Monday, July 22, 2019

Old Books from My Library #1: "Amusements for Invalids"

"In which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place." 

     I need a new series here while I'm on the mend, and given the necessity of spending most of the day on the sofa with heat packs bunched under my neck, I've had to come up with something easy to write and, I hope, pleasant to read. 
     Toward that end, I've struck on a week I'm calling "Old Books from My Library." Titles that I've cherished for decades, which you've almost certainly never heard about. This seemed the most apt way to begin.

      Hospital stays used to be epic adventures of weeks and months. Now they can be very quick affairs. The first surgeon I consulted about my neck said the work could be done out-patient, and only as the full scope, danger and delicacy of the situation emerged did the surgery become more complicated and I ended up spending nearly four days at  Northwestern Memorial.
      Back in the days when long stays were the rule, there was a species of books intended to be given to convalescents. I used to have a nice little collection of these books, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, filled with jokes, some quite racist, and puzzles and Boy Scout quality projects to be completed abed.  
        One is "Speaking of Operations," a 1926 effort by now-forgotten humorist Irvin S. Cobb. It's still quite readable and— file this under the "Change, How Nothing Does"—there's a bit, complete with illustration, involving the ritualistic pre-surgery indemnification. A doctor quizzes the patient, making "a few inquiries of a pointed and personal nature" and then "immediately after that he made me sign a paper in which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place the next morning."
       Another is a large volume called, naughtily, "Fun in Bed,' a 1932 carnival of distractions edited by Frank Scully, replete with short stories and jokes. Now that hospital stays are measured in hours, I got a kick out of a section in the book titled "My Diary." It begins "My First Day" and ends, optimistically, "My Eighteenth Day."
     The book was a great success, leading to "More Fun in Bed" and even "Fun in Bed for Children," which begins with a note "For Mother and Father": "This book is intended to answer the small patient's questions: 'What can I do now?')
      My copy of Scully has flown, along with a few others. I took giving my collection away to convalescent friends—they seem to strike the proper tone of uniqueness and thumbing your nose at illness. I gave "Fun in Bed" to Roger Ebert when was recovering from his surgeries at the Chicago Rehab Institute. He adored books, already had about everything in the world he wanted already, and I told myself that he'd enjoy the arcaneness of the thing, its instruction on how to make birdhouses and sealing wax novelties. Maybe he even did; he impulsively grabbed a copy of Sherlock Holmes he had been reading and inscribed it to my boys. He was that kind of guy, more generous on his worst day than most people are on their best.
      One book that I could never bring myself to give to anyone, for obvious reasons, is "Amusement of Invalids" by Mary Woodman, subtitled, "Countless Ways of Turning Dullness into Happiness," published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It begins in a pleasingly direct manner that has more than a whiff of self-promotion. The Preface, in its entirety, reads:
     An illness is an irksome business, but it need not be made a time of thorough misery by indulging in absolute inactivity. There are a thousand and one ways of banishing monotony and deriving pleasure from misfortune, as is plainly shown in these pages.  If, among your friends, there is one who has the misfortune to be an invalid, send him or her a copy of this book. It will be the means of providing many rays of sunshine.
    Today we have Netflix for that. But this book, published in 1929, gives the rudiments of working leather and cutting silhouettes, doing beadwork and learning to sketch. The complexities of stamp collecting are explained, along with more dubious arts such as palmistry and understanding a person's character through the study of handwriting—quite the fad in the 1920s. The bedridden are encouraged not only to learn to play the banjo, but to attempt to construct one himself abed.
      There is a chapter on how to listen to the radio: "When you have fixed up your set and have recovered from the first shock of delight, study the subject of wireless more deeply."Chapter 21 is about making fancy boxes. 
     A commercial imperative runs through the book. Woodman not only expects you to pass the time productively, but to profit from your activities. Those bead necklaces and candies you're making? Sell them! ""They can be turned into a source of revenue, and naturally, there are not many ways in which an invalid can make easy money." 
    "Here is a chance for all invalids to improve their mental value in the commercial world," she writes. The apex of this, for me, is chapter IV, "Fretwork," where the indefatigable Woodman instructs her invalid to set up a stepladder next to his sickbed, clamp a work surface to it, and set to making fretwork—decorative lattices of wood—using drills, saws and files.
     Chapter XXII is entitled "How to Write Poetry," and as writing decent poetry is a tremendous, almost impossible, challenge, even among established poets,  it caught my particular attention. The chapter contains a phrase certain to shatter the heart of the stoutest blogger today—"Payment for acceptable verse rules high..." I think maybe she meant "runs," or perhaps that's a British usage.
     Flowers, love, absence or death are dismissed as potential poetic topics, being hackneyed themes "done thousands of times" and of little interest to modern editors. 
     The trickiness of rhyme is addressed—"thought" rhymes with "dough" but not with "cough," despite appearances. Alliteration is a poet's friend, "Artful Aids to Beauty" and Mighty Mimic of Mankind" are offered with approval as examples to "be studied carefully."  Poetic license seems to consist of the occasional contraction, "over" into "o'er."
      The book was first published in Great British—the chapter after poetry, on using your recovery to become a professional short story writer, has the large checks sent by grateful editors in pounds instead of dollars. I tried longer than I should have to find any kind of biographical information on Mary Woodman, and bumped into several reviews, from publications such as The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review. She was taken seriously. The March 10, 1930 Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer decrees, "Anyone who has to look after a not too seriously ill invalid will find some useful suggestions in Amusements for Invalids."
    Otherwise, a brick wall. The British Library has a "chat service" where, mirabile dictu, you are instantly connected to an actual researcher. He provided me with a list of Woodman's books held by the British Library, from "Efficient Housekeeping" to "100 Varieties of Sandwiches: How to Prepare Them" to "How to Make Artificial Flowers."
     But did not, however, answer my question about Woodman's life (now that I think of it, maybe I was interacting with some form of artificial intelligence). He (or should it be it?) did refer me, as a certified hard case, to what they call a Reference Enquiry Team. I appealed to them for whatever biographical scrap they could uncover. They have promised to respond within five business days. They've got two left. 
     Until then, time to move on to the current world. 
     Lest we smile to much at Woodman's quaint suggestions, a regular reader this morning offered me the following unsolicited advice. 
     "Learn a magic trick," Steve Temkin urged in a text. "There's no shortage of available online instruction and you don't need anything more than a deck of cards or some coins..." He offered some suggestions for books or videos.
    No need. I have my Woodman at hand. 
    Admittedly, I approached "Chapter IX--Tricks With Cards" with a shiver of dread--I am notoriously bad at magic tricks. Were there anyone who read or remembered my second book, "Complete and Utter Failure," they would know it begins with my humiliating attempt to perform a simple trick as a small child. Let's just say it was not my forte.
     Despite this handicap, I tried to learn a few magic tricks before my first son was born, out of the perhaps charming, perhaps unhinged notion that of course magic tricks were necessary skills a new dad should have at his disposal to captivate and delight his offspring. I failed utterly. 
    This was no different. I gingerly navigated downstairs and secured a pack of cards, and sawed through passages like "Take any odd number of cards which is a multiple of three (e.g. nine, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-seven). Deal them face upwards in three heaps, asking a spectator to note one card and to tell you in which heap it is. Pick up the heaps, with the indicated heap between the other two, and repeat the process twice. When you spectator points to a heap for the third time, you may know that his chosen card is the middle one of the heap..."
      To no avail. 
     Still, I hope by now the attraction of old books is clear. I could select half a dozen novels published this week and none would offer an image as poignant as Woodman's 1930s invalid, propped on pillows on an iron bed. The windows, open to admit a breeze, relay the sirens and horns and hubbub from the busy street below, while our patient, tongue in the corner of his mouth with concentration, goes at fretwork with a wood file. Nor of myself for that matter, sitting unusually straight in my office chair, thickly ruffling through a pack of cards, failing utterly to clutch at the magic that has eluded me all my life.


  1. Glad that your recovery seems like it's going well. This post was a pleasant read, as always, although it looks like there was more to the Ebert paragraph.

    Should you desire other Woodmanesque endeavors after you move beyond invalidity, a search of for author Mary Woodman turns up promising titles beyond the British Library holdings, such as "Salads for all year round" and "Practical Hints in War-Time on Saving, Rations, Coupons, Points, Money".

  2. It put me in mind of a little poem by that well-known author 'Anonymous.'

    "When your light is on all night
    You're either reading
    Or your dead
    Or you're having fun in bed."

    One alternative is not to be wished for. The suggested 'naughtiness' is unlikely given the physical disability implied by the invalid status. But there's always reading.

    From the picture of your bookshelf I expected a treatise on your fellow Ohioan.

    I myself go back to Thurber from time to time to see if he holds up. Mostly he does.


  3. Magic has not eluded you, Mr. S. It happens very time you begin stringing words and sentences together.

    Forget about the decks of cards, or the stringing of beads. Maybe you can string enough words and sentences together to complete the first chapters of another book. I, for one, would welcome it.


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