A librarian who rarely led me astray

A delightful and erudite man we students called Tee-hee Lewis was our college reference librarian. For some reason, at that time the students didn't have freedom to roam the stacks, so if we wanted to see a certain book, we had to ask Tee-hee to fetch it for us.

Mr. Lewis had a way of producing a jolly good chuckle, which he stifled in the dignity of library usage so it came out almost like a tee-hee, and I'm not sure I ever heard that he had another name. He rode a bicycle to the college library and back, and was a dear person to all who knew him.

It was my custom to drop off a list of books I might require as I "sought converse with the wise of all ages," and Tee-hee would find them and have them ready when I came by later. Then I'd return my books and leave another list for next time.

I have never known a librarian I didn't like, but Tee-hee made himself extra-special by finding me, each time, a book I didn't ask for, but which he had included over and above the call of duty. He'd lay out my requests one by one, and then say, "And this one is for you to read." Wasn't that nice?

And I read those special selections, one by one, and I blessed Tee-hee as time ran on, and I never knew another librarian to be so kind and to care so much. I increased in stature and wisdom and became the epitome of culture and decency. Does anybody except me remember the television program when Edward R. Murrow pronounced "epitome" as "eppie-tome"?

Tee-hee, except once, led me down the straight and narrow with his decorous selections, and that once was against his best judgment and not at all his fault.

My college library, in those days, observed the strict code of morality imposed by the Puritan tendencies of the parent English. Our library had what was known as the "sin room," where anything of a prurient nature was secluded behind a locked door, and access to it could be had only with written permission from a proper person.

The library, to be sure, had the books, but they were not to be consulted for idle purposes. And my English professor had handed us a list of suggested reading as we studied the works of Daniel Defoe. On the list was "Moll Flanders," the life and business thereof.

In the sublime innocence of my carefully guided youth, I handed my note to Tee-hee, and he let out a gasp and lifted his hands aloft to illustrate "Heavens to Betsy!" He told me "Moll Flanders" was in the sin room and I must have a note from teacher. Tee-hee didn't tee-hee. He went "Tch! Tch! Tch!"

Now, the book about Moll Flanders is sometimes considered the first effort with the "novel," as such, but others say, no, it was Richardson, or Smollett, or Stephen King, and "Moll Flanders" was not truly a novel. It is more often called a romance, if that is a kinder word, and it recites what happened to a girl named Moll who lived into an old age of penitence and comfort.

In a way, it is a lot like the adventures of Evangeline Bellefontaine, who, under the careful pen of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, went through a great deal, as did Moll, but ended up otherwise. Tee-hee reluctantly found me the book. I read it, decided it wasn't really a novel, and I did my term paper on Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, whose novels were not in the sin room. I concluded that I would do well to pay attention to Daniel Defoe and forget about Mrs. Southworth.

This same English professor who enticed me to investigate the sinful origin of the novel, later went through an experience I feel is pertinent. A successful gentleman who owned a number of bookstores in different cities had a daughter who hoped to attend a certain college of prestigious quality. She was found wanting in her preparatory offerings. In short, she didn't know Daniel Defoe from a McCormick reaper, and the college she wanted to attend felt she should at least have some knowledge of literature up to, but not necessarily beyond, "Little Boy Blue, Come Blow Your Horn."

Being well-heeled, the gentleman arranged to have my English professor tutor the young lady and bring her up to matriculation standards. Which he did. And he discovered a strange consequence of literary exposure.

The bookseller's daughter was enormously informed about every book that was ever published since the printer and the binder set up shop. She knew the titles, the authors, the publishers, the date of copyright, the number of printings and editions, copies in cheap editions, serializations, if illustrated and by whom, number of pages, if indexed, and every other thing right up to the day it went OOP, or out of print.

She knew about antiquarian prices, and which libraries had original copies in special collections. But she'd never read a book in her few formative years, and if you held your hands over the title pages she couldn't tell a Zane Gray boys' baseball book from Dante's "Commedia." It was no use. My English professor gave up on the young lady about the same time he gave up on me.

And while nobody knows where I went, the young lady inherited her father's bookstores and on the side operated a summer hotel at Squirrel Island in the Boothbay region. Which, I think, goes to show and is predictable.

Anyway, I just wanted to say a good word for Tee-hee Lewis, whom I remember with special affection.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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