Monday, August 4, 2014

Old books yield more than printed pages, without fail

Old books can be like treasure chests. A journey through the pages can uncover threads of a previous owner's life via notes, dog-ears, smudges, and general wear. Such is the case with my 1926 Florida Wild Flowers: An Introduction to the Flora of the Florida Peninsula. The guidebook by Mary Francis Baker was published by MacMillan, and is in excellent shape except for the standard yellowing of vintage paper.

With a few exceptions, there aren't any markings scribbled inside. The absence of inside-page notes, coupled by the inked inscription on the inside front cover, captured my interest the day I bought the book.

Snapshot of inside front page showing book owner's handwritten note
This inscription is the first thing the reader
sees on opening the 1926 Florida
wildflower guidebook.
Plant guides are purchased to be used. I once borrowed a friend's Appalachian wildflower guide for a trip the North Carolina mountains. I duly noted time, date, and place of particular discoveries next to each flower's identification photo and text.  Others had done so before me. The impromptu field notes provided a sense of closeness with other plant explorers of the same tame ilk - as in, those using plant guides on well-traveled terrain. David Fairchild we were not.

Inside the cover of Florida Wild Flowers, however, there is a stern note written in cursive:
Without fail, return this volume to Herbert Felkel, 126 Marine Street, St. Augustine Florida. Fail not!! - Herbert Felkel. 1926.
At first I thought Mr. Felkel's friends were obviously guilty of failure to return his guidebook. But the book's good condition belies that. The book is used, yes. The spine easily falls open to pages about milkweed, and Cherokee (coral) bean. But it's apparent no one dragged the book around on outdoor expeditions. So why did the owner spell out such a forceful directive?

Here's where the theme from the original Twilight Zone should play. I'm a former journalist, and I just so happened to buy a vintage guidebook that had been owned by - a journalist. I just Googled Herbert Felkel and learned he took over managing editor duties at the St. Augustine Herald's forerunner in 1917. The newspaper's Through the Years webpage says he then served as editor from 1921 to 1934.

Anyone who worked in a pre-Internet newsroom knows that books, especially reference books, always disappeared. No wonder Mr. Felkel wrote his warning. Reference books were like gold. You couldn't just do an Internet search - the Internet didn't exist. Woe to the person who reached for a reference tome on deadline, only to find an empty shelf.

My new knowledge about Mr. Felkel illuminated the few pencil markings I did find on the pages. Small, faint checkmarks highlight details that likely were pertinent to a writer or editor researching a story. I can see the journalist's mind working, when making note of such things as:

  • Florida's greater variety of wildflowers, and "plants of strange habits," than any other state;
  • how 18th century French botanist Andre Michaux actually saw the Florida flowers the modern (1926) traveler "passes by on well-made roads."
The word trilisa is underlined, a rarity in this book, in a passage about the marsh blossom's purple blooms.  In the same paragraph, a sentence about a marsh sedge with white bracts earns one of the tiny pencil marks. I'm fairly knowledgeable about uplands Florida flora, not so much about the botany of marsh plants. I would have liked to have read whatever story emerged from the notetaker, so careful not to heavily mar the pages of the treasured tome. 

Mr. Felkel's fierce protection of the book paid off. I caretake it now, two years shy of the 90th anniversary of publication. My tenure shall be inscription-less. 

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