By Marica Bernstein
I’ve always loved old books. Every now and again, when I wasn’t busy working or raising my family, I’d pick one up at a yard sale or junk store and tuck it away in my library cabinet, out of the reach of the little ones.
As we were growing, my little collection in the cabinet grew, too, but mostly out of sight and mind. One year, after we’d all grown, we lived near a small town with a junk store filled with books priced $1. That’s when I began to collect in earnest: cookbooks, history books, textbooks; books on manners and farming and shop work; hymnals, story books, dictionaries (yes, dictionaries). I told my family I was preserving Western culture one $1-book at a time!
My collection has grown to more than 1,200 volumes, including one that lists every county, parish and borough in the United States. (There are eight Webster Counties, all named for the statesman Daniel Webster.) The oldest are “The Last Days of Pompeii,” a fictionalized account of that city before Mt. Vesuvius erupted (published 1850), and one that discusses the Acts of the Apostles (1857). The majority, however, are from the early- to mid-20th century.
Obviously, it’s hard to keep that many books out of sight and mind. So I don’t. I keep them handy. Does someone need a recipe for apple brown betty or framing diagrams for a gambrel roof? Would you like to read what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while in a Birmingham jail or what Martin Luther said before the Diet at Worms?
Can’t remember how the Constitution begins, what a pileated woodpecker looks like or where the salad fork goes? Feel like learning about Paul Revere, the invention of the cotton gin or how to be your own decorator? Just want to kick back and relax with story about growing up under a tree in Brooklyn, or a beautiful black horse? No smartphone? No worries. There’s a book for that!
Sometimes, as I thumb through an old book, I am amused to the point of laughing out loud. One has a section devoted to speaking courteously to the operator as she places your call. It adds that in some parts of the country, the telephones now have dials! Another informs that a young man should always include his card when he sends a young woman flowers; a young woman must never have lunch at a roadhouse without a female chaperon.
The cookbooks are a never-ending source of amusement. Please be sure your child drinks a quart of milk each day. Eat foods with vitamin G. Don’t throw away those chicken feet! Use them to make aspic.
Quaint and outdated as many are, they still have much to offer beyond a few laughs and the spark of a warm memory. “The Guide to Reading” (1925), which suggests daily 15- to 30-minute family readings, says, “there are three services which books may render in the home: they may be ornaments, tools or friends.” In upcoming Books Bygone essays, I’ll show you some beautiful ornaments, loan you my tools and introduce you to my friends.
• Edward Bulwer Lytton. “The Last Days of Pompeii.” M.A. Donohue & Co., Chicago. 1850, 1834.
• Lyman Abbott, Asa Don Dickinson, et al., eds. “The Guide to Reading: The Pocket University Volume XXIII.” Nelson Doubleday Inc., Garden City, NY 1925, 1917.
Both are available at MSU Mitchell Memorial Library and on-line booksellers; electronic versions available free at gutenberg.org.
Marica Bernstein lives outside of Walthall. She may be contacted at email@example.com.