Friday, March 14, 2008

Welcome to Vellum

I look for old books, the kind with the sea-green and sky-blue and brick-red re-enforced library bindings, as thick as plywood and maybe with a design of triangles or cross hatchings on them, done in white. No dust jacket, no gushing reviews on the back. Maybe a date or a near-defunct publishing company on the title page -- Little, Brown, 1951, 1931, whatever -- and the old pages are as soft as plush. And they are filled with information, with stories people used to know. I imagine a stout middle-aged lady in a dress and gloves and a pill box hat, riding the train somewhere and reading. Have you ever noticed in old movies (ironically enough) how often people are shown reading, and how often they talk about reading serious books? Norma Shearer in The Women reads poetry before bed. The stout middle-aged lady in Strangers on a Train, or some other Hitchcock film, allows on the witness stand that she was busy on the night in question reading a biography of Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli! Mercy! For fun?

I was impressed even in junior high school by the references in my favorite book, Gone With The Wind, references that Margaret Mitchell and her editors fully expected the reading public of 1936 to absorb. I didn't know any of them except as words. Thermopylae, the Borgias, Shakespeare, "Dead Sea fruit," and all rattled off quite naturally. Novels, histories, and belles-lettres published today may show forth similar proofs that modern day audiences are expected to know a lot, but somehow it doesn't seem so. Then there's that old-fashioned grace and complexity in the prose, again something that just seems not quite so prevalent anymore. Even Janis Joplin -- and this will seem wildly anomalous, but "wait for it" as the pundits joke -- wrote at least a grammatical letter to her parents while on her way from Texas to fame in 1966. "With a great deal of trepidation ... I understand your fears at my coming here." Someone taught Janis Joplin, or she had read enough English to know instinctively, the use of the gerund. (You will find the letter in Lisa Grunwald's and Stephen J. Adler's Letters of the Century, The Dial Press, 1999.)

A culture that could teach rocker Joplin grammar was also producing books that still deserve to be read now. Oh, the culture still produces mighty good stuff, to be sure. It's the generally more sinewy tone of old books, packed between their near plywood covers, that seems to have relaxed so. Let's not forget that tone; every last example of it doesn't belong in the library sale bin, to make room for what's up to date but floating in a reference-less modern vapor. Welcome to Vellum.

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