Old Books

1. Free To A Good Home

There used to be a wonderful used-book-seller on one of my walking routes, occupying an entire old house near Fort Myer (everything has gone to hell now, Arlington’s old houses razed and replaced with boxy bricky infill or commercial horrors, but that’s another story). Out on the veranda they always had a box of marginal volumes labeled “Free to a good home.” I picked up the “Standard Textbook of Cosmetology” (1963 printing) out of it one day; at this late date I can’t even remember why. Goddess knows I have not the slightest interest in cosmetics, but there were sections detailing massage for the face, hands and feet, and I was already keen on Shiatsu and the like from having a Japanese voice teacher. I snapped it up into my backpack and, to this day, I find myself relying on insights from this battered. quaintly phrased old book.

Every so often, I revisit the pages which will never have anything to do with my professional or personal life, involving the theory and method (circa 1963) of salon hairstyling and makeup. It seems so innocent and insular, creating a sense of Zen-like detachment which I rarely experience in any other context: “Lip rouge is used to color the lips, correct the mouth shape, and add charm to the face.” No! Seriously? Further along in the text, the protocols for ultraviolet and infrared light treatments are given. “Ultra-violet rays are used effectively in the treatment of acne, tinea and seborrhea. They may also be used to combat dandruff. They are beneficial in the process of healing, as well as to the growth of hair, because they increase the number of active tissue cells.” I wonder if anyone still does this.

2. In The Back Of The Classroom

When I was in the sixth grade the school system made a big hullabaloo about Team Teaching, meaning that my class would occasionally meet in common with the class across the hall for particular subjects. The teacher was an unusually horrid, pudgy, pasty woman, probably only in her thirties, with a pronounced mustache and sullen attitude of resentment about the dislike which she seemed to go to lengths to inspire.

In the back of the room were some long neglected and probably forgotten world-history textbooks with the title “The Past Lives Again.” I used to thumb through them so that I didn’t have to listen to her voice. God love Amazon, old copies of this thing finally surfaced at a negligible price.

“A [Roman] school was a noisy place, for the boys studied aloud,” the text informs us, briskly eliding any discussion of why only boys were involved. “Perhaps the noise was greater because the teachers gave them many whippings.”

It put bitchy Miss Whitney into some sort of perspective.


7 thoughts on “Old Books

  1. Well, I love the pictures by George M Richards from The Past Lives Again. Though that book, and those pictures, had they crossed my childhood path would undoubtedly have been carefully coloured in.

    I regularly bemoan here the fact that children’s book are all printed full colour nowadays – leaving no room for the child to colour the pictures themselves. No one pays any attention…

    • I think a few of the copies in my old classroom had attracted a few colored pencils. I always shied away from coloring books; I could never imagine anything I did would be as nice as the pristine black and white line.

  2. We loved (and somehow lost) an English-Russian phrasebook from who knows when, with this unforgettable entry:

    –What’s that noise in the hallway?
    –It’s my grandmother eating cheese.

    The book is gone, but you can say “it’s my grandmother eating cheese” at any time at my house and get an appreciative laugh.

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