My aim in this essay is to convince you of the worth of building a home library consisting mainly of old books. I will not suggest that you pack a set of Encyclopǣdia Britannicas in your bug-out-bag. I’m addressing those of you who are, or hope to be, hunkered down in your homes when the lights go out. Throughout, I’ll be making the same assumption that JWR makes: “Survival is not just about guns, groceries and gadgets.” To my mind is it also very much about preserving Western Culture– the values, traditions, mores, histories, and even anecdotes and funny pages that shaped our lives and the lives of our ancestors. Western Culture– American Culture– is preserved in old books. These old books should be on your shelves.
Preserving Western Culture is a good and lofty goal. It is jokingly what I said I was up to years ago when I began collecting old books in earnest. A dollar at the junk store here, $40 at the library sale there, and my collection has grown to over 3,300 books. So be forewarned! Western Culture and Civilization are rich. Building a library can become an obsession.
A subset of my library contains 300+ old cookbooks belonging to my husband who truly believes America’s cooking heritage is the only thing worth saving. A fair number of his cookbooks are spiral bound and come from Ladies’ Auxiliaries. But that’s another story.
“There are three services books may render in the home: they may be ornaments, tools, or friends.” – Lyman Abbott, “Books for Study and Reading,” in The Guide to Reading (1925, p.1)
A good and lofty goal is a good and lofty goal, and worth pursuit in and of itself. But its grandness can overshadow other, more practical reasons for a prepper to build a library of old books. So let’s turn to Abbott’s “three services books may render in the home: ornaments, tools, and friends” and examine each from a prepper’s perspective.
A note before we begin. I use the umbrella phrase, “when the lights go out,” to refer to all manner of, as JWR calls them, “hard times”– everything from a short-term kid-hits-a-light-pole power outage, to a weeks’ long weather-related disaster, to a full blown, nothing will ever be the same, TEOTWAWKI. Old books have a place in each.
Who needs ornaments when the lights go out?” This is a fine question, and at first pass you may be tempted to answer, “No one. When the lights go out, the last thing on my mind is ornaments!” I beg to differ. Preppers’ homes need at least a few books as ornaments– maybe more!
What is an ornament? In 1892, Webster’s defined an ornament as that which “renders [something] more beautiful to the eye.” In 1916, “that which adds grace or beauty.” Twenty years later (1925), that which “adorns, adds beauty to.” Abbbott’s claim is that one service books can provide is to add grace or beauty to your home even before the lights go out. But what about after? What good are ornaments then?
Let’s say you’re prepared for the coming hurricane. Your ducks are literally in a row on a board spanning two chairs in their storm shelter. As is typical in your locale, the power provided by your electric co-op is already out, even in advance of the strongest winds, and you know it will not be coming on any time soon. You and your family smoothly transition from normal to running-on-generators-power stations-and-banks normal. It’s work, but you’ve done it before. At the end of the evening, perhaps with a freshly brewed cup of coffee or tea in hand (because you are supremely redundant in ways to boil water), you go to the shelf and pull down Glorious Gardens (1989).v
You know full well that your own garden cannot be described as “glorious”– certainly it will not be after the hurricane!– but you can dream. Or perhaps you choose the beautifully illustrated Riley’s Farm-Rhymes (1901, 1st ed. 1888)vi simply to look at its Country Pictures. Or maybe it’s the leather bound volume of Euripides (1980, written 431-405BC) vii, with its gilded pages, to stumble upon such passages as this: “What has happened, Theseus, has not touched the old. It is the young whose death will break your heart.” No matter. The days ahead will be filled with chainsaws and cooped up ducks and, more than likely, lesser prepared friends to tend to. You deserve a few minutes in which to admire an ornament.
“All well and good. I see your point,” you are nodding in agreement. “It is good to give yourself some relaxing downtime during hard times. But what about TEOTWAWKI? What good will ornaments be then?”
It is human nature to appreciate beauty, whether it be art, music, literature, the design of an elegant experiment, or Mother Nature’s handiwork. The end of the world as we know it erases one world– a world in which beauty is abundant if you care to look for it– and ushers in one in which, at the very least, access to beauty may be severely limited except as it is presented in old books. Consider the children– your grandchildren, perhaps– born post-TEOTWAWKI. What glorious gardens will they know? Would you deny them a few minutes from their chores to read from “The Brook-Song” (Riley Farm Rhymes, p41)
Little brook! Little brook!
You have such a happy look–
Such a very merry manner, as you swerve and
curve and crook–
And your ripples, one and one,
Reach each other’s hands and run
Like laughing little children in the sun!
so that they would know once, not so very long ago,
little children ran laughing in the sun?
Would you not want them to know of, through the old books you treasure as ornaments, a world transformed, across the span of thousands of years, from the primitive to the beautiful? And in so knowing, know that is is possible for humans to create beauty, even when the lights haven’t yet come on? So when you see Etchers and Etching: Chapters in the History of the Artviii or A Treasury of Grand Opera,ix (“with stories, history, and music described in detail,”) at the flea market, don’t pass them by. For a buck or two, you’ve just salvaged a bit of Western Culture’s beauty.
No doubt many of you appreciate the practical service of books– new and old– as tools, and have several “How-to” or “DIY” volumes on you shelter-in-place shelves. I see the value of being redundant across time. In other words, for each how-to task that factors into your circumstance and prepping, have an old book that describes how the task was accomplished before electricity or before the materials used today were available; another which is more “modern” in that it’s from a time when the world ran on electricity but wasn’t yet filled with bits and bytes; finally, one which is up to date– the internet does in fact go out just at the time the gas regulator freezes up.
The old books in this category (and there are others) of books-as-tools are rich in ways their contemporary counterparts are not. Consider the opening paragraphs of Shopwork on the Farm (1945).x Its author, Mack M. Jones, begins by asserting that “In order to keep the farm home, buildings, machinery and equipment in good repair, a workshop of some kind is essential.” The farmer needs to be an unspecialized mechanic who is systematic, orderly, and appreciate his tools.
Although the farmer needs to be an unspecialized mechanic, rather than a specialized mechanic, he should nevertheless be a good one. He should be thorough and systematic. Slovenly or slipshod methods have no more place on the farm than in any other business or occupation. Machinery that works well, gates that open and shut easily, and buildings and fences that are orderly and in good repair not only save time and money for the farmer, but contribute to morale and pride of ownership. (Shopwork on the Farm, p1)[my emphasis]
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t find anything about “pride of ownership” in my Big Box Store how-to book. Similarly, consider the first paragraph in the chapter, “Mending,” from Woman’s Institute Library of Dressmaking: Care of Clothing (1925).xi
Few women appreciate the importance of mending, forgetting entirely the old proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine.” Every housewife should form the habit of doing the weekly mending each week instead of allowing it to accumulate until it becomes a burden. Carefully mended garments denote thrift, industry, and economy; therefore, every woman and every girl should take pride in knowing how to darn a pair of stocking, to patch a worn garment, and to mend a tear. [my emphasis]
As cookbooks are the classic how-to books, one more quote, this from Meta Given’s, “The Food Shopper’s Creed” from The Modern Family Cook Book (1958, 1st 1942, p48):xii
Purchasing food is an important link in the business of feeding my family, therefore–I will make every effort to weight possibilities offered by various markets, by various foods, and the forms in which they are offered from season to season, to the end that I may take pride in a job well done. [my emphasis]
This is not a sort of pride which goeth before a fall. This is pride of the sort preppers know well. It’s that feeling you have looking at a well-stocked larder, or neatly stacked woodpile. It’s what you feel when you’re closing in on the end of the 12th day without electricity flowing from holes in walls (or maybe yours still does!) and no internet, and you step back and admire that room divider you just finished building (using plans from your 1956 edition of Popular Science Do-It-Yourself Encyclopediaxiii) to cordon off your sister-in-law and her three charming, polite, little urchins (all of whom you love dearly) who invited themselves to crash in your family room for the duration. An instance of classic Western Culture is pride in doing a job well done during hard times.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)