Alongside the tables and booths at Crestwood Coffee runs a row of old and donated books, with a “take a book, leave a book” policy. Yesterday I picked up this one, from 1939: Ted Malone Presents The American Album of Poetry. Ted Malone (I’ve since learned) hosted a popular CBS radio show, “Between the Bookends” for more than thirty years, and on it he championed the everyday poetry of everyday people. “This Album,” the intro to his book begins, “is made up of poems written by poets—but these are the poets who in daily life are housewives, business men, professional people, teachers and students, and their poems are composed wholly for the joy of self-expression.”
The coffee shop copy also bears a handwritten inscription, dated May 10, 1941: How about going poetic, it says—From Your Brother & Sister, Alonzo & Alma. And stuck between the pages of the book are a few typewritten pages of poetry, each signed L. C. Steiner, Jr. Whoever Steiner was, he seems to have been just the sort of poet Ted Malone would have loved: neatly typing his poems on the backs of business stationery (Alexander Motors, Mobile, Alabama), numbering them in pencil, and folding them up and sticking them inside The American Album of Poetry. My favorite of the batch, “Tribute to King Booze,” begins:
A man does strange things when he gets himself drunk.
His legs go to shaking and his mind’s full of junk.
Here’s the whole thing. You can barely make out the Alexander Motors letterhead through the paper.
I’m always on the lookout for inscriptions, marginalia, and things stuffed between the pages of old books; they let us glimpse the ghosts of readers past. We get through these artifacts only a cryptic fraction of a larger story and are left to wonder at the rest. What about L. C. Steiner? If he’s the brother to whom the book was inscribed, did the gift inspire him to “go poetic” as challenged—or was he a secret poet already?
Who else got to read his poems?
Several years ago in a Chapel Hill bookstore I bought an old biography of Jesse James for fifty cents. My copy of The Rise and Fall of Jesse James was published in 1926, its author Robertus Love, and it belonged at one point to the Sondley Reference Library in Asheville, North Carolina. I haven’t read it and don’t expect to; I laid down my fifty cents for the sake of this lengthy tirade written on the book’s first blank page:
Here’s what it says, in case you find that hard to read:
The Yankees who, unprovoked, murdered thousands of Southern people, men and women and children, and stole millions of dollars worth of Southern property and deprived Southern survivors of their liberties and burned their homes and ever since have continued to rob them and slander them with the most nefarious lies and have attempted to deify an atrocious murderer and thief named John Brown and an equally vile beast named Abe Lincoln (or something else) are horrified when a few of the robbed men turned the tables and robbed the robbers.
The writer of this book is a dirty Yankee liar and his statements are entitled to no credit.
If that were not enough, there’s a rejoinder underneath, from another, more modern hand: And the critique above, it announces, was written by an ignoramous!
This, I suppose, is what lately we’ve come to call “trolling”; it’s the Youtube comments before there was Youtube.
And there’s more, too: finally, a third voice weighs in at the top of the page, rendering a final judgment on the entire affair—book, notes, and all.
50¢, it says. A steal!
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve found inside an old book? I invite you to describe your favorite finds in the comments below. But first, here’s a poem by Billy Collins, another lover of poetry in the everyday .
It’s called “Marginalia.”
Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page–
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
a few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil–
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet–
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”