I adored each honors English teacher I had at my public high school. Three stand out:
- Mr. Zankowski*, the suspenders-and-spectacles-wearing eccentric, who founded a "hall of fame" in my name for my innocent grammar flubs. His teasing always felt more like well-intentioned paternal affection.
- Mrs. Roager, with a penchant for English poetry and flowery speech, oft punctuated with the many SAT words she drilled into her sophomore students.
- Mr. Jeppar, the only teacher from high school I'd invited to my wedding, and a man who did more than his fair share in building the self-confidence of a slightly (totally) dorky, vocab-obsessed 18 year old.
Freshman through senior year, I was lucky enough to benefit from these stalwarts of the written word. A student (and person) who has always sought approval and well-earned pats on the back from my teachers and superiors, I spent my semesters in the hot pursuit of their approval. Time spent absorbing their wisdom, wit and love of language was, for me, time spent in literary heaven.
Mrs. Roager often floats into my mind when I walk into one of those big-box national chain bookstores, or when I'm perusing the volumes on a friend's bookcase, or even rearranging my own. Because of her, I always look for "pretty books."
She loved finding said books--books that were not just full of pretty prose, but had an aesthetically pleasing jacket to match. She validated that utterly girlish desire I had which said, "If I'm going to buy a book--and add it to my collection, not just loan from the library--I want it to look good, too, darn it!"
Do most men care about such things? Probably not. Do most other women? I haven't taken a poll. But I know that she and I shared this pleasure of seeing our favorite texts married to lovely design. We both cooed over a copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson that she gave me at the semester's end: Wisps of flowers and stems offset by small birds adorned the glossy jacket.
And so on that note, I'll recommend that all gals (and men too, if they're so inclined) go out and buy the prettiest copy they can of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter.
Not since high school had I read a book with this much "prettiness" to it, both on the cover and on the pages.
Undset, winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote her book as a trilogy. The three separate books are available that way as well (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross), but I'd recommend just buying the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (pictured above), then lugging it around wherever you go.
I spent a good number of months buried in this book which tells the life story of a medieval Norwegian girl in a Catholic family and culture. I toted it to park benches on my lunch hour, to doctor appointments, out to the car when I knew I'd have downtime before picking the husband up from work.
And I savored it: I savored the plot, the deeply Catholic themes and history, and the tragic and triumphant heroine that Undset makes dance upon the pages. And, of course, I savored the "pretty" cover.
If you're looking for a summer book--the book you take on vacation, take to the beach, take to your nightstand for your five minutes of fiction before bed, you could no better than to pick Kristin Lavransdatter.
And best of all: When you finish it, you can place it on your bookcase and admire it from afar--a "pretty" book, in both content and cover.
*Names have been changed.