Column, Looking Back

Looking in books

By Mary Ellen Shaw

Before the pandemic I was watching a talk show that used to air on ABC. One of the hosts, Keke Palmer, who is her late 20s, said that when she was a child and didn’t know the meaning of a word her parents would tell her to look it up in the dictionary.

That produced a chuckle from Michael Strahan, one of the other hosts. He said whenever Keke needs to know anything she immediately goes to her phone to find the answer. But Keke assured him that back in her childhood she used an actual dictionary with paper pages!

This got me thinking about the methods I used prior to technology when I needed answers to questions either for my own personal information or for a school paper.

Back in the 50s and 60s just about every home had a set of encyclopedias. One of the main purposes for having them was so children could do their research for school papers. Without these reference books parents would have to take their children to the library. That meant dropping them off and picking them up later or waiting while they browsed through the encyclopedias. Not the way a parent probably wanted to spend the evening!

Some encyclopedias were very expensive. But there was an inexpensive solution to that…the grocery stores! That is where ours came from. Spending money on groceries allowed you to buy the encyclopedias at a very cheap price. My mother bought ours one volume at a time. They were dark green in color and spent over 50 years on a closet shelf. They gathered dust toward the end. When you live in the house you grew up in it’s hard to part with the memories at times.

I remember Webster’s dictionary was also a vital part of my school days. I had a pocket edition so I could use it in the classroom. A dictionary was still an important tool for me even in the 80s and 90s. I remember my husband getting me a large hardcover edition as a gift during that time period. He also got me a hard cover thesaurus for my writing assignments so I wouldn’t be repetitive in my use of words.

I would have been lost without those books. They were always on the bookcase right next to my desk. These days when I need a dictionary or thesaurus they are just a click away on my computer. I’m pretty old fashioned but this is one luxury that I enjoy.

Cookbooks are as important to me as the reference books mentioned above. I will never give up my two favorites. The red and white checkered cover of the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook has become red and tan after 45 years of use. Pages are held together by tape and frequently used recipes have spots from the ingredients that were used. Yellow sticky-notes mark the recipes that are used the most. Some recipes have words that have faded with time. The Joy of Cooking has taught me a lot about how to cook. It’s a great educational tool as well as offering fantastic recipes. The spiral spine has broken down in places over time and no longer holds some of the pages. Masking tape to the rescue!

When your family home has 75 years of history the attic is where most of it ends up. Many books have accumulated there over the years. A cleanout of the attic a few years ago was like looking at the history of my life. There were boxes of Golden Books with tales of cats, dogs and kids. A few Honey Bunch books brought me to my early grade school years, followed by Nancy Drew which represented my early teen years. The last group of books denoted my college years. I can’t let go of those just yet. But I don’t think I will have any use for Vergil or Homer as my Latin major is not in high demand these days! The other books were all donated to a local church that wraps several of them together as Christmas gifts for young readers.

Paper books will always be my choice. I especially love the smell of a new book. At Christmas time my husband, Peter, always asks me for book titles that I would like to read. I am happy to give him a list!

The book sales at the Rutland Free Library are the source for all my other books. I can leave their sales with a large canvas tote bag full of books and the total price paid is usually around $10. I love having a book to pick up when I take a break from gardening. A couple of dirty fingerprints on a used book are of no concern. Let’s hope the pandemic ends soon and the book sales can resume.

For me, reading will probably always be done with a paper book in my hands. That type of book is just as special to me as an old friend.

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