Friday, January 24, 2014

Crow's Commentary: "Book of Ages" by Jill Lapore

Available in hardcover at Wallace Books
Usually, as I'm driving to work, I get to enjoy the NPR Sunday Puzzler. But, every once in a while, I'll catch a snippet of an NPR book review on my way to Wallace Books. I know many customers are listening in, too, so I'll often put a copy of the book that's being discussed on the order if I think it sounds like a good one.

One day this fall, I heard a discussion of Jill Lepore's Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin on Fresh Air. It sounded good. Real good. I put it on the order.

Each subsequent workday, I would come in and see Book of Ages on the new hardcovers table. I'd stare longingly at its cover from behind the desk. Once in a while, I'd flip open the cover or lazily drag my fingers across the spine thinking, "Yes, friend. I will take you home after the holidays..." I told James I wanted to read this book so many times that he started to roll his eyes at me. Secretly, I wanted this book to sell before I could take it home because I had about 25 half-read books in a stack that were abandoned for favor of the never-ending flow of grad school readings. There are good books in this stack-- Lonesome Dove, George Saunder's latest Tenth of December (now out in paperback!). There are books in this stack that I really, really loved reading and really, really regretted putting down for favor of the academic sludge that I've been ingesting on the regular. This book had to go home with someone else, or that stack would never dwindle.

I started to talk it up to customers who came through, "Oh, Book of Ages is on my 'To Read' list. I can't wait." But apparently, they could. The holidays were over, and I took it home. Merry Christmas to me, from me (& Julie). Stack of half-reads be damned, I started in on the book before I even got home from the store.

Now, reader, as I'm sure you're well aware, there is a phenomenon that occurs when something is touted or coveted for so long that the object desired cannot possibly live up to the expectations. I feel like there is a word for this and it was probably in that grad school readings that I most certainly did in lieu of reading for pleasure. I was absolutely sure that I had hoisted this book onto so lofty a pedestal that it would never meet my expectations. So, imagine my delight when Book of Ages exceeded these expectations. There is a reason it was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Jill Lepore's book chronicles the life (and opinions) of Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's favorite sister. Jane comes alive on the page through Lepore's expert weaving of Franklin family lore, the history of women in colonial New England and the letters that Jane exchanged with her loved ones. The remarkable collection of letters are the real charm of this book. Jane is every bit as intelligent and witty as her famous brother, yet has none of the pretense or requisite form that was required of letters written by gentlemen in her day. It was rare for women to write, and even rarer for these records to be kept. Jane Franklin's letters are a treasure: personal, gossipy, emotional, and charming. The exchanges between Benny and Jenny (Benjamin and Jane's nicknames) are a particular delight-- they respectfully banter about life, politics and values. They challenge each other's way of thinking about the world: a world that started in the same small home in Boston and diverged into two entirely different paths.

We have new copies available in hardback. If my recommendation is not enough, my cat also seemed to enjoy the book as well when I read passages aloud to him, as I am wont to do. Buster seemed particularly pleased with the intricate way Lepore included excerpts of Poor Richard's Almanack and the poems of Ann Bradstreet.

~ Kim Crow, January 2014

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