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Do you have a good “book story”?

posted: 5.16.13 by Andrea Lunsford

When I was in high school in the 1950s, my best friend took a trip to France with her mother.  I still remember being overwhelmed with the thought of going “abroad,” and I waited impatiently for her to return so I could hear all about the fancy hotels, the theaters, the bookstores, and the “left bank,” which I had vaguely heard of.  I thought (hoped!) she might bring me a souvenir from this most exotic of places, but I would never have guessed what that souvenir would turn out to be. 

Readers of a certain age may remember that in those days girls were encouraged to wear girdles to help improve our posture (I am not making this up!).  I can still remember wriggling into these torture machines – and even more I can remember the feeling of sheer freedom that came in the 60s when women were “liberated.”  At any rate, my friend, who was pencil thin, wore a girdle– one that on this particular trip came in very handy since she used it to smuggle out an uncut copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  This book—my souvenir!–was all the rage in those days:  it had been on trial for obscenity in Britain and was one of three books (the other two were Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill) that were outlawed until the ban was finally overturned in 1959.

At any rate, I cut open the pages and read the book with thrills of illicit delight—as did all my friends.  I felt empowered to be reading about a woman who defied convention and class—hooray for her, I thought!  I’d love to know what ever happened to my copy of this classic, but I do know that it was well worn—it had been pretty much read to shreds.

This “book story” came to mind last weekend when I was visiting the home of a friend and looking around her living room.  There I came on a volume that had definitely seen better days—its pages were coming loose from the cover and it was obviously also well worn.  When I picked up the book my friend exclaimed, “Oh you have to hear the story of this book!”  Now I was even more intrigued:  what could be so interesting and special about a book titled The Divine Plan of the Ages?

My friend went on to tell me that this book had been a prized possession of her mother, who had graduated from college in 1932.  But, as she pointed out, you truly can’t tell a book by its cover.  So I turned the page to find the dedication page:  

 

 

 

“Go on,” my friend said, “turn another page.  Keep going.”    So I did and found:

 My friend’s mother, clearly already an entrepreneur as a college sophomore, had somehow secured the book—and had been “renting” it out to friends for 25 cents a night.  Throughout her childhood, my friend’s mother had referred to it only as THE book; my friend didn’t know what it was until she was going through her mother’s things after her death and found it.  And what a find:  every page has been turned and turned and turned:  I could almost hear the young women trading it back and forth, whispering about the terribly risqué romance between Lady Chatterley and the gardener. 

I remember lots of other books as well, though none quite as titillating as Lawrence’s.  I still have my copy of Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible for Young and Old, whose fabulous illustrations and accessible style brought many of those stories to life for me.  And while I no longer have them, I absolutely adored my family’s Book of Knowledge encyclopedias, which introduced me to many works of literature in easy-to-understand form.  Gulliver’s Travels was a great favorite, and I remember being very surprised when I got to high school (or was it college?) and learned that Swift’s actual work was much longer than the version I had read in the encyclopedia.

My sister also has some good book stories, including one about William H. Elson and William S. Gray’s  Elson-Gray Basic Readers, Book Two, which was originally published in 1931 and whose illustrations she found mesmerizing.  The book eventually went missing, but years later she came on a copy of it at her mother-in-law’s home where she thought momentarily of stealing the precious volume, with its stories “The Old Woman and the Cakes” and “The Lad and the North Wind.”  The illustrations were still as mesmerizing as they were to her childhood self, and to her relief her mother-in-law gave it to her so she didn’t have to resort to theft!

I think a lot about such book stories and about books that have had a special place in my development as a lifelong reader and writer.  I often ask students about books that they know and love, and to my delight they still have stories to tell about such books (Dr. Seuss looms large here), though they can tell similar stories about movies and even video games that hold similar places in their imaginations.  Such stories are woven into the fabric of our lives, part of the warp and woof that make us who we have become.


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One Response to “Do you have a good “book story”?”

  1. Mike Michaud, Rhode Island College Says:

    This was lovely, thank you for sharing Andrea!

    I was an early reader and then went away from reading for a while only to return in early high school and to discover Stephen King. I sat in our family room on hot midwestern summer nights, consumed with King’s stories–not so much for the spookiness and the scariness, but for the way in which he brought both people and places to life. He also offered me a challenge: could I actually get through ALL of his books? I decided to try (there weren’t that many at that time). It was a terrific goal that I’m not sure I ever met, but was worth it for the trying.

    In any event, thank you again for this lovely reminisce.