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Butterflies dance at first love and the smell of old books

November 23, 2008
Messenger News

First love skitters across your skin in excitement, and in that exact instant of recognition your inner butterflies caress your heart.

That might be the most wonderful feeling in the world, and I'm betting almost everyone remembers the first time someone looked into his or her eyes and murmured I love you. I do.

As warm as that makes me feel, I get that same feeling when I hold an old book in my hands. It's a spooky feeling, to be sure, when those butterflies start to dance at the smell of old leather and paper.

One of my favorite places in Milwaukee is across from the Milwaukee Public Museum behind the public library where the sidewalk goes downhill so you're standing outside the library basement wall. It's amazing how the smell of old books - a musty smell, but a smell I love - seeps through the concrete.

Then there's a used book store in Appleton, Wis., that fills its front window with layers of old books. There's more movement in the store than the library basement, so the musty smell isn't as powerful, but when I stand among the shelves, those inner butterflies start moving again.

In that store, I once picked up an old book small enough to fit between the palms of my hands and held it until my hands got so hot I dropped it. Some call me clumsy when I admit that, but it wasn't clumsy that got me. That book started the butterflies moving, and they kicked it out of my hands. The friction of their wispy little legs made my hands hot.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Anyway, a couple weeks back, Barb Jensen brought a book into the newsroom to show to Barbara, our editor, and like a magnet pulled me to them, I toddled up and pushed my way between them so I could get a better look at the book, "The Columbian Orator," which contains "a variety of original and selected pieces together with rules calculated to improve youth and others in the ornamental and useful art of eloquence."

That's what the title page says, and as in all old books, the words are in different fonts and sizes. The pages are motled brown, and someone practiced long division on the inside front cover, but the book, a stereotype edition printed in Boston for Caleb Bingham and Co. to be sold at their book store, was printed in 1817.

That's nine years shy of 200 years ago. Two hundred years. Barb Jensen inherited this book from her aunt, Lula Bocken, who passed away 43 years ago, and Jensen says the history printed in it is particularly interesting just after the presidential election.

One passage, "Extract from President Washington's first speech in Congress, 1789," reads, in part:

"Fellow-citizens of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives, Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years. A retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me, by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. On the other hand ..."

I love the words. I'm not sure what they mean, but I love them. I'm wondering if in 200 more years some descendent of Barb Jensen will find a book with President Obama's first speech to Congress and wonder what his words mean.

I wonder.

So long friends until the next time when we're together.

Contact Sandy Mickelson at (515) 573-2141 or



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