Selected books from a small collection of abecedaria

Part of a small collection of abecedaria from the editor's home library.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

The gratitude essay I wrote recentlyhas given back in multiples — which is how gratitude is supposed to work. I’ve received several lovely notes in response, including one from a non-writer who said “Hey, a list of words. I can do that!” I shouldn’t say this person is a “non-writer,” because she certainly can write. She just has other priorities so doesn’t make writing a regular practice. (Sound familiar?) That’s why the idea of a tightly framed prompt appealed to her; no long essays — just contemplation of meaningful words, which is something she can do while hiking or paddling or watching the sun set. She’s a bad-ass outdoorswoman, so I envision a list that involves mountains and trails and kayaks and camp cuisine and waters both chill and inviting. I also envision a list that reminds me that I spend way too much time at the keyboard and way too little in nature. Perhaps my 2024 non-resolution is in the making…

My favorite note about the gratitude alphabet was from a cherished aunt. She’s a writer and teacher and poet and reader and, in everything she does, an artist. Her husband died a year ago and she is navigating the mazes of grief. I have learned a lot by witnessing her journey, which has been open-hearted and unafraid. But it wasn’t until very recently that she regained her ability to focus on immersive reading or find inspiration for art.

So it was a thrill to read that Ashley Lodato’s “gratitude alphabet” sparked an idea: An alphabet book of things my aunt is grateful for, graced by her drawings. She called it an “abecedarium.”

The word was new to me, but felt familiar. I went to the bookshelves in my back room and, sure enough, found my own small collection of abecedaria. Some had been marketed as children’s book; all weave an enchantment of text and image.

Merriam-Webster defines abecedarium as “an alphabet primer.” Other definitions elaborate on the marriage of letters and images such as those used in early religious texts. Some refer to the tension that existed in pre-literate times between the known physical world and the more abstract written world.

I’ll let linguists sort all that out. I’m just grateful to have a new word in my lexicon, a reason to spend time with some gorgeous books and the knowledge that my aunt is again making art.

I did, of course, share the note with Ashley Lodato, author of the essay that inspired all this. (Note to editors: Writers deserve to know they are read and appreciated.) Her reply was apt for our times:

I love the “abecedarium” idea! I was initially throwing around “alphacopia,” like alphabet + cornucopia, then I Googled it and all the top hits were for a Midwestern investment company called Alphacopia, so I abandoned the idea. I hope your aunt takes up her art again. We need more artists in the world!

I’m with her. More art by the human hand and heart. Fewer stories spit out by the bots!

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