Tissue Issue | Newberry

Tissue Issue

You have no idea what pain you are causing to your Uncle Blogsy. I realize you didn’t mean to make him weep, but you keep brushing up against one of the most impossible dreams of a Book Fair Manager with your constant questions.

I know I will never get a First Folio of Shakespeare or, even better, a signed copy of one of his Quartos. The Gutenberg Bible is not coming in, and I will never see the frame fall off one of these old Farrah posters and reveal an original printing of the Declaration of Independence. But I did think that in the attic of one of the old mansions along the lakefront, or a cottage in Lake Geneva, where the jetsam of generations has gathered….

But first of all, I must give you a fairly definite NO to all those of you who have asked whether books make a substitute in these troubled times for toilet paper. (Or “bathroom tissue”, if you have not been able to tear yourself from the television; they still speak their own language there.) Why do you want to rip up a copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, when you could be more positively employed breaking into a padlocked elementary school and STEALING toilet paper? This generation has no sense of the value of hard work.

Your Uncle Blogsy is not of the outhouse era, but he had his ears open when his elders were reminiscing and yes, the old Sears Roebuck catalog got mentioned many times. (I don’t remember anyone mentioning Montgomery Wards and its equally bulky tomes, but this may have been a regional thing.) If you think you have ever had an argument over putting a milk carton back in the fridge with only a few drops inside, you have never known recriminations like those accorded to family members who used the last black and white catalog page in the outhouse.

(Color pages, see, being slick, were less bendable, less porous, and just generally the last choice of anyone in need, barring only the covers and those little mail-in cards which even then were the bane of your mass market magazine consumer. I wonder how the magazines we know today, with their perfume and cologne samples, would have fared in the old outhouse. Would they have been tossed away as they are today, or found new life in the hands of…where were we?)

I know. I can see certain advantages. Those of us who like to read in the bathroom would no longer have to use a bookmark, just tearing out pages as we needed them. But wouldn’t it kind of spoil the flow, at least of the narrative, to realize to what use the heroine’s impassioned defense of truth, justice, and the Midwestern Way is going to be put? Maybe you’re reading the speeches of a politician you particularly dislike, and can think of no more appropriate use for those words. But think for a moment where those words have been, and reconsider.

Anyhow, the modern flush toilet isn’t quite so accepting of any kind of paper you send down. All these copies of The DaVinci Code you’ve been giving me are going to have to be used for reading: that’s all there is to it. But on to what you have been resolutely NOT giving me.

Toilet paper was first sold in the United States as individual sheets in a small box around 1857. (They were apparently treated with aloe, so the buying frenzy would be even worse today.) The Scott Brothers developed the toilet paper roll in the 1890s, though it did take a while for this to catch on. (People who had outhouses were just as happy with Sears or the Tribune). But for a few decades in between, the well-to-do could actually buy small books for their bathrooms. Filled with individual sheets of colored, scented paper, these anticipated the problem of whether you have the toilet paper roll dispensing forward or backward, and left you to decide whether to take a tissue from the front or the back of the book.

I have waited patiently, but in thirty-five years, no one has sent me a box from the attic which included a toilet paper book. Perhaps they were all used up, but there must be a chance that some Victorian visionary knew the Newberry…I promise I’d guard it, particularly in these tissue obsessed weeks. I would lock it away even more carefully than I would Andy Warhol’s Index, which among other things was reputed to include a used piece of toilet paper. That wouldn’t appeal to the same audience.


Dan, I just want you to know how much difference Book Fair purchases have made to our sheltering at home. We got CDs from Folk Stage and the Midnight Special on WFMT. We have VHS's we could not have found anywhere else. And books! How often we are finding pricing that identifies favorites as being from the Book Fair. Stay well. - Robin
Just one more proof that buying books and movies is a Good Thing. Thanks!

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