My Grandmother’s Milton

My paternal grandmother was a great reader but no book collector. As she divided her time between coastal Maine and Florida, her books grew more and more damp. When glaucoma made reading too difficult, she sent her library to me. Boxes and boxes arrived in my tiny studio apartment and I had to decide which to keep. Many were old paperbacks of little value with yellowing pages and cracked spines. Some—like her complete collection of all of Virginia Woolf’s work—I have kept even when that has meant double or triple copies of Mrs. Dalloway. I gave away and tossed many, many damaged books but I only regret one: her copy of Milton. It was full of curious, mean little annotations. Most of them were the intelligent queries of an elderly English major: glosses on words, allusions, or footnotes, questions to ask her reading group. But when I came upon a note reading: “Why doesn’t Graham [my father, her son] see that Anne learns Latin?” and then something further about it soon being too late, the pain was so sharp that I needed the book to be gone. From other evidence in the book, I could, I thought, date that bit of marginalia to around 1976. I was ten. I could not live in the same apartment with the memory of my Yankee Nana who always made me feel like my intellectual life was already spoiled by television and lack of discipline.

Rereading Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” today, I remembered that volume of Milton with a pang of regret. I think I could live with it now, but it’s gone.