Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A word on the sentimentality of books

My grandmother passed away this past Thursday. She was a writer, and a reader, and an editor, and an English teacher, and a crossword puzzler, and a Scrabble player. She was my long-time pen pal, writing me weekly letters throughout my three summers at sleepaway camp and four years at Penn. She taught me, long before we learned the Hamburger Model in elementary school, how to construct a cogent essay. She expanded my vocabulary with Boggle games, forming words I had never heard of with the letter cubes. She got me hooked on The New Yorker.

I'll never forgive myself for not keeping her letters. I looked forward to each one. But what I would give to have thought to collect them, as a physical token of our relationship, as a trace of her, as a comfort now that there is a hole to fill.

Fortunately, as I was packing my bags to return to Philly, I came upon a musty olive green hardcover book on my shelf. Its paper dust jacket was a little ragged at the edges. Its pages were yellowed. Graham Greene- The Comedians, the time-bleached cover read. Penned on the title page: "Sarra Chernick, 1966". It was one of her favorite books, according to my mom. I remember my grandmother gifting me several dear volumes when I was much younger, knowing I had inherited her bookworm tendency, with the caveat that the books may be reading for a later date. So they remained in safekeeping on my shelf, until I discovered this one in particular.

I don't know if I believe in fate; but the truth is that I had been hearing the name Graham Greene referenced in literary conversation, and read of him in many book blog posts, over the past few months. I had added him to my list of authors to check out. This name recognition is why I slid the green volume out from between its neighbors in the first place. Fate or not, how fortuitous! The capricious browsing lent to readers by bookshelves, rather than virtual libraries, led me by happenstance to a connection with my grandmother when she is no longer here to hand me a book.

I may not have her letters; the crossword puzzles we solved together may have been long ago crumpled into the trashcan, the Scrabble tiles and Boggle cubes jumbled back into the box. But I have this book. I can hold it, and smell it, and know that her pen was poised, fingers pressed precisely (she also taught me correct penmanship) at this very spot one moment many years ago. It's ludicrous to even consider that retaining a deceased relative's Kindle, or Nook, or Tablet, or iPhone Stanza app, would be so resonant. I will keep this book forever. It's not sappy to say that I will cherish it, too, forever. And so will I keep and cherish the serendipity of physical books, aligned on bookshelves, subscribed by hand, some once held by my grandmother, who I will miss very, very much.


  1. Allison,
    I loved this piece about your grandmother and the special legacy of a shared love of words. I can't wait to have time to read your other posts. I, too, am a reader, a writer and a lover of the physical book or the holdable cherished item that connects us to our past. But, like you, I find that writing, and especially editing one's own writing, is so facilitated by electronic technology that I can hardly imagine what I did before there was word processing let alone blogs and the worlds of communication which they open up. As much as I think the expansive dimension of the Internet has openned up vast realms of knowledge for my now grown children who are your age, I am sure that activities that I shared with my mom and then with my children, like scrabble and boggle, and, when I was little, spinning the globe with my mom, pointing to a place and then reading about it in the encyclopedia, are, in fact, essential intergenerational experiences. In fact, at my mom's house, in the well worn scrabble box circa 1960, we have kept every score sheet we have ever used going back to columns with headings, executed in my pre-cursive child's handwriting, with such endearing designations as little mom and little me. Today, I occasionaly play scrabble online at a site your mom told me about, but the pleasure of words there is never even close to the feeling I get from the history and nostalgia that accompany playing with the board, tiles, pencil and old sheets of paper that liter the original game at my mom's house. I already know aht it will mean to me when she is no longer around to play with me when visit each other.

  2. Hi Allison,

    Thank you for sharing. I too love books and have a shelf of new and old books. Larry has just purchased a new Kindle and loves the portability of it. I can't quite get used to reading on it. I'm now a quarter into the 'Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. It's a national bestseller and I think you would like it.
    We look forward to seeing you soon.