I think books are alive. To be more precise, I think that books have agency; books affect us and can take on lives of their own. Books live in a world of books and by engaging them we too can enter that world. We cherish them and offer them protection, but we are only stewards and they often go on living long after we are gone.
I put notes in my books, scraps of paper to hold a page, newspaper clippings associated with the book or author. If a book is traveling with me it may record some of my most personal thoughts, fears, or funny stories. I am not the only one that does so and that is what this blog is about: the lives of books. Perhaps the best way to show what I mean is to dive into my first living book with you.
Salt Water Poems and Ballads by John Masefield and illustrated by Chas. Pears. First published in 1913, though my copy is a reprint from 1930. Inscribed atop the first leaf in the book is “10/17/31 Ned Wiencke/ 3614 Wabash Avenue/ Balt. Md.” Taped inside book cover is an article on Masefield and his poetry from the Christian Science Monitor dated November 2, 1946, “Poet of Democracy” by Joe Mitchell Chapple.
I first encountered this book last November at The Muse Bookshop in historic Deland, Florida. The Muse is a superlative used bookstore: slightly cramped, yet expansive; well-lit; well-organized; character-full; and guarded over by an attack parrot. The moment I opened the beautiful book (Pears was an adept illustrator with an elegant design aesthetic) I was equal parts entranced by the mementos stuffed into the pages as I was by the poet, Masefield, about whom I knew nothing, despite his being the second longest serving Poet Laureate of England after Tennyson (1930-1967). This book had been loved.
I did not purchase the book in November, but when I was in the area yesterday I took a trip to the bookstore and poked around the stacks to see if I could find John and Ned again. They had not moved. I had no choice but to give them a home here. And as I looked through the scraps of paper in the book, the notes, the clippings, I got the idea to write this down. I was searching for Ned Wiencke and wanted to know how this book might have lived with him, what pieces of him were left in the pages. As I carefully spit old pages apart I found a typed poem with no author. Perhaps a Wiencke original? I found another poem written by a John Moreland. Some other once well-regarded poet who is now hidden in the labyrinth of literature past? Or just a friend?
I was also able to visit Ned’s house. Or at least the area where Ned’s house was at one point. In 1931, 15 year old Edgar “Ned” F. Wiencke Jr. was living on the northwest side of Baltimore Maryland in a row-house along the rail line cutting into the city from the northwest. A property appraiser search notes that the current structure was built in 1949, 18 years after Ned tromped up and down the street. Ned was certainly not there by that point as his life’s role would take him to a decidedly different stage. Whether or not this actual structure was his family’s house or not, I could not discover.
Ned went on to a career in the military. He achieved the rank of Lt. Col. in the U.S. Air Force and served in WWII and in Korea. More than this I did not dig. Perhaps I will someday. It is enough that I know Ned loved this book, that it likely traveled many places with him. Salt Water Poems and Ballads may have been a companion in contemplative hours, god knows where and in what kinds of conditions.
Today, if you’d like to visit Ned you have two options: You can visit he and his wife Evelyn at the Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Crownsville, MD. I hope you do, he seems like an interesting fella. The other option is to stop by my library where he and John are conversing with hundreds of other friends at the moment. I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you.
“Oh I am tired of brick and stone, the heart of me is sick,
For windy green, unquiet sea, the realm of Moby Dick;
And I’ll be going, going, from the roaring of the wheels,
For a wind’s in the heart of me, a fire’s in my heels.”
-Masefield “A Wanderer’s Song”