There’s snail mail, email, faxes and used books. All of these are effective systems for delivering messages, email being the fastest and snail mail earning its name within the modern context. But, any way you get it, “good mail” is a perennial upper. You open up Hotmail, groan upon finding work memos and appointment reminders, and emit an ‘Ooh!’ of delight as you spot a friend’s note smiling at you from the grunge work.
Message by way of ancient used book is charming and reliable, even if it is glacier-slow. Put a note, photograph, airline ticket stub, whatever in your book and, wait long enough, some other reader will find it one day. Many an ‘Ooh!’ has been breathed by used book buyers finding some sort of treasure in their purchase.
For me, it happened just a few days ago. Someone in a 1920 lit class passed me a note. The speed of delivery may have been on a 93 year delay, but the charm of getting the message was worth the wait. Really, it wouldn’t have been nearly as nice without nearly a century separating me from its writer. The fact that it was never meant for me is all the better.
So, it was just a simple torn off yellowed piece of lined paper. So, the message was simple. So, it was missing a verb. The meaning – and the penmanship – was clear. In one hand was written, “I sorry”. In another, “So am I.” And there it was, in my lap, having fallen out as I perused Junior High School Literature, Book Two by Elson and Keck, copyright 1920.
Now, yes, it’s true that the note could have been placed there anytime since 1920, as could the repeated jottings in matching script along margins and on the covers. But I like to think it was long ago that Isabella Currie Duke was scratching away with her pencil. If she wasn’t making sure everyone knew her homeroom number and class level, she was copying authors’ names, titles, the publisher’s name, copyright dates. Maybe Isabella was practicing penmanship. Or else, the poor girl was bored. I happily imagine that she was engaging in some surreptitious texting with a classmate the old-fashioned way: the passing of notes. (There was another inquiring about the location of a missing hygiene textbook.)
What was Isabella supposed to be studying? What’s in a junior high lit text circa 1920? Writers we still study in high school, like Shakespeare Longfellow and Dickens.But, there’s also William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham’s “Speech Against War with the Colonies.” That’s one I’d never read before Isabella’s note dropped into my lap just. I was enjoying this textbook more I ever had my own when I was actually in school. It’s so ironic, but so natural, that the thing which bored both Isabella and me when we were school-aged, decades apart, was intriguing to the grown-up me.
When I was in school and read about World War I-era poet Rupert Brooke, he was long before deceased having died at war. His black and white photo and the bio in my text suggested a sensitive and handsome young Englishman who got me dreaming about early 20th-century Cambridge University. When Isabella was in school, Brooke had died just a few years before. She was living in the time I was dreaming about.
This was some very good mail my book delivered to me. Isabella inadvertently sent me a message. She was in the High Eighth, Room 29, and she reconciled with a friend through a passed note, doodled her name and everyone else’s for no good reason, and read a 660 page book of various readings in which only two writers shared her gender. She memorized two stanzas of Longfellow’s Evangeline. And, she was utterly playful.
I know this because apologies and missing property inquiries weren’t the only messages she sent. She had one there, apparently, just for anyone perusing her book.
It was a charmer:
Page 100: “If you want to know my fellow’s name look on page 533.”
Page 533:“I forgot! I mean 627.”
Page 627: “You have too much curiosity!”
That is probably so, Isabella. But I’m not ashamed to say I’ll be looking for more interesting notes the next time I open your book.