Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Printed Word

Last week my husband left my bible behind at church and I was without it for a whole week.  I grabbed it up on Sunday and it’s back in the house this week.  It’s rather like having found a lost friend.  But it made me think about the bibles we have in the house – in fact about all of the books that we have.  Our access to the printed word (both traditionally printed on paper and digital works as well) is really overwhelming if you think about it.  And you know that I can never help but make the historical comparison.


I have a great old heirloom in my home – it is an antique steamer trunk that belonged to my Great Grandpa Key.  His youngest daughter was born in 1931 and she remembered that Grandpa always kept his clothes in that little trunk (reality check number one:  would your entire wardrobe fit in there?).  Also stored in the trunk was the family’s only bible.  She explained that many of the kids had a little testament but Grandma, Grandpa and their eleven children shared the single bible.   She revealed that memory with me as she told how her mother would read where her name, Lois, was mentioned in the bible.  She would go to the trunk, get out the family bible and read to her from Second Timothy 1:5.  The young Lois was sure that her name was mentioned in other places in the bible and she determined when she could read that she would find them.  Her sweet smile as she told me that story is one of those mental snapshots that I can see clearly in my mind’s eye.

I have books stored in that steamer trunk now… it’s chocked full of books!  Books are so cheap for us and so readily available that they seem to multiply on us.  In fact, I have a box in my truck that I keep meaning to take to the used book store to exchange – see, then I’ll have just as many books but different ones! 

Now, the Keys were literate people – which wasn’t terribly common in their generation.  My father remembers his grandpa reading every newspaper he could get his hands on, and he read from front to back.  He studied the trends of the stock market and really seemed to understand it.  Yet, we would have to call him rather ignorant simply because he had no access to the vast collection of written knowledge. 

Lots of people have worked hard to make books available to children; of course, rural locations still struggle with that.  On the mountain, you still have to drive into town to get to a library, and that doesn’t seem very practical if your kids are in school close to home and you are maybe working on the farm.  Some counties have their libraries only open to city residents.  However, I recently discovered that the Tennessee library systems are working to make a digital collection available for free download and that’s pretty exciting as we see the internet in nearly every home these days, even in remote locations.  A love of books is a wonderful gift to give a child.  I’m not sure where I got this love but clearly I did. 

I am not what you would call wealthy – in fact, I’m far, far, far, from it.  Yet, when I make these historical comparisons and realize that books were possessions of very wealthy people in years gone by, I realize how much I really do have.  The ability to read was prestigious and it was often flaunted whenever possible.  In the Victorian era, a parlor would have a table in the center of the room with books upon it as a symbol to any visitors that educated people lived here. 

In mountain families where every hand was needed to scratch from the earth enough food to survive the cold months of winter, the luxury of reading or even learning to read was not to be had.  I’ve been amazed as I’ve worked on genealogical research to find ancestors who accumulated significant land and ran successful businesses yet when I find a land deed I find it signed, “by my mark”.  Of course many of our ancestors could scribble a signature and read a just little bit.  I find that many parents longed for “learning” and because they couldn’t have it themselves, it was a high priority for their children. 

These good ole’ days we recall and study had a lot going for them.  But sometimes I do get a bit of a reality check when I see something like books where we enjoy such great access.  With our social woes and overpopulation, amid growing persecution of Christian people around the world and governments that seem to encroach more of our personal liberties every day, we do enjoy many benefits in this modern world.