The Things We Learn | Page 12 | Newberry

The Things We Learn

            One of the things that comes with this job is the sense of discovery when I find something I’ve never seen before.  I heard that.  I was not talking about those bits of padding that turned up in that other donation.  If you cannot behave yourself in the back row, I shall summon the usher.

            I mean to say that I find books I didn’t know existed, and sometimes I find things inside books that I knew nothing about.  This week I opened a somewhat dusty book of a kind that you could find a lot in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.  This genre of books dealt with how children were brought up under dictatorships in Europe and (usually) how much better our children would fare under our system.  This one, published in 1942, dealt specifically with German children under the Third Reich and if you know your timeline of history, you will not be shocked to learn the book was very critical of the German system.

            But what I really found interesting me was a long inscription, in several handwritings, inside on the front pastedown and front free endpaper.  This book was a selection of a Round Robin Book Club.  This concept is new to me, but it makes sense.  At a time when money was tight, you couldn’t have a Book Group where everyone goes out and bought a copy of this month’s title.  Instead, they bought one copy.  The first person on that month’s list read it first, wrote comments inside and then passed it along to the second, who read it and wrote HER comments, and then passed it along.  I don’t know what was meant to happen to the book when everyone finished.  Perhaps it went to the Club President’s home as a permanent record of what they’d read and what everyone said.

            I don’t suppose it would work today, of course.  What with Facebook and Twitter and email and all, the book would get set aside, and the club would be lucky if the first book got to everyone on the list in the same decade.

            But it does make me wonder about the history of the Book Group, and how far back it goes.  Certainly, there were literary salons through the centuries, where people read things aloud and their cronies criticized them, and coffee shop conversation would often revolve around books, or so we are told, among the great minds of the 18th century.  But how far back does the business of everybody reading the same book and talking about it together?  Is it something that belongs to us in the twentieth century and beyond?  Or can we trace it to some Neanderthal chief who took a rock the shaman had carved symbols on and passed it around the tribe for debate later?

            I can see him, a long-haired linebacker type named Rabbit, calling the Fuzzy Clan together over fermented bear milk, and demanding of his second-in-command, “You have read rock?”

            “No,” says his assistant chief, Cat’s Pillow.  “Me have gray rock.”

            So Rabbit whacks Cat’s Pillow with a club and…usher!  Usher!  Those six at the back!  Everyone else can leave but those six have to stay and hear the story all over again!

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