Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Fair flashback

For young bookworms like me, the distribution of the flimsy newsprint Scholastic Book Fair order forms was a cause for wild excitement. My dear mother, also an avid reader, usually slipped me a few extra bucks so I could buy beyond the limitations of my meager allowance. She understood.

This weekend, as I scrutinized the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle (CLSC) reading list to select my dozen choices, I got the faintest metaphysical whiff of newsprint. Such a bounty of books! I had some culling to do—the list is over 800 books long—and since I’m seeking the full-on 19th century Chautauqua experience, my criteria echoed that founder Dr. Vincent’s: selections must “promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature.” With that in mind, I cast a pretty broad net, incorporating titles I normally wouldn’t give the time of day to—like, say, anything with the faintly formaldehyde-ish scent of heavy science.  

Victorians were never known for being succinct, so I suspect some of these word-dense tomes will be seriously snoozy compared to today’s zippy texts, designed to allure the “reluctant reader.” (That was the selling point on the cover of a contemporary heavily illustrated, decidedly bloodthirsty children’s text on the Roman Empire. Another blog post for another day…) However, to fairly immerse myself in Pansy’s world, I’ve got to embrace the dry (“First Lessons in Geology”) with the juicy (passionate poet Robert Browning’s “Pomegranates from an English Garden.”).

 Here’s my dozen (in chronological, not reading, order):

  1. Studies of the Stars (Henry Warren, 1878)
  2. The Hall in the Grove (Isabella “Pansy” Alden, 1881)
  3. First Lessons in Geology (A.S. Packard, 1882)
  4. A Short History of Art (Julia deForest, 1882)
  5. Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation (James Walker, 1883)
  6. Histories of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great (Jacob Abbott, 1884)
  7. Pomegranates from an English Garden (Robert Browning, 1885)
  8. In His Name (Edward Everett Hale, 1885)
  9. An Outline History of Greece (Vincent/Joy, 1890)
  10. An Outline History of Rome (Vincent/Joy 1891)
  11. Science and Prayer (W.W. Kinsley, 1893)
  12. Twenty Years at Hull-House (Jane Addams, 1912)

Eager to build my modest CLSC library, I hunted down Victorian-era texts on eBay all weekend. Happily, I own the 19th century honey of a book that kicked off this whole escapist escapade: Isabella “Pansy” Alden’s “The Hall in the Grove.” Are you weird like me? I l can’t bring myself to read books “out of season”—if it’s summer, I can’t read a Christmas book. Since we meet the “Grove” characters on a sunny August day, it’s ideal for reading in my nicely muggy attic hideaway. Even better, this cherished, richly spiritual favorite sets the perfect moral tone for my studies and introduces many of the deep-rooted Christian ideals of Chautauqua’s origins. I like to think Pansy would have approved.  

Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.” Psalms 119:18


  1. I have tried to find the complete list of 19th century books on the current Chautauqua website but apparently no longer on it. Do you have the list of do you know where I could find it? I, too want to see and read what was read back then. Any help would be much appreciated!

    There you go, my friend!! Enjoy!