necessarily make a book good, valuable, or esteemed, it can make a work interesting.
As an example, in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, my mother and I took a trip to Massachusetts so she could visit a longtime friend of hers, a fellow librarian, who lived there. The atmosphere of Cape Cod and the historic sites we saw will always be with me, but my fondest memory of this vacation was the afternoon we spent together, perusing the books on the shelves lining the walls of an antique bookstore in Walpole. It was owned by another of her friends, so we really enjoyed free reign all afternoon and up until closing time, when it was getting too dark to read. I’ve always been happy to have shared that experience in that enchanting little shop with my mother, a memory in some ways as timeless and immutable as the books we found there. When she lay dying, the dementia that consumed her about to end her life, I whispered to her that it was all right, that she could go because I had her plants, her rock collection, her other important possessions–but most of all, I had her books. And it was at that moment, with a sigh, that she was gone.
So there exist many reasons to treasure books that we own and love. As a writer and teacher, I have always had a genuine love of words – of syntactic patterns and word usage, both from the past and of the present. I also appreciate the actual feeling of holding a book or magazine in my hands, enjoying the texture of the pages and the font of the print. I loan my books here and there to family members and trusted friends, especially if I can recommend a work as expressing something intriguing, imaginative or unique, and I’m happy to say that those books are always returned. When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, my parents asked me what I wanted for a gift, and I told them I would like to buy copies of some of the books I’d sold over the years I’d been at school. So off we went to the bookstore, and they let me fill up a basket with any and all written things of interest to me at the time. Maybe they thought it would help me to act like a serious and responsible adult. Anyway, I still have those books–which, by the way, I’ve used in my work enough to pay for them many times over. They constitute part of my legacy to my offspring. I hope my children and grandchildren will see the value in them as I did, even in my less mature days.
Finally, I am as invested in and dependent upon, even addicted to, technology as the next person. I find I cannot do without my iPad, even for a day. I can access news, commentary, information, data and of course, social media, as well as shop to my heart’s content, with both speed and ease. And, naturally, our phones are a necessity, as well as a form of entertainment. We use them not just for calls and messages, but also to pass the time by perusing their screens or playing games when we are forced to wait somewhere or for someone, thereby relieving our boredom or distracting ourselves. But these devices, including laptops, don’t necessarily promote serious thinking and are not replacements for what books have to offer. These little wonders are tools, and they have such a place in our lives that the time and space they occupy looms ever larger by the day, month and year… which makes it refreshing when we are able to sit quietly and contemplatively with a valued book or magazine of substance and be somehow spirited away to another world for a time. Respite from the everyday stresses and strains of life can provide a welcome relief to all who indulge their desire to escape, to learn or even to experience an emotional connection with another being, and that can often be found between the covers of a book.
All this makes it essential that we should read for ourselves and our loved ones, cherish our books and good magazines, share what we have learned in the process and appreciate our journeys into those written works available, lest we find them in ever shorter supply than they already are. And most importantly, we must read books to our children, for as Plato said, “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” What more could any of us want?