The image I’ve always had of my grandmother is that of a gray-haired lady surrounded by cats, cigarette in one hand, book in the other. It’s a caricature based on a handful of childhood visits to her Portland home in the late ’70s (she passed away in 1981). But it’s also consistent with how my parents describe her. I know there was more to her than just cats and tobacco, but we all like an archetype and you’ve got to admit, this one is kind of charming.
This image recently evolved when my cousin discovered a box of our grandmother’s journals in a closet. Included in this treasure trove was a fifty-year-old composition book chronicling her daily reading consumption, the consistency of which would put most readers to shame. Page after page, book after book, sometimes two in the same day. Looking at my own reading pile, the one that’s starting to collect dust, I can only wonder how this gene got snuffed out. (On the other hand, the gene that inspires endless categorizing and chronicling? That one I got!)
The journal itself is packed with entries each written with a Twitter-like brevity. Short. Concise. Every entry formatted the same way: DATE, TITLE, AUTHOR (all underlined) with a review below. Perhaps review is generous–they read more like haikus. Her October 2nd, 1967 note on Anne Morrow Lindberg’s STEEP ASCENT:
Like a theme by an undergraduate. Reeks of women’s magazines. Based on her actual flying experience.
The 44-page notebook chronicles roughly 500 books, an average of one every three days over five years. As if to confirm the estimate, she included a footnote near the end that read, “124 books [in] 1970, only 83 books in 1971…” Leave it to a voracious reader to lament having read 83 books in a year. By comparison, I’ve only read seven and it’s already May.
Perhaps part of her speed could be attributed to her reading choices, which as my dad put it were a bit “indiscriminate.” Mostly pulp fiction, westerns and war novels, I identified more with her compulsion to document and categorize than her actual taste in reading. But then, the subject matter seemed almost secondary to what I suspect was her real joy, being immersed in a book–any book.
Here’s the crux. After studying her journal for a few days, I decided to create a GoodReads page for her, which is to say, my grandmother, born in 1901, has posthumously entered the age of social media. Family members following this account now get treated to eerie alerts like “Update from Catherine!”
This social media endeavor should have been fairly straight-forward. It turned out to be excruciating. Being of the computer age, her finely wound cursive proved challenging to my typeset eyes. And though I eventually cracked the code enough to distinguish the W’s from the R’s, there are many words I have yet to translate.
A larger issue was with the books themselves. Many (if not most) are long out of print, which means instead of just locating them on GoodReads, marking them as read, and transcribing her two sentence review, I had to go digging around online and if successful, create a new entry in the GoodReads database, which further required I dredge up the novel’s metadata (publisher, publish date, total pages, cover image, description). A single two sentence entry could take thirty to forty five minutes. I only got through fifty four novels in the first week. The project is now on hold while I regain my eyesight.
All of this got me thinking about how books die though. In our digital currency, the idea of lost information seems almost criminal. We archive everything. If necessary, even the most casual of deleted emails could be dredged up from a server somewhere. Certainly any book published in the last 40 years has a digital fingerprint. The same applies to music and film, though those formats have benefited from better archiving. Books have been around far longer than any 20th century media though, so beyond the window of our digital age, what survives is either due to selection bias or some recognition of greatness. The rest have simply disappeared, as if they had never been written.
Taking this a step further, just imagine all the interesting lives that have gone undocumented. In a world where every emotion, every impulse is plastered across social media, the idea that a person’s existence disappears seems unimaginable. Yet, in the history of humans on earth, most of its 107 billion total inhabitants have been forgotten.
Meanwhile, another estimate suggests that several billion new photos are being uploaded each day. That’s almost a trillion a year. Trillion. The point being that we certainly have the ability to archive these lost novels. Aren’t they worth it? Think of the labor each one represents versus the effort required to snap a phone pic. And yet the phone pics win. Evolution at its finest. At least in the future everything and everyone will be better preserved, so to speak. To that end (and in my own small way), I’ve made an effort to better document one such interesting life, my Grandmother Cathy. May her reading habits live on. And while I haven’t digitized any of her forgotten books, I’ve certainly re-asserted their existence via GoodReads.
I’ll leave you with one of her lost reads, the now out of print They Sought for Paradise by Stuart David Engstrand. I did a little digging on this one. Engstrand was gay in a time when being out was not an option. He married a writer (Sophia Engstrand), later divorced, then committed suicide by walking into (and drowning in) a Los Angeles lake. A bit like Turing and his poison apple. There’s no Wikipedia page on Engstrand, no biography, no fan page. But because he wrote a screenplay once, he has a modest blurb on IMDB. May he live on too.
About one of those crack-pot communistic societies. Swedes in Illinois about 1846. Great gloomy writing. Swedes are so unpleasant and humorless. Can’t enjoy reading about them. –Cathy
If interested, check out the various online book archive projects: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/archives.html