Cooper’s Virgil

I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately — obviously because of the developments of eBooks, but also because I’ve been home sick the past few days, reading as I get better, and just generally around all my books more of the time.

I happened to walk by a shelf in our living room filled with books from our family — mostly older books, and mostly from my dad’s mother (she was always “Grandmother” to me). When she died, I inherited a number of her Latin books, since I really loved learning Latin, and it was something that was important to her, too. For whatever reason, I picked one up off the shelf today — Cooper’s Virgil — an annotated collection of the writing of Virgil (who wrote The Aeneid, among other things).

Just picking it up, a million different things came up in my mind. Some reverence for how old it is. Fondness for the Latin work and friends I had in high school. Memories of Grandmother, always teaching, and pretty often whipping me in double solitaire, which I’m starting to teach SPL now.

Here’s the back cover page (you can click through to see it bigger):

Now the first thing you’ll notice is that the book is old. It looks like Gussie Raysor acquired it (or just signed it) on May 26, 1895, just about 115 years ago now.

Think of that. 1895 was when the first movie projector was patented. Queen Victoria was still alive, and Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t yet President of the United States. The Ford Motor Company wouldn’t be founded for another 8 years.

The next thing that I noticed was the name at the top — Laura Lilly — who is definitely not my grandmother, but instead was her sister-in-law — my grandfather’s sister. So that’s a little bit of humor there. I guess my grandfather stole the book from his sister (although I have to say that I can’t really imagine him giving much of a damn about Latin — unless it was some sort of prank, which I can imagine him caring about), and then the book got absorbed into Grandmother’s collection (given her love of language and learning and books, not too surprising). Gussie Raysor was my grandfather’s mother.

And so through this artifact that I’ve moved around several times over the past couple of decades, and that surely frustrated any number of Lillys as they tried to learn their declensions and conjugations and gerunds — through this simple artifact, a connection across the years was made. And with real impact and emotion in the present day.

That is a hell of a thing. It’s just really astonishing in simplicity and power.

Now, I’m not very nostalgic about books, I have to say. I thought I would be — I thought I’d miss their paper & binding shape with the advent of eBooks. But I really don’t — not at all, honestly. I prefer, in most cases, to read books on my Kindle now — which tells me, as I’ve written elsewhere, that what I really love is reading, not the physical forms themselves.


There’s something about physical artifacts that reaches across the ages. As I look around my own house and think about what objects with meaning will persist and SPL’s grandchildren will look at a hundred years from now, I’m not sure there are very many at all. There are lots of electronic artifacts, like this blog, even, if we can manage to keep them alive and safe from inevitable(?) bit-rot. But precious few things that will make it through the childhoods and moves and marriages and storms and whatever else that the next 100 years will bring.

So I’m glad to have these books of my grandmother’s with me. They mean something and they change who I am and how I experience the world because they’re here with me. And it’s probably time to think a little bit not in the backwards direction, but in the forwards direction, about what we want people to reflect over a hundred years hence.


  1. Hi John, Sister sent me your blog entry about the old Latin book that belonged to Gussie–“Granny” to me. I think it is fascinating and am glad you have it and really appreciate it. I thought you might like to know that Mary Michael and Todd have just had a second little boy who is named August for Augusta Raysor Lilly (Gussie). They just hope no one calls him Gus!
    Hope things are going well for you and your family!
    Love, your cousin Eleanor

  2. Thank you for your blog discourse.

    I’ve always been interested in the diversity of history and impermanence – old books that are easily readable after 500 years (I lost most of my Latin – so that’s a disadvantage) – looking at an Augustinus around 1758 and earlier Q. Horatius Flaccus versus the Internet that permanently records “everything” and nothing gets lost until everything is lost (cf. Jaron Lanier’s comments in his most recent book Your are not a gadget []). How do we maintain, evolve, the somewhat organic process of selection and deletion to escape information entropy?