Slice of life

Book Impressions: Alice’s Dictionary

Reference books are the dinosaurs of print. The meteoric rise of the internet search engine has buried encyclopedias, thesauri, and dictionaries in the back of libraries and used bookstores across the world. Yet, these gems of information, which were once the prized possessions of family households, still have stories to tell. I heard one such story from my grandmother, as we peered over the massive spine of a 1956 publication of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary that used to belong to a woman named Alice.

Listen in as Gloria Kazmierzcak shares her memories of her mother collecting sections of the dictionary piece by piece.

This dictionary was bought by my mother… in pieces. A guy came to the door selling dictionaries. It was probably 1956. She paid for it every week when she got the section that was due that week. After she got all the sections, then the cover came and you could put it all together.

Alice Grabarkiewicz was a homemaker by occupation, and lived in Ohio with her husband, Victor. After she had three children, her oldest daughter, Gloria, babysat the two younger children while Alice walked to work at the Ohio Table Pad Company.

[Alice] enjoyed books. We were in school and I think she thought it might have been a good dictionary to help us in case we needed to look up anything. I think that’s why she bought it. She never really did say, and I was really surprised that she did buy it!

The dictionary was for the entire family to use for homework, research, or do crossword puzzles (which were Alice’s favorite)! The reference book was kept on the dining room table, at all times.

It was more than a dictionary, so to speak. It had… other facts about history and things like that. It was available to all of us. We didn’t have Google back then, we didn’t have cell phones back then, we didn’t have computers. So, this was it! In today’s age, I think I prefer looking [information] up online. Because it’s right at your fingertips.

Although reference books may be outdated, they support a different type of research that is drastically different from googling. Google requires a defined question. Reference books only require curiosity. With a bit of digging, old dictionaries can unearth knowledge that you don’t expect to find. This is something that Alice’s granddaughter, Barbara Shugar can attest to:

All of us kids… were drawn to [the dictionary] to just page through it, and look at words, and look at pictures, and learn new things!

The dictionary is mine now, but Alice’s memory is laced into each section that she collected, and echoes of dining room conversations still reverberate from the cover. The next time I need a word to complete a crossword, I’ll remember great-grandma Alice’s dictionary and spend some time lost in its pages.

Poetry, Publishing, Slice of life

Book Impressions: To Fletch from Hettie

Used books are more than collections of beat-up paperbacks and faded texts marching out from musty spines. Used books carry the weight of tearstained pages, notes scribbled in margins, the love of personal inscriptions, and the sunshine of yesterday on their faded covers. Who knows the journey a used book traversed before landing in your hand? This is the question that draws me into bookshops and libraries to search out books with their own unique histories, and I’ve found a few treasures along the way. Some of them contain mysteries that I’ve yet to figure out, but I love pouring over the clues within the pages. So, I give you the first installment of Book Impressions.

A worn book of Robert Browning's Poems.

Most of us are familiar with the English poet, Robert Browning. During the Victorian era, he wrote plays and poems with dramatic flair and married Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was an accomplished poet in her own right. (Talk about a romance filled with poetry!) This particular book is titled, Robert Browning’s Poems and contains selections from his poetical works. It is small, almost smaller than the mass market paperbacks you see in airport gift stores. The cover, a dove grey with silver scrollwork around the edges, is faded beyond recognition, but still soft to the touch. The cover is stained, with camel-colored paint splattered across the front. Someone must have used the book to hold down a paint tarp during a home renovation project. You wonder if anybody got upset about the book damage. Maybe not. Any book collector would tell you this book isn’t worth anything, especially in its current condition. You slowly open the cover and the first two pages fall in your lap. The second one has writing on it. Three separate lines in different handwriting:

A couple of loose pages from a book, with inscriptions.

’96

F.H. Connor.

Fletch
              from

                            Hettie

Hettie’s inscription is gracefully written, simple. Fletch sounds like a nickname of sorts. Perhaps they were close. Now you get into the technical bits. You skipped over the publisher: Donohue, Henneberry & Co. located in Chicago. When was this book published? The author’s note, by the great R.B. himself, is dated May 14, 1872. But the inscription mentioned ’96, and the publisher’s history indicates a print date in the 1890s. The book is dedicated to another famous author, Alfred Tennyson. Makes sense, that these classic poets were pals. According to Browning’s dedication, Tennyson’s friendship was “noble and sincere.”

What follows is 368 pages of Browning’s poetic genius. But turn to page 112. As you read, “And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge…” your eye catches a bit of blue at the end of the line. Resting where the page meets the cover, there is a tiny, pale blue flower, a little slip of stem peeking from underneath the preserved petals.

An open poetry book, with a small blue flower dried between the pages.

Is it a forget-me-not? It could be. We don’t know who picked the flower and nestled it safely within the pages of Browning’s poetry. Perhaps they wanted to remember line XIV from “By the Fireside.” It could have been a mindless reaction to preserve a pretty flower on a summer day. Or maybe the flower, like the book, was a gift of remembrance.

In this book, worn beyond repair by a poet lost to time, is a flower. So this book speaks about more than just poetry. It tells a story about the wear and tear of life, of painting projects, and wildflowers that grew over a hundred years ago, when Fletch got a book from Hettie.

A close up view of a page of poetry, with a dried blue flower on the page.