Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up, you whippersnappers, and see Old Fogy’s Carnival of Cantankerous Complaints. Present your tickets and take your seats for yet another unsolicited argument justifying my personal preference for bound paper books over electronic texts. Keep your arms and hands inside the diatribe at all times. (Go away kid, you bother me.) Ready?
A while back I decided I wanted to read William Morris’s 1877 book-length epic poem, Sigurd the Volsung, a violent Victorianizing of old Norse myth. After discovering that the paperback copy I ordered from Amazon was heavily abridged (grrrr!) I located an old used copy online — an American edition published in Boston by Roberts Brothers in 1891. (Morris was a popular author, and editions of his works that are this old are not at all scarce; I think it cost me ten or fifteen dollars.)
When the book arrived, I carefully took it out of the shipping package (books of this vintage are wonderfully heavy) and opened the dark green cover to look through it. I immediately saw, on the very first blank page, a name and a date neatly written in pencil:
Sarah Anderson Bates 1892
I’m not specifically a collector of signed editions, though I have acquired quite a few over the years (mostly from science fiction writers), among them books signed by Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, Harlan Ellison, Peter Beagle, Fritz Leiber, and Cormac McCarthy — some pretty heavy hitters.
The signature I value most is Sarah Anderson Bates. Why? Partially for the surprise of having it at all, but mostly because she is someone I know nothing about, who was — just like me — an ordinary person who had a book she valued, and who, by writing her name in it, became a kind of time traveler, sending a signal to me, a person who probably wasn’t even born until long after she was gone.
Sometimes I like to look at her signature and try to use it to imagine what she was like. I think she was fairly young in 1892, or at least not yet old, because her name is written in a firm, strong hand with no trace of a waver, and reading whopping big books of narrative poetry is something that is most often essayed by the young.
I think she was an unaffected, no-nonsense person; her signature is strong and straightforward, with no elaboration or decoration, and no (what would be taken in her day to be especially “feminine”) loops or curlicues are anywhere to be seen. Did she work? Was she a nurse? A teacher? A librarian?
I think one of those last two is likely, not only because they were among the few professions open to a woman of that time, but also because her possession of this book suggests that she had literary tastes and aspirations, and her liking for the elaborate poetry of Morris makes me think that she may have had more than the average education that a woman of her day would have received – perhaps she was a graduate of the kind of “Woman’s College” that dotted New England in that era. (I believe Roberts Brothers was a regional firm rather than a national one, so Sarah probably lived in Boston or somewhere close by in Massachusetts.)
Additionally, I think she bought this book for herself rather than receiving it as a gift, as there is no “To Sarah from Uncle So and So” inscription or anything like it, only her own name apparently written in her own hand. Her buying the book for herself also reinforces my view of her as an educated, professional woman, and makes me think that she had an independent streak; I only hope it didn’t cause her too much trouble, especially as I believe she was also intellectually adventurous. After all, she bought a book that was full of pagan mystery and thunder, and was filled with blood and fire, violence and romance. I can only hope that someone in her family heartily disapproved of her reading such things!
When Sarah went to the bookstore, she likely arrived and departed via a horsedrawn streetcar or carriage, and took her book home to read by gaslight. Whatever her station in life, her days were occupied with the kind of repetitious, menial tasks that we have long since left behind; from rising to retiring she wore the kind of clothes that, when we look at them in old photographs, we gasp and say, “Oh my God! How could they have worn things like that?! In the summer — with no air conditioning!” and she almost certainly spent many hours every week washing those heavy clothes by hand.
Of course, all of my Sherlockian detective work may be completely off the mark (as most of us are, I’m certainly a good deal closer to the fogbound Dr. Watson than I am to the Great Detective himself), but there is no doubt that whatever the specifics, Sarah Anderson Bates’ life was very different from mine, and that most of it is lost and irrecoverable now.
But there’s something I do know — we have held the very same book in our hands, Sarah and I. We have turned the very same pages, read the very same words. And perhaps it is not too much to believe that our hearts responded to the poet’s work in much the same way. Both of us sat alone in our individual rooms, communing with William Morris, himself far separated from us but signaling to the two of us, unseen across the miles and across the years.
I responded to his seductive cadences with hope, fear, joy, sadness, exaltation — did Sarah? I think she did; that’s why she bought the book, one hundred and twenty three years ago. As I read Morris’s account of the suicide of the bereaved Gudrun, maddened by the fading of the world she knew and the loss of everyone she loved, I was stirred to contemplate the inevitable passing of my own world and myself with it:
Then Gudrun girded her raiment, on the edge of the steep she stood,
She looked o’er the shoreless water, and cried out o’er the measureless flood.
“O Sea, I stand before thee; and I who was Sigurd’s wife!
By his brightness unforgotten I bid thee deliver my life.
From the deeds and the longing of days, and the lack I have won of the earth,
And the wrong amended by wrong, and the bitter wrong of my birth!”
She hath spread out her arms as she spake it, and away from the earth she leapt
And cut off her tide of returning; for the sea-waves over her swept,
And their will is her will henceforward; and who knoweth the deeps of the sea,
And the wealth of the bed of Gudrun, and the days that yet shall be?
As she read those words, did Sarah feel the same pleasurable melancholy, indulge in the same reverie of the transitoriness of life that I did when I read them more than a century later? I think so; I believe that Sarah, William, and I were all united in that moment.
As I read Sigurd the Volsung, I didn’t just feel close to the mind of William Morris. I felt that I was close to Sarah Anderson Bates, and that through this book (this scrap that remains of her life) she had entrusted her feelings — herself — to me, until it is my turn to join her in the lost and irrecoverable.
My 1891 Roberts Brothers edition of Sigurd the Volsung is big and heavy and unwieldy, not in any way made for convenience or portability. It is not a flexible, multimedia platform suited for the fast-paced twenty first century. What it is is a lifeline, one that reaches back to a person I really know nothing about but who is now a part of my life, and that reaches forward to a place that I will never see. It connects me with both of them.
I wouldn’t trade it for anything.