By Judith Works
About the only enticement encouraging me to sort second-hand books in the dank room under our local sports stadium is the prospect of finding a first edition signed by a major author – unlikely, although not unheard of. The thousands of books are contributed by local citizens for our annual Friends of the Library sale, the proceeds going to sponsor library programs.
Inevitably, we receive a few unusable donations like investment guides from the 1970s and musty, outdated textbooks. One day, I saw a small leather-bound volume with gold-tipped edges dumped in a box of old photo albums and dog-eared paperback romances. It seemed to be just another sad discard with its cover disintegrating into brown powder and broken spine. I was about to toss it into the trash, but my curiosity was piqued because of its obvious great age. I opened it.
A bookplate pasted inside the front cover announced: “This is my Book.” Below, in old-fashioned script written with a steel-nibbed pen, was “Ellen B. Churchill, Boston.”
I put the book aside to take home for a closer look. The next morning, coffee in hand in my warm kitchen, I studied the ruled pages. The first entry was captioned: “List of books I have read since 1889.” The following two-page spread was headed “Number of Book, Titles, Subject, My Opinion, Name of Author, Number of Books by Author, Number of Pages.” It was like looking at a prehistoric version of an Excel spreadsheet. As I leafed through the book, I saw that about half of the pages were filled with a record of a Miss Churchill’s reading.
Would a list of books reveal the personality of the reader? I could not resist trying to picture her as the list lengthened. The first entry was Longfellow’s Hiawatha, described as an “Indian Poem,” its 90 pages rated as “Excellent;” Number 9, Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott, was a lukewarm “Fair,” as was Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. On the contrary, Ramona, about southern California received a “Splendid.” Could this be a clue that she dreamed of the Wild West?
Book number 35, Ben Hur by General Lew Wallace at 560 pages, was “Excellent.” Cycling for Health, number 78, was “Good.” Later there were 32 books by Captain Charles King, although none was rated better than the book on healthful bicycling. Maybe she was given a complete set of King’s work by some uncle and felt obliged to slog through them. Numbers 151 – 154 were by Conan Doyle. They were also “Good.” Next on the list, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, one of my favorites, was dismissed with tepid sniff as “Fair.” Apparently Miss Churchill did not have much of a sense of humor or a desire to tour Europe and the Holy Land.
Eight works by James Fennimore Cooper garnered either “Excellent” or “Very Good,” but An Old Maid’s Paradise did not receive a review. I theorized she saw it as a glimmer of her distant future without a husband. And so it went with the numbers of books and pages piling up. Number 481 was With Dewey at Manila, by the Reverend William C. Gannette. She thought it “Very Good.” Shortly before she judged number 526, The Veiled Doctor by Varina Anne Jefferson Davis, as “Terrible,” the handwriting changed dramatically to a looser style, while the ink color was now blue instead of the staid black of earlier entries. I supposed she received a fountain pen as a gift.
In 1899, ten years after she began her entries, Miss Churchill began to write the year at the top of a page. Time was moving on, and with the turn of the century, she might have been thinking more about her future: She found What Women Can Earn was “Very Good.” Soon after, she read a biography about Sappho by Alphonse Daudet, which she did not like. Did Sappho’s feminine appetite make her uncomfortable? Her style changed from decisive pen to tentative pencil about the same time. Surely ink wasn’t too expensive, or was she growing careless? Could she have been depressed or suffered from what used to be called “female troubles” requiring doses of laudanum—a proverbial spinster dozing in an attic rocking chair, an open book on the floor?
Despite the change in handwriting, Miss Churchill continued in her quest to compile a complete list. In 1908, she noted books 892 – 899 along with a remark: “Additional books read years ago.” Was she trying to up the count in a long-running contest with some unnamed competitor? By 1914, she had passed book number 1000. She liked California and the Missions and A Tenderfoot in California, again giving the impression the West was on her mind. Edna Ferber’s Dawn O’Hara was added in 1917, along with Zane Grey’s westerns. In 1920 her record was limited to 14 books, although there were many more for 1921 including Laramie Holds the Range and Fruit of the Desert. The first of these two westerns was considered “Bum;” the second was “Dandy.” Loose words from a proper Bostonian.
Then something out of character occurred: The years between 1926 and 1939 were a blank. The hiatus ended with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1940. She remarked that it won the Pulitzer Prize, confirming her rating of “Very Fine.” What was she doing all those intervening years instead of keeping her list? Whatever caused her to put it aside, she never brought the catalogue up to date if she read at all during the period.
The War years arrived, and she continued her list until number 1714: Secret Marriage, by Kathleen Norris. No description, no opinion, and ever more crabbed handwriting. The date at the top of the page is March 1943, 54 years after her reading marathon commenced. The bookmarks must have been put away for good because the remaining pages were empty except for the last one, a recounting of what must have been two heavy blows:
“Cricket left – Oct. 10, 1942 Same day and time as Joe E. Brown’s son was buried at 2:30 P.M. Dr. Baxter took her.”
“Oct. 13 – Judge Houser died my unknown friend of appellate court at time of my accident.”
The mystery deepened. I turned to the back of the book, hoping for more clues. Inside the cover I discovered three enigmatic penciled entries:
“I was W. C – Secretary”
“Berlin Diary – Shirer”
“Can I Do Bus. With Lettie Mallin Lutes?”
On the opposite page were five words. Three were legible: “spell,” “additional,” and the plaintive word, “fulfillment.”
A number of clippings were loose between the pages: Two slips of yellowed paper mentioned the Thursday Afternoon Club in Glendale, California and their new officers of which Miss Ellen B. Churchill was the corresponding secretary. The cuttings had no date but were probably from the 1940s because on the reverse of one was an ad for a sale of men’s dress and sport shoes in a style from those years: “Values to $7.95 now $4.88.”
Four more scraps from a magazine appeared to be from the same era. Each was headed “What’s the Name, Please?” with important people and the correct pronunciation of their names, such as “Furtwaengler – Kapellmeiseter of Berlin State Opera – foort’vengler, n as in sing;” along with “Du Bois – Negro editor and author – pronounced dew-boyś.” How did she drop these rather daring tidbits into a conversation given the War and the discrimination of the times? And did a Bostonian accent impress or amuse Miss Churchill’s Glendale social set?
As I was contemplating these fragments of someone’s long-gone life, a small piece of stiff paper fell out of the book’s tattered spine. The antique penmanship read: “(T)he work of composition and I hope the result will give you your reward. Very truly yours, O. W. Holmes.” Was Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice, a family friend? Or, had Miss Churchill been at his father’s famous breakfast table? I resolved to read Autocrat at the Breakfast Table by Holmes, Senior.
I closed the book, my mind full of more questions. I wondered how the fragile journal made it to my small town a thousand miles north of Glendale, California. And I wondered if the record was ever meant to be seen by anyone. Was I a voyeur to be looking at it? And most important: Who was the list maker?
Obscurity is the fate for most of us, even if we struggle against it with our Facebook and Twitter accounts. The single reference I could find for someone called Ellen Churchill of the relevant epoch was a woman born in Massachusetts in May 1877, who died in California in 1943, when she was 66, the year of the final entry. In our era where everyone can find out about everyone else, it is almost inconceivable that Miss Churchill, who began her serious reading efforts at age twelve, is now such a faint mark on the pages of history that her life is reduced to a castoff notebook and a few other crumbs of information. Perhaps she followed the Victorian sentiment that a woman’s name was never in public except for birth, marriage, and death, a concept few of us would recognize today.
Another image came to mind: a middle-aged woman sitting with her books and Cricket, her lap dog. Someone who had a dreadful accident that accounts for the gap in her entries. Someone worried about another woman called Lettie Lutes. Someone who came from a cultivated family striking out on her own to make her way in California and finding the most modest of lives. Someone searching for fulfillment, that state of grace we all desire.
But then I thought, who was I to take someone’s private chronicle and anxious jottings and turn them into a plot for a story to please myself? Rather than invent anything, I decided to stick with what little I could glean, even if it was the merest glimpse into another’s book lover’s life. I intruded enough by looking at a record probably never intended for others’ eyes. Still, I can’t help remaining curious about her, and her secrets.
Unfortunately, no matter how we try, some literary puzzles can’t be solved. Big ones like who wrote Beowulf or Genesis, and medium-size questions like the identity of the person who put three red roses and a half-emptied bottle of cognac on Edgar Allen Poe’s tomb for many years. And my small one: Who was Miss Ellen Churchill, my ambitious reader, who suffers unjustly from obscurity?
How interesting it would be to meet her in some heavenly book club. We could have tea and talk books. I could ask her what happened to her library and then she could tell me about her life and about Cricket. But what would she think of my own list, retained in my memory rather than as a written record unless I manage to post a review on Goodreads? Whatever her judgment, I would like to know her thoughts about some of my recent readings like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Goldfinch? And, could I convince her Innocents Abroad should have been rated as “Excellent” instead of “Fair?”
Copyright Works 2017