“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.” – Henry David Thoreau
I have this beautiful old book. It is hardbound, 500 pages thick, and has the potential to provide me with hundreds or even thousands of hours of learning and pleasure.
Titled Spanish – A Basic Course, and published in 1971, this is not the kind of textbook you are likely to find in bookstores today. It is too old-fashioned, too academic. I bought it last year at a flea market. It was sitting in a box full of books that looked as though they had been packed at least 20 years ago.
There is something sad about an old, discarded book. You look at it and think about all the time its author and publisher spent producing it. All those hours of careful thinking and critical revisions and the selection of typefaces and fonts and illustrations. If this particular book has been neglected and unread, what about all its siblings, all the other copies that were printed with such hope and good intentions? Are they also collecting dust? Have they too been disconnected from their purpose?
A book is a physical thing, but it serves as a link between two intellectual processes. On the one side is the thinking, planning, and care that goes into creating it. On the other side is the learning and imagining that takes place when it is read. A book that is not being read breaks that link. Every book that was made with effort and care deserves at least one comprehending mind to keep the link alive and justify its original purpose.
When I buy an old, obscure book like my Spanish textbook, I have the good feeling that I am rescuing something valuable from oblivion. But simply buying it and bringing it home is not enough. Left unread, rescued books are still orphans, transported from one miserable orphanage to a slightly better one. When I put Spanish – A Basic Course on my bookshelf, I could almost hear it whispering to me: “Bring me back to life!”
And I did.
I don’t have a natural talent for learning languages, but I managed to learn French pretty well 30 years ago by immersing myself in a French-speaking environment for six weeks. (I was training to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the French-speaking African country of Chad.) I supplemented that “forced practice” by studying another beautiful, old textbook.
Like my Spanish book, it had been written, used, and remaindered decades before I found it – and it was the perfect, formal companion to the relatively relaxed learning experiences I was having. At the beginning of the six-week program, I had a zero rating in French, according to the test they gave U.S. government employees back then. At the end, I scored 3.5, which meant I was functionally fluent.
I don’t remember the names of the authors of that French textbook, but I am grateful to them and their publishers every time I go to France. Since the book was paperbound and almost 30 years old when I started using it, it didn’t survive my two-year stint in Chad. But I like to think I gave it one more chance to be what it was meant to be – like Rocky Balboa coming back for one more super fight – before it disintegrated.
This Spanish text is hardbound and a bit younger, so is likely to live as long as I do. And although it modestly describes its purpose as “to give the beginning student of Spanish a useful and working knowledge of the language,” it is clearly capable of doing much more than that. It is, in fact, an entire world of Spanish that could easily keep me enthralled and connected to its authors – Judith Noble, Elizabeth Fouad, and Jaime Lacasa (all of Iowa State University) – for a very long time.
The page before the cover page, for example, has occupied my imagination for several very satisfactory moments on several occasions. In the upper center of the page is the title. Beneath that, there’s a box, stamped in ink, with the following warning:
Miami-Dade Community College Honor Court
Any unlawful sale or purchase of this book is
prohibited. Violators will be prosecuted by the
Honor Court or College Discipline Committee.
Below this advisory is a series of little boxes: “Bought By” and “Sold By.” In the first “Sold By” box, there is a signature in blue (looks like Elisa Albe) and some numbers (62875 and 00390). Elisa Albe, I am thinking, was either the librarian for Miami-Dade Community College or an officer of its Honor Court. I haven’t any idea what those numbers mean, but I wonder about them. And this Honor Court – what did it have to do with Spanish textbooks?
The next section of the book, spread over 20 pages, has about 50 photographs of life in Spain and Latin America. There are grainy images of peasants selling vegetables … vibrant shots of fishermen casting nets … romantic images of sombrero-ed sleepers under trees … full-color scenes of city streets … gloomy close-ups of wrinkled old men … and happy snapshots of beautiful young women.
There is something about these photographs – about the fact that they were taken more than 40 years ago and that the people in them are probably dead now – that makes me wistful. I like looking at them, though. And the more I look at them, the more mysterious and beautiful they seem. I have gazed at these pictures with satisfaction more than a dozen times, and yet I feel like I will be able to look at them with pleasure and wonder for the rest of my life.
The bulk of this hefty book is devoted to the teaching of Spanish. Each chapter begins with a dialog that contains both the vocabulary and the grammar that will be taught in the 20 or so pages that follow. The vocabulary is taught through the repeated use of the intended words in practice sentences and subsequent test questions. The grammar is taught traditionally, as if it were Latin, from which – of course – Spanish is derived. At the end of all the chapters is a list of irregular verbs, conjugated for quick reference, followed by a glossary and an index.
The text is set in an elegant typeface. I don’t recognize the font exactly, but it is round and balanced with serifs – like a Palatino or a well-fed Times Roman. And the size of the type, makes for an accessible look and easy reading – attractive features for an aging language student like me.
This morning, sipping coffee, I sat on the porch and studied Chapter 23 – a lesson on the passive voice. Like English, Spanish permits its speaker to construct a sentence actively, such as “John ate the apple” (“Juan como el manzana”) or passively, such as “The apple was eaten by John” (El manzana fue comido por Juan”).The information is neatly organized and explained. The instructions are clear. The pace is comfortable. The authors give me plenty of opportunity to review.
The more I read this book, the fonder I become of those three people who may no longer be living but whose hard work back in the 60s is still giving me instruction and pleasure today. I want to thank them for doing it.
Not all of our books can be as dear to us as this one is to me. But we should all have at least a handful of books that can be cherished as long as the binding holds.
Next time you have a few free hours, look through your home library and locate a handful of your favorites – books that you have already read and enjoyed and would be happy to reread almost indefinitely into the future. Put those books in a special place, near your desk or bed, so you can use them with regularity.
And next time you are browsing through an old bookstore or flea market or yard sale, see if you can find a textbook – well-built but old-fashioned – on a subject you have been meaning to learn about. Then rescue that book. Bring it home and make it come alive again by reading it.
If it has been well-thought-out and carefully edited, you will be able to enjoy and benefit from that book over and over and over again. You will be able to have a relationship with it that will be good and useful and inspiring for the rest of your life.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]