Books with meaning

There's not much happening here in Sisters in winter (not even snow), and therefore not much to write about. So for now I'll offer recent—or ancient— pieces from other venues. This one was written a few weeks ago in response to a writing group prompt. 


I have no sure memory of the books arriving, only a picture my imagination has conjured. The books, ten heavy volumes, would have come by mail, and my mother surely carried the box to the kitchen table, calling for me to come and see. What she unwrapped was to me a wonder, ten red-bound Books of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopedia.

From the kitchen table they moved to the lowest of our bookshelves where I could easily reach them. I was about five when they arrived, and just learning to read, but the curiosity those books inspired drove me to learn quickly. I do remember sitting on the floor and studying the drawings on the inside cover depicting famous people, inventions, places, and things. They seemed fabulous to my young eyes, even magical, and I yearned to know everything about all of them. I would page slowly through the various volumes studying the photographs or plates of colorful birds and plants, or whatever captivated me, and ask to be read to. I’m sure that was my mother’s plan.

The Book of Knowledge shows copyrights beginning yearly in 1923. My set was copyrighted by the Grolier Society in 1944 and probably arrived on our doorstep shortly after. I imagine they were purchased from a tired and perhaps desperate salesman, pushing himself to knock at one more door. He must have been surprised and pleased when his hunger for a sale so perfectly dovetailed with my mother’s love of books and learning. She who craved knowledge and worshipped education, could not have resisted purchasing something so grand for her only daughter. She must have cast aside her normal self-restraint, because purchases were not made lightly, and she no doubt convinced my father that the books were a valuable investment.

As for me, I was captivated. I believed those beautiful red volumes contained all the world’s knowledge, for the topics seemed endless. Here are some titles chosen randomly from one of them:

Nursery rhymes of children of France

Birds of North America

Treasure Island (in the Famous Books section)

The Story of Portugal

Canals and How they Work

Little Verses for Very Little People

How to Measure the Height of a Tree

Sculptures of Italy’s Golden Age

The South Pole Men

French Lessons

Over the years I turned to them often. I memorized poems to recite on class poetry days, learned about foreign countries, tried some of the experiments in the science sections and read a great many of the stories. I can’t guess how many hours I spent with one of these books on my lap, but I knew them well. And when eventually I outgrew them, I went to our town’s Carnegie Library and eagerly learned to love other books and other writers.

I still have nine of the ten volumes. Even after moves too numerous to count, when I’ve given away hundreds of other books, they remain too precious to part from.

I have tried unsuccessfully to introduce them to my granddaughter, but she has little interest in heavy books in black and white, with small print and titles like “The Elizabethan Sea Dogs” or “Canals and How They Work.” At age nine she is far more sophisticated than I was, and a book is just one slight attraction among the many shiny activities that fill her days.

But for me, a child of the forties and fifties, every book was a doorway leading beyond the confines of my small and often small-minded town into an utterly fascinating world. I’m sure my mother sacrificed something to buy those books. She could not have given me a better gift.