This morning Stella was browsing through an Ogden Nash book on the couch. She doesn't really read Ogden Nash yet -- there's too much wordplay for her to enjoy it on her own. But that particular shelf is a favorite of hers, and she often sits down to pore over the pages of something she isn't ready to read yet. In school they push hard for the kids to read within their ZPDs,* but at our house we encourage browsing through whatever catches your eye. I bet I have a dozen different pictures of Stella peering at the pages of a Shakespeare play, even though she won't be reading Shakespeare for a while.
(*Is Zone of Proximal Development an abbreviation that needs to be spelled out? It seemed weird to write it out and also weird to abbreviate it.)
Ogden Nash was still on the couch when I came home this evening. When I picked up the book I flipped to the front, where I saw this inscription. The Elizabeth in question was my great-aunt-in-law; the Pa my husband's great-grandfather.
In December 1938 Aunt Elizabeth had no way of knowing that far away in Milwaukee a baby girl had just been born, a baby girl who would grow up to marry Elizabeth's nephew. She could not know that they would have a book-loving son who would marry a book-loving girl. I am the book-loving girl in this story, and coincidentally, in the year that Elizabeth died, I gave her great-nephew a book of Ogden Nash poems. It is also inscribed; the inscription begins "When we are old and wise and famous, when you've eclipsed Einstein and I've topped Camus..." Even as I wrote it I knew that it wasn't quite right: the thing about Nash is he rhymes things that seem like they shouldn't rhyme, whereas I was only not-rhyming things that looked like they ought to rhyme.
These days the two Nash volumes sit cheek by jowl on a crowded shelf, tucked into a corner of our dining room because (a) we have so many books in this house that they have to spill over into the dining room too and (b) it is much easier to resolve dinner-table arguments about Shakespeare if a person can just lean over and grab the complete works. I might lobby for keeping the complete works within grabbing distance of the dining room table even if we were to move to a bigger house someday.
Aunt Elizabeth could not have foreseen that in December of 2008, 70 years after she gave that Ogden Nash book to her father, his great-great-granddaughter would slide into the world a few feet away from the shelf on which it sat. She could not have known that the preschool-aged Stella would grab the eye-level Shakespeare volumes from her Goucher College days, or that the 8-year-old Stella would be fond of Nash. Perhaps 12-year-old Stella will be browsing from the next shelf up: will she like Dante, or Euripides, or Aristophanes? I cannot see the future any better than Aunt Elizabeth could. In fact, I am writing this post and realizing that I cannot even see the present clearly. Stella saw me taking a picture of the inscription and launched into a disquisition on Ogden Nash. She likes his Doves poem, on page 61, but it has some confusing parts, and here is what she thinks it means...
Color me surprised. Color me wistful.
That shelf is mostly books that Elwood and I have bought, and I wonder tonight where they might be eighty years from now. I've posted before about my copy of Paradise Lost, with one ink color from Intro to Western Lit and another ink color from my class on Restoration literature and a third ink color from my Milton class. Together they remind me of the hard work that went into those classes; they are a trail of breadcrumbs through the thickets of Milton's syntax. And I cannot help but wonder whose hands might page through that book in eighty years' time.
Tonight, though, I am being summoned to read Mysterious Benedict Society. So I will hand off my wistfulness to you, my friends in the computer who love to read, and maybe you can tell me about the volumes on your shelves that tell a story in addition to the stories they contain.