With new readers in mind, I wish to re-introduce myself. My name is Willa Peel, and I am the presiding spirit of the personal library of L. Williams (“LW”) of this City. I am also the Reader Over Her Shoulder—I read what she reads. My purpose is to chronicle our shared lives through our books.
I am pleased to report that the Great Book Reorganization project LW undertook over the summer has been completed. No, she did not reach those books on the top shelves near the ceiling. No, she did not take down the books on the closet shelf or go through the boxes of books in storage. But she did sort through all the others and rearranged them mostly by subject and gave away some duplicates and such, and for the first time in years we can find most of our favorites. However, this undertaking has kept me from posting as frequently as I’d wished. [Seen below: Part of my reorganized “Books on Books” section, in which the books are stacked literally “on” books. Not exactly how one should store books, but if you had to deal with my lack of space, you’d understand.]
But now I’m back to tell you of a recent acquisition, already beloved, and, in a second post to follow, of another book that I feel connects with it in a small but poignant way.
The new book is Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore. Jane Franklin, like her famous brother Benjamin, loved reading, writing, and books. Much of Benjamin Franklin’s success in the world resulted from his prolific writings and his ability to publish and distribute what he wrote. His books, essays, treatises, and almanacs were widely read and admired. Sister Jane shared his curiosity about the world but was too busy birthing, raising, and burying her children (twelve!) and grandchildren to find time (and books) to read—but she tried. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she once told her brother. (p. 33)
She did write some letters, a few of which survived. And she wrote one book of sixteen pages that she stitched by hand. “She called it her Book of Ages,” Lepore writes. “It is a record of the births and deaths of her children, a litany of grief.” (p. xii)
Lepore describes this book as Jane Franklin’s “remains.” “The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance. . . She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones. Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together. The remains of her remains.” (p. 57)
Lepore’s Book of Ages covers much more than the life of the nearly forgotten Jane Franklin. Lepore weaves in histories of women’s reading and writing and their relationships with books and paper, correspondence and chronicles. Often she must work with shadows, the negative space that is too frequently the only remains of women’s lives to be found in “history.” She sees Jane’s life as an allegory for this process, writing, “It explains what it means to write history not from what survives but from what is lost.” [p. xii]
That said, Lepore does an amazing job of fleshing out Jane Franklin’s life from the few letters and scraps of information that still remain, including Jane’s own Book of Ages. And this is what interests us, this collagist’s process, this search for clues about lives from what remains. And from what doesn’t. Lepore’s book is a fascinating read and an excellent addition to one’s library.
In my next post, I explore the role of LW’s own Book of Ages (a notebook she kept as a child) in my expansion from a mere shelf of books into a private library.
[Quotes are from Book of Ages – The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, New York, 2013. Alfred A. Knopf, publisher.]