Did that book change, or did you?

Did that book change, or did you?
Source: pdclipart.org

I’m taking up some time on my extra bus trips lately — and reminding myself not to go to bookstores, because there is enough to read — by carrying my bus books with me. All right, one of them is new (Watch this space!), but I am also working my way through a series I’ve enjoyed since back in the previous century. That’s Laurie R. King’s series, commonly known as “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” after its first volume, in which half-American orphan teenager Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes and becomes his apprentice.

I’m now re-reading “Justice Hall,” the sixth book in the series, for the first time in many years. (I occasionally check the front and see my signature and “Chicago 2002” in it.)

The story concerns a noble family, a mansion (excuse me, stately home) called Justice Hall, and the adventures of the family members, including a missing one, during the Great War. The story is set in the 1920s, as I find myself having to refer to that decade now, and the wounds of “the war to end all wars” are still fresh.

That’s what brought me to the headline’s question. Sometimes others have suggested to me that books — from holy scripture to much more mundane efforts — must have changed, because the person could not see something that now is obvious. I’ve held out, with logic I picked up in science classes, hours reading Holmes, or years around my dad, that books can be depended on not to change, apart from stains and other damage. It is the reader’s mind that perceives the text differently.

The story in “Justice Hall” brought that home to me powerfully today. Without spoiling anything, I can reveal that the detecting partnership of Holmes and Russell have found the diary of a missing member of the family they’re investigating. They found there tales of what this man endured in the trenches — which, back then, was a synonym for “the front lines.” The horrors he endured were explained by one of his companions, and they were so terrible that even Sherlock Holmes’ famous control of his emotions faltered.

But it’s harder for me to read this section today and look at my collection of family photos. I have one now that I didn’t have in 2002; I knew it as Dad’s grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles. But when I was practicing the text of “In Flanders Fields” for a concert honoring the centennial of the end of the Great War, I found myself reciting to that photo. The only clue I have to its date is what my dad said as he looked at his copy of it: “It must be before 1914, because the boys are there.” Both uncles died in the Great War, one in November 1918 (the month of the Armistice). They are my great-grandparents, grandmother, aunts and uncles. (I met some of my great-aunts and was introduced to them with the title Dad used, aunt; so my great-uncles, in my mind, are uncles.)

Gabriel, the diary writer in “Justice Hall,” was just a fellow diarist the last time I read the book. Now that he’s a fictional fellow soldier of my uncles, the story packs a greater wallop.

I am certain that I am the one who has changed — certain, and grateful.

Filed under: Sustaining Books


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  • Great post! Oh yes, we change, and the world changes, too. The story is new again...

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    The story is waiting for its new readers, whether for a first time through a book or a return trip.

  • This has several aspects--the one at the end is that the book is new to you because you gained a special connection to the persons or events depicted in it. It is sort of like watching "Finding Your Roots" and realizing that your ancestors must have gone through something like that. For instance, the Tony Shalhoub episode brought home what a hellhole Lebanon was at the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

    But there are other ways of looking at the headline. For instance, I told someone talking into an Apple Watch "who do you think you are, Dick Tracy?" On the other hand, encyclopedias go through various editions (for instance, the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica is not the same as the first) and unless some library archives all prior editions, the book has changed. Of course the text quickly changes if it is published electronically; even then, the prior editions have to be archived to be preserved.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thank you, Jack. The people who asked me most about whether a book changed were referring to scripture, in a group where we used different Bible translations at times. I'm not familiar with watching "Finding Your Roots," partly because I have enough family members who have been interested in history over the years that I know stories about my great-grandfather (father of the uncles in the story's photo). I like being able to tell cousins about our great-grandfather. Friendly tip: I am very glad for every time I asked "Your grandfather or mine?" when my dad told me a story involving his father and grandfather. Ask away while you can, and if someone wants to repeat a story, let him.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Depends on your family background. I'm not Lebanese, but it brought home that the Christians in Lebanon went through hell (and still do). Similarly, most of the African-American guests are surprised that they have slaveholder genes, not that they necessarily should be, or that others are descended from prosperous Black farmers. I suppose that Ancestry would not have any business if others' family histories were as preserved as yours.

    On my point about books that change, I was surprised, when rereading the article on the Encyclopedia Britannica, that the manner of editing about all encyclopedias with which I am familiar was essentially unchanged from 1768 (what we called byproducting from other sources and having "made a dictionary of arts and sciences with a pair of scissors”) until the mid-1980s, when word processing made the scissors unnecessary.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks again, Jack. I learned to cut and paste on computers not all that long after I was cutting and pasting with scissors (a trial for left-handers, but I digress). Also, I remember being taught to think of scrolling through a long document like handling a long, rolled-up document -- back when I wouldn't have needed to specify a paper document. Some of my early clips (from the Valparaiso U. paper) were ones I literally clipped out and glued to plain paper in a notebook. Glued, because paste was for little kinds -- but the present way I keep my portfolio, mostly with URLs, was a long way in the future.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Supposedly, invisible tape was a big advance because one could write on it, but the ink didn't really stick.

    Of course, both the tape and Britannica were Scotch.

  • In reply to jack:

    Good one. I thought the ink not sticking was just me dragging my left hand across it immediately.

  • The books don't change. They just wait for us to grow into understanding what they tell us about ourselves.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you. That sums it up beautifully. I love the image of books waiting for me. I might use it for an awkward social situation and say that I have people waiting for me, not mentioning that their names are Holmes and Watson.

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