Who are we currently, and what breadcrumb trails do we leave behind for our future selves to discover? And what does all this have to do with a teenager obsessed with antique poetry books?
As a teenager, I was into poetry. I read it, I wrote it, I recited lines from Dead Poets Society (1989) like liturgy, and I somehow fell into collecting it, specifically antique books of poetry, and all the better if it was Romantic or Victorian. I’d like to say this collection started innocently enough, but in fact, its beginning was anything but.
The building in which I attended high school was constructed in 1927. The property originally belonged to the Tulsa Public Schools district serving also as a high school, but eventually the TPS built a newer, much larger high school elsewhere to accommodate the population growth. By the time the small Christian Academy I attended assumed the building, it was 62 years old.
In the afternoons of my junior year, I took a drafting class. It was just me and one other student and took place in the school library, a quiet, somewhat forgotten room set in the far back of the building. It wasn’t much of a library—if I am being honest—but it was homey and comfortable. The school didn’t even staff a librarian. It was mostly just a room with some shelves and a grab bag collection of donated books.
It happened that one day the other drafting student was absent and the teacher had to briefly run some errands. This left me alone, and so like any unmonitored student, I immediately stopped what I was assigned to do and began perusing the books. I didn’t expect to find any books that I wanted to read since there wasn’t anything published in what seemed like the last century, but they were fun to thumb through and smelled good like old books do.
It was then to my surprise that I found a small section of poetry, and an old bluish-grey volume caught my eye. It was British Poetry and Prose, Volume Two, from Wordsworth to Yeats, published in 1938 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Since there was no librarian and no formal way of checking the book out, at least that I knew of, I stuck it in my backpack and went on with my day. I’m a little ashamed to say, I still own this book. It’s on a shelf in my office, a testament to my love of poetry and a previous propensity for thievery. I suppose I should make a donation to my alma mater’s library, which hopefully now has a librarian. They are not getting the book back though.
The age of the book and its fragile yellow pages fascinated me—spoke to me of another time with different ideas and values. Its pull was so strong I began to want more, and so I started scouring antique stores for old poetry volumes to increase my collection. What an odd sight it must have been—a 17-year-old antiquing in an Iron Maiden t-shirt. When I noticed a stack of books in a display of a booth, I quickly assessed them to see if any were poetry. I especially liked Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I’m not sure why—probably because I thought his name was cool.
In one of the Tennyson books I purchased, next to the titles of poems in the table of contents, whoever had owned the book before me had placed a dot next to certain poems, presumably ones they liked more so than others.
I can’t explain why, but ever since I saw that example of the dot, I have done the same with books of poetry or collections of essays. I thought this a novel action at the time, and emulated the mark in my pilfered British Poetry and Prose book. But, of course, people put marks next to things they like all the time, such as a checkmark, a slash, a cross, or a star.
At some point, I suppose I came to the realization that this small gesture intended for recall was not novel at all, and yet, rather than coming up with some other way to indicate to my future self that I found a certain poem or essay important or at least likable, I’ve stuck with the dot, and I find that interesting. Why have I done that for the past 30 years?
Maybe I’ve always used the dot because teenager-me believed the dot indicated that I was involving myself in something significant. Or maybe I did it because I thought it made me appear intelligent, like if anyone happened to pick up whatever book of poetry I was reading and saw some dots next to titles, they’d think I was a real academic passionate about poetry. Teenage me loved the idea of strong emotions, really feeling things. No doubt I picked this up from the Romantics.
Or maybe on some subterranean level, it was a way to tether my transitory self in the flow of existence. In a way, my dot says, “Yes, I was here,” just as whoever owned the antique books before me placed their mark, communicating to me decades later that this one poem, for whatever reason, meant something to them.
I thought about this because I’m reading a collection of essays right now, and I placed a dot in the table of contents next to a title I liked. When I did this, the memory of the Tennyson book popped into my head unannounced. Memory is funny that way.
But the dot, at least my dots in the books I’ve read, is also a kind of breadcrumb trail. Yes, the nature of existence is ever-changing, and so when I dot an essay or poem title, I do so to indicate to my future self that, for whatever reason, when I dotted that poem, it meant something more to me than the others.
But my future self doesn’t know that reason—future me only knows that I had one, and so revisiting that poem or essay becomes detective work. I re-read and attempt to discern what the reason was—perhaps I just liked the way it sounded, or the word choice, or perhaps there was a message within it that resonated with me at the time—and I want to know what that was. Why did it get the dot? Maybe I can’t figure out why, and so I must attempt to rediscover, to see why at one point I fell in love with it.
Future selves are always in a different context. But in the hunting, or rather because of the hunt, it allows us the opportunity to also revisit the other essays and poems, to see if now, in the current context, the current future, if they are not also worthy of a dot.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man can step in the same river twice.” There is often a debatable addition to that quote which says, ‘For it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” I suppose this is what the dot is trying to communicate over time. As if it’s saying, “At some point, you found this interesting. In fact, it may have meant a great deal to you. But things change. You are not the same man you were, so read it again as a mirror to yourself. Discover who you were. . . and now see who you are.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to contact a certain high school about making a donation to their library.
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