Isaac's Journal: A 19th Century Book Collection

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Lyn Fenwick, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

To read more of Isaac’s 19th century journal entries see Lyn Fenwick’s blog.

 I immediately formed a kinship with Isaac because of our common love for books. When Isaac’s journal began in December, 1870, he was a druggist in Rossville, Ill., in his mid-twenties. He was prospering, with every bit of money he could set aside spent on his book collection, views for his stereoscope, and portrait cards of famous people that he kept in albums. He had a curious mind that he wanted to fill with the writings of great authors, pictures of the world, and images of important people. He was determined to build his book collection despite being criticized by some of his less literary friends. Regarding the money he spent, he wrote in his journal: “Some get rid of a good deal [of money] in horses and buggies, great many in whisky, and how many on women? Ike [Isaac] fools good deal away in Books and Views and Pictures.” That is not to suggest that Isaac wasn’t keeping his eyes open for a well-educated young lady. He tried charming one young miss by loaning her some of his art books, and he paid particular attention to a bright young bookkeeper at Henderson & Lee’s store, the first female employed in that position in town. He was also quite interested in a young woman who played chess and appreciated music, but unfortunately for Isaac, none of these relationships matured into a romance.

From his successful business he had assets he could have invested or loaned at profitable interest rates, but instead he continued to buy books, explaining in his journal: “How interesting and delightful such reading is and the daily increase in familiarity with such noble literary monuments. When I think back over all my best investments yet made, what I done [sic] in good Books I must consider the Master stroke of all. What a permanent and ever increasing value does such an investment bring…”

These words were written when he was young, but even during the hard times as a homesteader on the Kansas prairie, he treasured his library and added to his book collection occasionally. Most of the later additions were of a practical nature and often pamphlets rather than beautifully bound volumes, but he never doubted the value of books. Isaac would have agreed completely with Barbara Tuchman, who wrote, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”

Many of the members of Isaac’s book collection are still read today — Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, Edward Gibbon’s History of th
e Roman Empire,
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, monthly issues of “Scientific American” which he had bound. He also collected books on art, philosophy, engineering, law, economics, political theory, logic, travel, and languages. He had The Bible, Shakespeare, and multiple reference books. Among them all, he seemed to love Shakespeare best. I can picture Isaac sitting in his early dugout, before he had built his house and still lacked a horse to ride to the nearest town, reading Shakespeare by lamplight.

I was so curious about the books Isaac read that I went to some of my favorite used book websites and ordered the oldest editions I could find with titles he had mentioned. I guess you might say that Isaac and I formed a book club! Pictured are the following: Progress and Poverty by Henry George, Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, A Comprehensive Dictionary of Organ Stops, Classical Antiquities, Cuba with Pen & Pencil, Theory of Spencerian Penmanship, Bain’s Logic: Deductive and Inductive, Cooper’s Justinian, and The Culture Demanded by Modern Life. The books on art and travel that I would have particularly enjoyed could not be found, but the sampling I read impressed me and was a good example of Isaac’s thirst for knowledge. Surely you can understand why I must tell the story of this remarkable man!

The stereoscope and views in the top photograph belonged to my ancestors. I do know from Isaac’s journal, however, that he visited my great grandparents, Aaron and Susan Beck, and shared his stereoscope views with them.

photos by Lyn Fenwick

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