‘I just go on about my business and don’t pay them no nevermind no way.’
Perhaps one comment is in order. He was the second-oldest of I think seven or eight children. He dropped out of grammar school after the 8th grade because there was much work to be done in order that the family might eat. And steadfast, hard work, sometimes filthy and rancid work, was the order of the day, every day, until he retired. He built a small plumbing business and ensured his young family never knew the hardships and poverty he experienced. Honest work, done right the first time, in a manner you can stand behind and on which you may stake your name and reputation…such was his way. He was not a lettered man, but neither was he a fool. Nor belligerent. He spoke his mind when he thought necessary, but don’t we all in our own way? In manner of life, he just went about his own business and let the chips fall where they may. As I age, I notice these words, in his voice, swirl around in my mind and memory. He, being dead, speaketh still.
Each month I check in over at ACU Special Collections to provide updates about the growth and development of our print collections. The first week of each month I get a report from our library catalog administrator with a spreadsheet of the items added the previous month across our various collections. I modify the list a bit to make it easier to read, then drop it in a post and use it as an opportunity to brag on my colleagues and get the information out there. My hope is that for the more obscure items, someone sometime, somewhere, will search the web for it, and the title will come up in our old blog post, and then they can go from there to find the item they need. I also think it critical to keep our donors informed of the progress in building the collection. I know lists of titles and authors are not the most compelling reading, but first-class research-level collections do not happen. They do not drop from the heavens, they are built. In our case, they are built almost solely by donors and used by researchers whose work deserves to be sourced by the very best collection that can be assembled. They are built methodically, diligently, consistently, all for the purposes of preservation and use. So, I hope the lists are useful.
In 2021 over 5000 new old things came our way, passed through cataloging, and are now on the shelves. That is a tremendous achievement and you can read more at the link below.
In April I wondered if I could, or would, resurrect this blog. I assumed then I should, and maybe I still think so. I don’t know.
Since then I have tried to bring it back. Stephen King describes his muse as basement-dweller. I can relate. I tried. In fits and starts, but mostly feel like I have stalled. Sweeping out a place in the basement for that flabby louse has been more of a chore than I bargained for. I will take King at his word and keep at the grunt labor in part because I, too, am stubborn. Stubborn and hard-headed and determined. I also remember what it was like to gin up posts like the Scoville precis, the Lipscomb bibliography, or even the lighter Foakes Jackson vignette. So even if sometimes I don’t think I can, I think I will keep at it in case I should resurrect it.
In April I lamented the challenge of making time to read and write. Beginning more or less the following week, I did something about it: I carved out one day per week to read and write. My colleague Amanda was so kind and helpful as we worked through the logistics. And most all of that work went right into the dissertation, specifically in trying to gain a foothold in historiography. Some days I spent in other research projects, and some days I spent reading and preparing for my archival work. In April I expected some of that reading to bubble up or otherwise make its way here. It hasn’t, but I still consider it progress.
In November I decisively excised myself from social media. I was not ever a heavy user, so cutting it out meant cutting out only Facebook. I have a post drafted about it. I keep tweaking it and I still don’t think it is worth posting. But…but…cutting even this little thing out has given me some more clarity. Writing remains quietly needy, and this step has helped me say ‘no’ to lesser things and thereby tend the writing fires.
I will also say that I followed Ray Bradbury’s advice and wrote some crappy things. I came close to posting most of them here. But having got them out of my system, I found that much was enough to scratch the itch. So I deleted the drafts. The Facebook post might well be another one that gets deleted. I can’t say yet. But the point is, I got it out and the getting-it-out cleared some mental cobwebs. I consider that another step in the right direction.
Making time to read and write, and read and write, and trying to be disciplined, and patient, and consistent. That pretty much sums up my efforts toward this blog in 2021.
I closed my April post thusly:
I have no other plans than that. I can’t say how often, or what I might write about. Perhaps I might do some book reviews. And they might be reviews of old books. Or reviews of articles. Or drafts of research ideas? Or little side lines that I slice from research papers? Scraps from the cutting room floor? Who knows? I guess we’ll find out together.
Turns out I did more or less just that. Lots of quotes. No reviews, really, although I have not forgotten about reviewing Robert McKenzie’s little book. The big takeaway is progress comes in small steps on my own terms. I still want to do it and perhaps the doing of it will prod that muse? May be. This paragraph still stands as to what I hope I might do in 2022.
Blogging, for me as a writer, was a lot of fun 15 years ago. It was a ‘pull market’. Post something to pull your readers in. It was a new thing and it was fun. Social media and podcasting seems to have sapped a lot of energy from the blogosphere. Seems like social media took a cue from the ‘send me notifications’ functionality and finessed the ‘push system’ where you generate your content then push it to your readers. Readers become much more passive in the reception of content, and much more active in banal methods of responding (the ‘like’ button, and worse, the other stupid emojis). The rise of diverse platforms from Facebook to Instagram to YouTube to Pinterest to whatever the newest thing is this afternoon all seem to have contributed to the overall demise of blogging. I glanced through a few of the blogs I regularly followed years ago and most of them seem totally defunct. In a sense it is easier to talk on a podcast or YouTube. I guess Twitter scratches some other kind of itch. Likely so. I don’t know that it helps with precision. I’m certain it doesn’t always add quality. Maybe that is why I find it more difficult, post-social media, to generate substantive content on a blog. On one hand, the readership here has flagged so I genuinely wonder if the effort is worth it for a small readership. On the other, maybe blogging is so Luddite by comparison I now have to come back, even if only to protest? I wouldn’t doubt it.
Yet the readership keeps coming precisely because of what I posted years ago. It is difficult for me to avoid what seems clear: that what I post, for whomever finds it, is meaningful to them. It seems someone is looking for it, and find it here.
Here are the top ten posts of 2021:
And here are where 5400+ hits from 2900+ users came from:
Here are the top countries:
Still and all, 128,000 total views far surpasses anything I could have expected or dreamed of 15 years ago. I don’t do this for the numbers, if I did I would have filled the blog with click bait and shameless self-promotion. There is plenty much of that out there as it is. Plenty much indeed. I have tried to do something other than that. If you enjoyed any of it, please accept my thanks for stopping by. Maybe we can do some more of it in 2022.
Norman Sykes summarizes the foundations of professorships in ecclesiastical history, enroute to a statement of gratitude for his forebears and a precis of what he intends to accomplish upon his investiture, but makes this aside:
“The fair promise offered by the early planting of professorships of ecclesiastical history in three of the four Scottish universities was destined soon to disappointment. For ecclesiastical human nature, even Scottish ecclesiastical human nature, is not exempt from the infirmity and frailties of its temporal counterpart; and it is perhaps with less surprise than sorrow that the English student learns [p. 9] that within thirty years of the first appointment to the new professorship at Edinburgh, it was reported of the third holder of the office, Matthew Craufurd (1721-36), that ‘he has £100* and really does nothing for it. He will give no private colleges but for money, and nobody comes to him. His public praelections are not frequented; he will not have six or seven hearers.’ His successor Patrick Cumming (1737-62) lectured for only one hour per week for four months of the year; and when he made over the chair to his son, Robert Cumming (1762-88), the latter improved even on this neglect, being said never to have delivered any lectures, thus converting the office into a sinecure.”
Norman Sykes, The Study of Ecclesiastical History, An Inaugural Lecture Given at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 17 May 1945. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1945, pages 8-9.
*roughly equivalent to $9200.00 in 2021 but the frequency of remuneration is unclear.
W. K. Pendleton’s brother, who by around 1902 was living at the historic Cuckoo House, remembered Henry Clay, who was “passing in a stage coach from Washington City, who dined with his father–‘a most entertaining talker, his most conspicuous feature being a very big, limber and expansive mouth.'”
–Frederick D. Power, Life of William Kimbrough Pendleton, LL.D. (St. Louis: Christian Publishing Company, 1902), p. 40.
Goes to show you do not know how you will be remembered and once you’re gone your expansive mouth will have no say in the matter. Ponder this.
Back in the summer a friend suggested I read Stephen King’s book on writing. He loaned it and I read most of it in one sitting. When finished it, I re-read a few parts. It was my first King book. I might read more from him although the genre has not really been of much interest. However, he is a skilled wordsmith and I like his smart, direct approach. He has certainly earned the right to advise about writing. In it he pulls back the curtain a bit so we can overhear him ruminate about his craft. I blogged a few of the standout points. But two more remain, so here they are:
One, there are exceptional writers and there are hopefuls who are terrible. The geniuses are remarkable, and the hopefuls are dismal. But most of us are in the middle. I think he puts himself in the middle somewhere. Middlers will not be truly great; but they are better than terrible. King thinks those in the middle can improve. They can’t become geniuses, but they can improve, and markedly so in some cases. If you’re terrible then you will probably always be terrible. And if you’re a genius, well, congratulations. I don’t recall King claiming that if you’re terrible you should not write. Or that you can’t enjoy it, even if you are terrible. Just that most folks are looking to improve and honestly some of us won’t really see much improvement, effort notwithstanding. Some just won’t get much better. Therefore,
Two, a secret to improvement? There is no secret, just work. Read and write. A lot, read a lot, and write a lot. Every last day. Read and write and read and write. If improvement will come it will come in large measure because you apply the seat of your pants to a chair and read and the tips of fingers to a pencil or keyboard and write.
King didn’t say this, at least I don’t recall it in as many words, but probably if you’re looking for a quick fix, well, take that as an indication you’re probably the kind who will not improve.
This struck me as advice worth taking since it was not marketed, faddish, or cliche. He didn’t give a formula and he didn’t make it sound like it was something he invented. It just sounded like good advice from someone who has earned his keep. If you have ever listened closely to someone who loves to talk about something (but hasn’t done it) and then compared that against the advice of someone else who has actually done that thing, well, that is what I mean. King’s advice strikes as if it has been refined through genuine experience. Take or leave it, but at least it is genuine. Vocabulary, sentence structure, composition, rhythm, pace, characterization, dialogue, plot, everything…scenery, syntax, grammar. Everything comes down to reading and writing and reading and observing what you read and writing some more. The short answer is there is no shortcut.
I intend to read more and I intend to write more. The writing I will publish here is for my own training. I need to get back into habits of regular writing, and I hope that writing some here will help with academic material I am preparing. What I might post here to this blog, though, is not the kind of academic writing that I will be working on, at least not much of it, and not now. In my mind this blog is cross-training. I need to get sentences onto paper, construct paragraphs, and keep momentum going. What happens here might mesh with other projects, might stray from it, or intersect, or it might be overflow, or I might blog quips and quotes and bits and pieces. Who knows? I don’t know. I can’t yet say what will happen, except to say I want my writing to become regular and habitual, and I want it to improve. I can’t say if it will. For all I know, I might be a schlep who enjoys his terrible writing. But I will try nonetheless.
This follows a post of a few days ago containing Burton Rascoe’s autobiographical reflection on the purchase, with his own earnings, of his first book.
I was fifteen years old and at last persuaded my mother to let me drive into Nashville to check out the antique store on 8th Avenue, South which advertised itself as having a large selection of used books. I either saw the ads in the paper or the phone book. While I forget the name of the bookstore, I remember the anticipation since I also liked antique stores. Two for one. With few thousand books inside an antique store, surely something would catch my eye. I had some money, stashed from a summer of mowing grass for Randy Stamps, but I did not yet have a license to drive. My persistence probably wore her thin, but she relented I think after I was able to convince her that traffic on I-65 would be lightest on a Saturday morning. It was. Which worked out well since that may have been the first time I navigated our Buick on the interstate. The weather in Nashville, Tennessee on November 30, 1991 was on the cool side, not cold, but overcast. I remember the grey sky.
The books were way in the back left corner, in three adjoining rooms. The largest had shelving probably nine feet high on the outside wall of the store, which was an early 20th c. brick store front. Tile floor, high tin-covered ceilings, lots of antiques. The two smaller rooms were adjuncts to the large one, probably all offices in an earlier day. They had lower ceilings within easy reach and both were lined with shelving packed full, most of them double-stacked. The big room had a stool and a small step-ladder available on a self-serve basis to access the upper shelves. Books in every conceivable genre and the shelves were well-labelled. Every so often there was handwritten 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the front of a shelf reminding you that prices are in the inside front end page, in pencil, non-negotiable. And reshelve where you found it, please.
Antique stores I knew. Bookstores I knew. But this was the first used-book store I’d seen up close and in-person. The bookstore I knew best was Jan’s Hallmark. It was two doors down from H. G. Hill’s grocery store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, next to Ace Hardware. They sold new books and could order almost anything. They carried lots of magazines, Popular Science, Hot Rod, Car and Driver, Field and Stream. We went to church with the owners. I bought Mad Magazines there. Each Christmas I bought a Louis L’Amor for Grandad there. If I think for minute I can almost always remember the way the place smelled. Like paper. Not musty, but it was a distinct smell and it was certainly paper. Gift wrapping, greeting cards, magazines, and paperbacks.
The antique store on 8th Avenue smelled like cigarettes and varnish. Three rooms smelled like cigarettes, varnish, and old musty paper. When you first walked in, on a dark buffet not six feet from the door, sat a fine set of Scott’s Bible in six volumes. I already loved it. I eyed that set every time I went in thereafter (which was often after I arrived on the DLC campus three years later). $175 for the set. I never in my life saw such a price tag on a book, much less a fine matched set circa about 1810. It took be aback. I later acquired a set of Scott’s Bible, and each time I see it I remember that distinct impression I had then.
I remember the layout of the big book room and one of the smaller rooms. The smaller room held the history sections: military history, political histories, all kinds of world and American histories, you name it. State and local histories, too. Inside, right in the middle, was a small wooden desk such as one would find in a child’s room. Not large. Plain with three or so drawers on each side of the knee-hole. Painted green? I think. On it was a single desk lamp, which helped because otherwise there was no light in the drop ceiling. The larger room, about in the middle of the long exterior wall, just below waist-height, held the religious section. Those would have been my interests in November 1991. I probably also looked for anything about old cars or motorcycles. Floyd Clymer paperbacks? Hot Rod issues? I don’t think he had anything like that, or if he did it was unremarkable or otherwise did not add to what I already owned. Any memory of the other small room is now lost. The magazines, such as they were, were around the corner past the toilet. What antique store doesn’t have more Life magazines than anyone wants? And National Geographics. I do remember those. Probably a literal ton of them.
This is enough to say it made an impression, quite an impression. But it is less than accurate to say this Saturday morning experience birthed my bibliophilia. It did not, for in fact I never was not a book-lover. I never was not a reader. I was read to as a child, and the presence of my ‘own’ books in my ‘own’ space is as much a feature of my earliest memories as anything else. Neither did this Saturday morning experience birth an interest in antiquarian books. By age fifteen I even owned some old books. Each was a hand-me-down either from my parents or grandparents. I also bought books. Always at school book fairs. Always. With my own money, and usually also my parents or grandparents would get me a book or two as well.
No, bibliophilia did not leap onto the scene. It neither crashed down on me nor flashed up at me. There was no epiphany.
Rather, it crept up on me in such a normal non-descript way that on November 30, 1991, standing at the counter with Russell Conwell in one hand and a ten-dollar bill in the other felt so natural that there was nothing to do but go right ahead.
It was no epiphany, but it was eureka, and in hindsight I can say surely it was some kind of rubicon. I think every bibliophile can tell a story about how they crossed their line. It is a liminal experience all right to fork out your own hard-earned dough for a book someone else doesn’t want, doesn’t know what they have, or at least is willing to sell if price is right. Every bibliophilus antiquarius can take you back to a moment, perhaps the moment of acquisition for book zero, their first old book.
I was aware of James A. Garfield. His tragic assassination, and that so early in his administration, gained for him a place in my ten-year-old consciousness. (I at one point had all the presidents memorized, in order from Washington to Reagan, thanks of course–who is surprised?– to a fascinating book in the Hendersonville Elementary School library about the US presidents). I was also aware of Garfield because my great-grandfather attended Hiram College, the same school which Garfield attended, taught at and served only a few years earlier. My great-grandfather’s youngest brother was named James Abram Garfield Ice. Family lore has it that sometime about 1908 he rode into town and for all we know kept right on riding. Nary hide nor hair was ever heard of him since. His place in the genealogy my grandmother compiled has a date of birth and question mark. That also made an impression. So I was aware of James Abram Garfield.
When I saw Russell Conwell’s The Life, Speeches, and Public Services of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States. Including an account of his assassination, lingering pain, death, and burial (Portland, Maine: George Stinson and Company, 1881), bound in publisher’s brown cloth, modestly shelf-worn but complete, with illustrations intact, I knew. This is it. This is the one. I will buy this one. Every bibliophile knows the feeling.
I was staring down the shelves of the history section in the small room. The desk lamp helped, but it was slow going in the corners where it was darkest. And slow going because they were double-shelved. It was gloriously slow-going. And they were gloriously double-shelved. Not a chore in the least. Ooo, look at that! And wow, that’s sounds good! Truthfully about all of lot of it was over my fifteen-year-old head. I was not prepared at that age to recognize scholarship. Nor equipped to pick out the scholarship from so much rubbish that often fills used-book stores. But it was all new, and all used, and some of it old and that alone was exciting.
So there in the small room about a shelf or two up from the floor, near the corner but not in it, I saw a book older than many of the others. That much I could tell. My eye even at that age was trained by experience in the Reynoldburg genizah to notice an old book. I snapped it up, looked it over once quickly then again slowly. I knew this was it. I kept browsing so long as my mother’s patience allowed, but Conwell was either right at hand or right in my hand. Nevermind we were the only souls in the place, save for the nice lady at the counter. But should a contender enter the ring, they would not leave with the book I found!
I felt something like a mixture of conquest, or conclusively solving a mystery and happening upon a treasure, and a solid dose of sheer dumb luck. Also relief. Probably greed, too. In my mind I built up this experience for a few weeks, if not months, I don’t remember. Going to Nashville was sort of a big deal. It’s not like we had to plot the journey or anything, it is just that we didn’t often go unless we needed something we couldn’t get close by. So it would have been a big let-down to drive all the way into to 8th Avenue, South only go home empty-handed. But Russell Conwell was no consolation prize. It was a genuine find, and I was proud of it.
I finished casing the joint and decided I could do no better that this choice item. My mother also said, “I’m leaving now and unless you want to walk home, you are too.”
It cost ten dollars. $10.78 with tax. I paid the nice lady at the counter, she put Conwell in a paper bag and I drove us home.
Every library I had ever seen, been in, or heard of stamped their claim to ownership all over their books. My mother wrote her name in all of the books she had in her classroom. Every book I received as a gift, I think, came with a gift inscription in it. All of the books at 5775 Refugee Road bore at minimum one of two names, sometimes both: K. C. Ice or M. C. Ice. So I thought everyone put their names in their books. Surely it was good and right although I can’t conceive of why I thought I needed to do such a thing, other than sheer imitation. I had no siblings from which I need to mark my literary territory. I was not about to lend my books, so if they do not leave home there is no reason to indicate a return address.
I wrote my full name, the date, and the price, followed by a decisively-written #1 as a capstone to my accomplishment. Gosh I was proud of it. I guess I thought at time the commencement of a personal library deserved at very least the kind of formality such as obtained for communications to and from the state, or from one’s mother when you were really in trouble. That is the only time I heard my full name, so I learned to associate it with important occasions. So why not emblazon your name on your book? I did. It felt so good. Pomp and circumstance for a party of one please.
If you have not already picked up on this irony, let me spell it out forthrightly just here. By November 1991 I had a shelf full of books. Shelves, plural, actually. In a very real way, not a thing began on 30 November 1991. Not one thing. Russell Conwell was just another in a long line of books I bought.
Yet up to that point it was the oldest, and for all the reasons I describe above, it was unique.
I guess that is why I denominated this one as number one.
With thirty years behind me, here are some thoughts.
–I knew then that I wanted to learn and understand and that there were some things available in old books that I might not get otherwise. And that if I was to learn and understand I could do such a thing for myself and not rely only on what I have heard or been told. In this I am indebted to three or four high school teachers. By my sophomore year of high school I had already studied under three of them; the fourth would become my English teacher the following year. The larger context surrounding 30 November 1991 was the beginning of the life of my mind, at least in a self-conscious way. I was curious and old books if they do anything feed and breed curiosity. It is still the same now.
–I think that is the best way to explain why this book is ‘Number One.’ Number one makes no sense aside from numbers two and three…all the way to five thousand or ten thousand, or more. I know without any doubt that I had then a clear sense that this was the beginning of a library. I had purpose and intent. I had no idea what books would constitute such a library and no idea how I would pay for them. But I had then every intention of building a personal library along whatever lines interested me, and all I needed to do was sleuth enough to locate them and work enough to buy them. These books would help me learn, they would become teachers and tutors. I did not have the language then to think of them as conversation partners, but they would become that, too. Some bibliophiles acquire or collect books only or primarily as objects. I understand, and sympathize, and appreciate such interests. They are not far from my mind. But I have always acquired books because of what they can teach me. But you build a library–you keep them–because they can teach and re-teach. Libraries evolve, sure, but they also are remarkably stable, on the whole. The stability and kept-ness of the books is what I’m after here. I knew then I wanted to build a library to retain, to go back to over and over again. By and large, I have done that. Tastes changes, interests change. You learn new things and collect in different areas. It should change. Things come and go. Sure. But even through all the change and in all of the stability, private libraries reflect their librarians.
–I believed then that the past was worth knowing about. I believed then that the past mattered. I did not have any conceptual framework in place to distinguish between the events of the knowable past with constructed history. I had no consciousness of history as a discipline and I naively conflated history with the past. But I knew old books were once new books. I knew in some basic sense that old books contained the thoughts of their day, and thereby contained a means of access to an earlier time. I knew they were a snapshot of their time. I knew then that the object itself (aesthetics aside) could hold information about the past, and information from the past. Family Bibles for example, contain both the words of scripture, sometimes in beautiful form and blank pages upon which my ancestors chronicled their vital statistics. They also in rare instances reflected self-consciously by means of notations, underlines, parenthetical comments, and sometimes an outright burst of poetic or prosaic reflection. The books said something sure enough; and the containers themselves conveyed information. Same now as then. I’m still learning what the books might teach.
–The upshot here is that by 1991 I became interested in the totality of the printed book as an object by which to learn about the past. I could not have articulated it that way at the time, but I think that is where I was headed. For example, all appearances suggest the first owner of this copy of Conwell’s Life of Garfield, was W. A. Bills of Farmington, Tennessee. I know this because he, too, scrawled his name across most of the front blank endpaper. Already there was a story of a past owner who had his own reason’s for acquiring and using the book. Already there was a sense of the past with its own beckoning unknowns. It is a trite sense of wonder, but it is a place to begin. For what it is worth, it is one of the places I began.
–I read Conwell’s book right away. I did not finish that day, but soon thereafter. I no longer annotate in pen, and never annotated or created marginalia in a heavy way. But I will occasionally scrawl notes on slips of paper. Evidently I was doing that as early as 1991. Point being: I buy to read and while there are many I have not read through, I read in just about all of them, even if only for a quick reference. Looks like I read Conwell all the way through. Someone asked me once, have you read all those books? Well, some of them I’ve read twice. True, some of them I have read twice. But a lot I just read in, here or there, now and again. But I read Conwell through and began it that afternoon. Not much has changed: I read something in each new book. It was a habit formed early and I blame elementary school book fairs.
I returned to that shop on 15 January 1993 and will tell about that acquisition in a future post. The trips became more frequent after I moved out for college, and I might have bought more than two books there over the years. But so far as I can remember only these two books stand out.
Thirty years on I am still as excited about what a used book store or antique shop might hold as I was in November 1991. I am still as curious and the pull of old books is as strong now as then.