My Oldest Book

In a previous posting, I mentioned the need to cull some items from our house's overflowing bookcases. While performing the chore (more than 60 titles were ultimately delivered to the good folks at Stone Ridge Academy for their next spring's sale), I ran across the book I've owned the longest -- the "adult" book, that is. It's John Steinbeck's novella "The Red Pony," in a 25-cent Bantam paperback that was in its fifth printing.

I used this mass-market edition of "The Red Pony" as a freshman in high school, and though about a boy and a horse, it served as an entree into adult reading. That's largely because the English teacher who assigned it, the crafty Francis X. Cleary, S.J., made clear that we shouldn't just read it for the story, dramatic as that was, but for the theme.

Young Jody's experience of seeing his favorite mare die in colt-birth marked a rite of passage for him, just as reading deeper than the book's surface did for us students. Cleary chose well: "The Red Pony" not only has a tragic dimension (the mare must die so that her offspring may be born); it also poses a challenge to readers by virtue of its last section, "The Leader of the People," in which Jody's grandfather reminisces about the early days of Western settlement as he lived through them. In 1958, it wasn't easy for me to tie this material in with the boy-loves-horse drama that had gone before, and frankly it's not a lot easier today. I'm about ready to conclude that Steinbeck made an artistic error in not wrapping his tale up with the death of the mare, perhaps with a few followup paragraphs about the impact on young Jody.

But for pedagogical purposes, I'm inclined to think the anti-climax worked just fine. At 14, we were forced to think about a tale's artistic shape, to stretch our inchoate minds in trying to make sense of a sharp departure toward the end, perhaps even (if I'm right about Steinbeck's miscalculation) to find a unity that isn't actually there -- in other words, to do the impossible. Not bad things to expect of impressionable and energetic high-school freshmen, if you ask me.

Whether the flaw is in the story or in my understanding of it, I'll be hanging on to "The Red Pony" for good.

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Denny Drabelle |  June 16, 2009; 9:30 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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The book that really hooked me on fiction was The Grapes of Wrath. And like you I will always hold onto that original copy, even if I see more flaws in it now than when I first read it...

Posted by: catymac | June 16, 2009 9:36 AM

Although it is not the book I've owned the longest, one of my oldest and most cherished books is Walks in Florence by Susan and Joanna Horner, cherished not only for its content but for its former owner, an Englishwoman named Ellen Orten. Ellen visited Florence in 1870, I think it was, and acquired this book on her return to England. She made notes in it of things she had seen and things she wanted to see "when next I go to Florence". I'm guessing that she never returned to Florence, as there are no notes indicating a subsequent visit. So I took the book to Florence with me on my next trip there as a tribute across the decades to another woman who had visited and loved that wonderful city.

Posted by: cmcarpenter | June 16, 2009 7:59 PM

When I finally got married, my parents sent boxes and boxes of my stored childhood mementos (half keepsakes, half junk) to my new home. I, in turn, stacked the boxes in my garage for years. Then one day, making good on my promise to “organize” the miscellaneous stuff, I ripped open the packing tape and began purging. In the process, I discovered a treasury of old books I’d hoarded and relished in my childhood, still dog-eared where I left them and fat with friendly school notes sandwiched between the pages. One of them was my middle school copy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” the paperback Signet Classic edition. The pages of Act II, Scene II, “Capulet’s Orchard,” are loose from age and penciled with adolescent expectation. It was the one literary work that made my insides turn to jelly. I laugh now at my young self and wonder when I grew into such a cynic.

I keep it on my bookshelf as a reminder that every once in awhile being jellified is a good thing.

Posted by: Sarah_McCoy | June 16, 2009 10:40 PM

If I remember correctly, Steinbeck lost the original manuscript of The Red Pony. It simply vanished. So he painfully rewrote it drawing on his memory of the original. Much later, the original was found behind his couch, and the newer version was amazingly close to the original.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | June 19, 2009 8:47 AM

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