Book Gossip

So, y’all know that I have a weird weekend hobby of going to estate sales to find books for my Etsy shop. I have pretty eclectic tastes, but I am always on the hunt for midcentry children’s books.

When I first set up the shop, I imagined that my customer was a housewife with a keen sense of irony who loved the dramatic and heroic images on the covers. She recalled many hours spent at libraries in the early 70s gobbling up biographies and mystery novels by the dozens. She would pay top dollar for these books to display in her children’s rooms as a reminder of her youth.

OK, I imagined was that my ideal customer was me, but with a lot more money.

Turns out that there aren’t a lot of housewives with a keen sense of irony. Go figure. Instead, my books are being bought by an entirely different type of customer.

Who is buying my books? Answer in the comment section.

45 thoughts on “Book Gossip

  1. You know, I used to like those books. I wonder, have they warped my mind?

    Or, is it reasonable to imagine that we can tell children simple stories, with the understanding the context and complexity can come later? I did not study american history post high school (except for a brief foray into the history of the supreme court), and I am currently discovering lots of things I didn’t really know. For example, it was only a few years ago, that I became aware of the ugly documentation of the south’s secession before the civil war. I’d vaguely understood that the “states rights” arguments were beards, but never read the words “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. ” in the Mississippi Secession document, and then goes on to cite “scientific” racism in order to justify the use of black slaves, because “none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

    Does reading simplistic biographies of Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson or Franklin Roosevelt as a child permanently warp one’s perceptions? I guess it depends on who you are.


    1. In my experience, trying to teach sophisticated concepts to young people doesn’t work: they will retranslate what you said into simple moralism. So you can teach them that Thomas Jefferson was good or that he was bad, but not that he was a man who helped establish American liberty, a fabulous and inspirational writer, one of the founders of modern liberal democracy and religious freedom, who owned slaves and in his later years defended the institution, failed to appreciate the benefits of industrialization, thought himself qualified to redact the Bible to make it more morally satisfactory, and whose scientifically designed plow didn’t work. They’ll end up putting him in one of the two categories. The best answer is to make up your own mind after weighing all the facts, and then teach the children that Jefferson was good or bad, whatever your ultimate conclusion is.


      1. I find Mr. Jefferson’s financial mismanagement one of the most shocking (and underreported) things about him.

        I don’t know how accurate this is, but here are a few quotes:

        “Thomas Jefferson, our third president, died with debts of $107,000, which is roughly $2 million today.

        “Jefferson is an unusual case in that the debt wasn’t entirely due to business failures, poor investments, or a shopaholic wife. Jefferson inherited a significant amount of debt from his father-in-law in 1774. He may have been rich in land and slaves, but farming was not a debt solution.”

        “Of course, some of it was due to his overzealous spending. He lived beyond his means, blowing large sums on construction projects, furnishings, and decorations for his estate, Monticello. Jefferson also had a taste for fine French wine, which did not come cheap. During his eight years as president, his personal wine bill was over $10,000, or $150,000 in today’s currency.”

        “Jefferson also co-signed a loan for a friend in 1818 for $20,000. Unfortunately, his friend passed away shortly thereafter, and Jefferson was forced to take on the unpaid debt. ”

        “After his presidency, the situation became dire. The press found out that his estate and assets were far under the value of his debts. Americans raised money to try to help get out of debt, but after Jefferson died in 1826, the donations stopped rolling in, and his grandson absorbed the debts. Monticello, as well as Jefferson’s land, slaves, furniture, and more, were sold, and still did not cover the debts.”

        Ay yay yay!

        When I was a wee thing, I felt very positive about his agrarianism, but his real life raises all sorts of questions about it. If even Mr. Jefferson (with all his advantages) could not keep his plantation afloat, how could simple folk with much more modest means manage the economics of farming?

        As to what to teach kids about Jefferson, I think I’d go with brilliant, but very careless.


      2. I’m a bit more sympathetic to Jefferson’s debt problem after seeing a presentation by a scholar who’d studied Russian financial records extensively. Those 18th/19th-century Russian nobles with ridiculous debts? If you’d asked them how much revenue their estates brought in per year, they’d have met you with a blank stare. Ditto for their estates annual expenses. They understood debt as a concept (meaning principal; interest was something probably evil (however necessary) that required hard math) and they understood collateral. Debt related to collateral in their heads — how could income or expenses have anything to do with wealth or money-lending?

        She and I were presenting in the same session because the organizers had decided that finances relating to Russian serfdom would match financial records relating to American slavery. It was a neat juxtaposition, and I suspect–with regard to Jefferson and the other agrarian debtors of the Revolutionary generation–they might have been on to something.


      3. That is an interesting point about Russian and American estate owners. I wonder, what economic facts I don’t see that people in 200 years will think obvious? “As blind as are these three to me, so blind to someone I must be.”


    2. Yes, that has been my experience. My current 13 year old now will admit to seeing some of the good that Jefferson did, but that is a recent transition: after seeing the “Jefferson’s slaves” exhibit at the Smithsonian when he was five he soundly classified Jefferson as bad.

      But, I don’t think I am willing to follow the advice of figuring out for myself the “good or bad” and then teaching kids (or even my kid) the conclusion. I guess I’m stuck with ambiguity, though in my example, I guess we have to decide whether we go from “bad” to adding ambiguity or “good” to adding ambiguity. And, of course, kiddo came to his own conclusion after seeing the exhibit, and I can’t see myself hiding data in order to chose another outcome.

      BTW, proposing a scientifically designed plow that doesn’t work doesn’t make someone “bad” in any of my books. That’s the way science works. Telling everyone that it must work even when it doesn’t, that’s bad (and, even there, some good scientists, especially theoreticians, fall into the trap).


      1. I think Jefferson would have been a theoretician (and was, pretty much), though they had different words for that back then. Franklin, on the other hand, was an experimentalist.


      2. On this topic, Andrew Exum has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on the moral ambiguities of Andrew Jackson and Alexander Hamilton. (The former is officially bad, and the latter good, at least in progressive circles.)


  2. Have you chanced to check out modern offerings in children’s history? Take a look at:

    (Link goes to Amazon.)

    The series, “Who Was…” and “What Was…” seem very popular, best sellers indeed, at Amazon. Look at how simple the prose is. This text is deemed appropriate for grades level 5-7. There seem to be about 3 to 5 sentences per page, on average. They are very, very simple sentences, with hardly any clauses. I suppose it would confuse the poor dears?

    In comparison, I found a couple text samples online of the Landmark books. Here is a sample of text from The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt: (ages 8-12)

    Here is William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler: (notice that this text is now presented as a book for adults.)

    This is a description of the series:

    If you’re home schooling, you can orient your texts to your children’s reading ability. I am not home schooling, but if I were, I would rather present works by William Shirer or E.H. Gombrich (the “Little History of the world, not a Landmark Text), than predigested pablum.


    1. In my experience, those suggested ages on commercial publications tend to greatly underestimate the average child, i.e. the average child can read books several years above average. (Then again, on the Upper West Side, all the children are above average.)


      1. The UWS – the Lake Wobegon of NYC…

        I agree with kids on average reading above their level, both in complexity of the writing as well as the issues presented.

        Some of my daughter’s classmates’ parents were a bit surprised that they were assigned YA dystopian and/or cross cultural novels in language arts (they’re in grade 6). However, the students offered quite sophisticated analyses and opinions.

        Semi-related aside – it’s so wonderful to have so many well written middle grade & YA books. Back in the olden days it was a direct jump to Arthur Hailey & Jaws in elementary school with nothing in between.

        And on the history side of things, we’ve come a long way in the topics taught (not just wars and dates) and appreciation of whose stories are told and why.


    2. Yes, I concur with the age levels and that many kids can read at the levels described. My kids are reading books at least as hard as I read (and probably harder), both textually and conceptually in MS.


  3. Turns out that there aren’t a lot of housewives with a keen sense of irony.

    This is why I have trouble making conversation of the sidelines of soccer games.


    1. I suspect the keen sense of irony (even when combined with a lot of money) precludes buying the books. There are a lot of “housewives” with a keen sense of irony, though.


  4. The homeschoolers like these books not because of their high reading levels, but bcause of the themes of patriotism, honor, and hardwork. No business about Jefferson buggering the slave girls here. It fits in really well with #MAGA. I found all sorts of home schooler websites that specialize in midcentury biographies. I’m going to see if a magazine with a big budget will pay me to travel around the country to meet the people who love these books.

    And Cranberry linked to the Old Scrolls blog. Love that blog. A couple that owns a used bookstore in Wisc, I think, travels around visiting used books stores all over the country and takes lots of pictures.


    1. Are the homeschoolers in the Midwest and the South, or are they scattered around the country? There is (was, as the kids have grown up) a homeschooling family in our Northeastern town. There is also a homeschooling collaborative in a neighboring town. I figured our local homeschoolers wanted a more advanced curriculum, as their children show up in the local paper when they do well on things such as the Duke TPY stuff.

      It’s not easy to find nonfiction for middle schoolers that is interesting. A depressing number of modern biographies written for students feature sports figures. We didn’t try to raise non-athletes, but we did. The nonfiction our children have been interested in tended to feature diseases, religions, wars, doomed child heirs, and bizarre happenings. Sometimes, all at once. We really loved the “Horrible Histories” series.

      On a related note, has anyone else managed to watch the first episode of American Gods?


    2. And I like those themes, too.

      Fom today’s NY Times (“”):

      “He [GK Chesterton] noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

      The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.”

      I just think we have to also learn about the blight of slavery and the displacement and destruction of the culture of the peoples of the pre-colonial Americas.


      1. A potentially interesting aside. My husband the WW1 geek was watching the PBS series The Great War a week or two ago, and I was sort-of-watching. My ears perked up when they covered how Wilson talked about America in somewhat new nationalist terms as he advocated American involvement in the war. I think they were also talking about the reinvented iconography of Uncle Sam during that time as well.


      2. Right. America was a project that created amazing opportunity for some but at the expense of others. It’s one of my minor pet peeves with a lot of the celebratory “how the X became white” type of narratives. Sure, it’s great that Jews, Irish, Southern Italians, etc. got to be treated like human beings. But incorporating various Europeans outsiders into the category of whiteness was only possible because America was by and large an apartheid system based on the absolute denigration of those in the category of black. To this day, immigrants from all over the world are able to succeed in America by stepping over the backs of black Americans, and this needs to be acknowledged.

        TL:DR expanding the category of whiteness without dismantling the fundamental racial hierarchy isn’t really true tolerance.


    3. I loved these kinds of books when I was a kid. I was in an open-concept learning community from 4th to 6th grade, so I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted as long as I didn’t cause trouble and as long as I finished my work. I would go to the library and work my way through the biographies BUT after I read a bunch, I started focusing on the bios of women. I remember reading bios like the ones in Laura’s photo, about Martha Washington, Dolley Madison, Dorothea Dix, Florence Nightingale, Jessie Fremont (!? It was one of my favorites, along with the one about Jane Addams). Nellie Bly! I loved that one, too.

      And yet, I did not become a Trump supporter-type. Maybe it was the existence of the women’s stories alongside the men’s stories. Maybe it was the other stuff I was reading (CS Lewis, for example). Maybe it was parental influence. Maybe it was my intelligence. But I never longed for some romanticized past. I never got stuck thinking in simpler terms. I didn’t freak out when I learned George Washington owned slaves.

      But here is a true story. Somewhere in 4th-6th grade, I was in the girls’ room with a friend and we were being silly and I was turning the light switch on and off, probably to make my friend say “Turn on the light!” That part i don’t remember well. But I do remember that a teacher was waiting outside the girls’ room when we came out and said “Who was doing that?” And in a flash, in my brain, I thought, “George Washington never told a lie,” which of course was some idea I got from one of those books. So I confessed. (Btw, there was no punishment or anything, just stern words and much embarrassment on my part, and we went back to our classroom.)

      So I’m not sure what I’m saying, except that I think it is ok, even good, to expose children to certain kinds of moral values embodied in certain kinds of admirable people. I don’t think that oversimplifying these people leads to stunted moral or intellectual growth. But it is a tricky thing. I guess something else had to be in play to encourage me to be honest and not to throw away honesty as a value when I learned Washington did some immoral things. Perhaps it was the people I was around (my parents were decent, honest people). I remember these bios talking about honesty, hard work, and treating people kindly. Maybe I later learned that Washington had slaves, and that was not treating people kindly, but for some reason I kept the value of treating people kindly and was able to transfer that thought to the present. “Washington treated people kindly, but not all people, but now we today extend that value of treating people kindly to a larger pool of people because Progress.”


  5. I think east coast education policy wonk mom interviews midwestern maga homeschool moms who use mid century biographies to teach their children would be a great story. It could have great pictures, too.


  6. I can’t believe there’s not a booming Christian home school business for publishing these kinds of kids’ books, especially ones with crossover potential that could be sold to non-homeschoolers looking for moral clarity/simplicity. Some homeschooling mom could make a mint.


    1. I would venture a guess that even those marketing the homeschool cannot recapture the blinders of an age when it really was possible to talk about George Washington without thinking about the slaves. But then, I might be naive.

      I do not feel my world view was warped by the reading of the simple stories. I also loved the biographies, and, though I didn’t think about it at the time, I probably was skewing towards women, too. I remember Elizabeth Blackwell and Clara Barton. I didn’t learn about Nellie Bly until my daughter found her in elementary school, and she is a fascinating person, remembered now for the trip around the world, but, in fact, I think the inventor of investigative journalism. The story of the hospital for the mentally ill and border crossings from Mexico would have resonance now. My daughter also discovered Lucy Stone for me, known now for the Lucy Stone society and the battles fought to allow women to keep their names on marriage.

      But, for me, I’d guess a key would be that science is all about simple stories that have to modified, grown, and changed with new evidence. My own field was particularly prone to this, with an enormous gulf between what we understood and what the reality must be, with beautiful simple ideas that had to be reevaluated with new data. I guess that’s what I’m trying to teach my children, to be comfortable with both complexity and uncertainty and not let either of those things prevent you from trying to understand.


  7. Nobody is making a mint selling to homeschoolers. It’s a competitive field, with plenty of mom-and-pop operations conducting their business out of homes and carting their wares to homeschool conferences. Like musicians, I suspect that the more successful ones make their money not on the physical media, but through the fees that they can make through paid appearances. I have seen some popular homeschool authors fill 500-person auditoriums, typically at a homeschool conference. In general, most homeschoolers do not have a lot of extra spending money. I am a homeschooler, but not a conservative one. We favored books from the 1930s and 1940s (such as the Half-Magic series and the Estes books) when our kids were in grades 3 to 6 because we thought the writing was better, and because the older books lacked the snarky dialog and attitude of the contemporary texts aimed at a comparable audience. By middle school, however, there was no fighting it. Potter and other YA ruled. Some of it actually was not bad. At least there was no Hannah Montana in our house.


    1. I haven’t really seen much snarky dialog and writing in the kids books I’ve seen. It all seems to be factory-made versions of the hero’s journey.


  8. I remember realizing that much of what America did was terrible through hypocrisy vis a vis comparison with Germans during WW2. Like, why are German claims to manifest destiny in Eastern Europe and the resulting genocide of millions of people the Worst Thing Ever, but white American claims to manifest destiny in North America and the resulting genocide of millions of people not also similarly terrible?


    1. I feel the same way about slavery reparations. Like, @#$% own up to your ancestors’ past mistakes and pay some restitution, already! This is not a complicated issue, and right now mainstream Americans are about on par with the Turks and Japanese in terms of dealing maturely with the past.


    2. Umm, I really want you to come to NYC and explain that the Holocaust was nothing unusual from a historical perspective.


      1. The holocaust is terrible, and was terrible in many unique ways. At the same time, lebensraumpolitik was explicitly modeled on British settler colonialism in North American and Australia, and the genocide of European Jewry was modeled explictly on the techniques of the Armenian genocide (death marches, concentration camps, “stabbed in the back” justification). The idea that you could get away with murdering a continent’s worth of people seemed plausible to the Germans because, well, other European powers were doing precisely that outside of Europe. The whole “no one will care if we murder all the Jews because who cares about Armenians” was not an apocryphal statement.

        This knowledge shouldn’t be used to normalize or downplay the holocaust, but rather, to recognize the magnitude of horrors we have inflicted on the rest of the world. Let’s actually learn from history by turning our outrage onto ourselves and shining a mirror onto the horrible acts in our own past.


  9. Umm, I really want you to come to NYC and explain that the Holocaust was nothing unusual from a historical perspective.

    Having had an entire side of my family wiped out in the Holocaust, I am well aware of the gravity of the event. So, I don’t need to go to NYC. I can just look in the mirror.

    On the other hand, you should go to South Dakota and explain that the Holocaust was without historical precedent. I think that you would have an even harder time with that than my notional trip to New York.


    1. South Dakota is a nice place to visit, but if you don’t like outdoors stuff, you’ll run out of things to do quicker than you would in New York. On the plus side, you can buy bottle rockets. Also, the name of the capital of South Dakota is literally unpronounceable if use standard English or French rules for the sounds letters make.


    2. South Dakota has the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, which makes South Dakota AOK in my book.


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