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The Best Book in the World

Michael Bierut wrote a magnificent piece on Design Observer yesterday about the artist Alton Tobey, and it moved me to tears. It caused this visceral response for maybe a million different reasons, but the lead gene in my reaction was the deep-seeded relationship I have with children’s books and the quest I have been on for decades to recreate the library of my youth.

When I was a kid there were lots of rules in my house. One of the most horrific for me at the time was the (very) limited amount of television I was allowed to watch. As a result, I read. And I read a lot. I read books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias and comic books; I even borrowed my mother’s Redbook and Ladies Home Journal, and snuck into my father’s library to read the steamy sections of The Godfather when I was sure that no one would catch me.


My fascination with books began as soon as I could read, and Golden Books were my favorite. As soon as I started grade school, I was introduced to the Weekly Reader and there was nothing, nothing I looked forward to more than that precious moment, every week, when Mrs. Mayer handed out those gorgeous publications. By third grade I was introduced to the Scholastic Book Club, and while my folks might have been stingy with the television privileges, they were quite generous with my book allowance. I ordered as many books as I could afford, and when the boxes came in with my name on them, I’d spend a moment or two gingerly fingering the corrugated brown carton. I’d sit for a minute quietly and imagine what was inside, what the books would be like, and of course: how they would look.

After Scholastic came the series books: Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene, Trixie Belden by Julie Campbell and my all time favorite: the stories of Ginnie and Geneva by Catherine Woolley.

I treasured those books so much that I read all of the other series’ that Miss Woolley created: the Cathy stories, the Libby “mystery” stories and the David stories. Then I progressed onto the All of a Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and then all of her riveting sequels. And no teenager’s library was complete without Judy Blume’s perennial favorite, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret and then the nearly x-rated Forever.

A big part of the universe I entered when I read these books was visual. I studied the illustrations and paintings of all of my pristine tomes as intently as I read the words, desperately trying to gain entrance in the two-dimensional galaxy of the author and illustrator in order to make that world my own.

There is a book I remember reading, I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7; it was about a little girl trying to go to sleep, and the perils and travails that ensued. I fell so deeply in love with this book that I tried to arrange the table by my bed in the exact same way that the lovely heroine of this story (or the illustrator!) crafted her night table—down to where she kept her glass of water. That I can’t remember the name of this book is something that truly saddens me.

The vast and complex characters also mesmerized me: what they looked like, how they dressed and behaved. Though I loved Trixie Belden, it was her best friend Honey that truly intrigued me—beautifully dressed Honey with her good manners and quick wit. And though I admired Ginnie, it was her free-spirited, uninhibited friend Geneva that captivated me. And it was quiet, demure Anna, rather than charasmatic Cathy, who became my compatriot.

The lovely illustrations of both the Ginnie series and the yellow-spined Nancy Drew series became secret pathways into a different reality. A place where, despite danger or mishaps or misdeeds, life was always good, the bad guys were always caught and everyone always lived happily ever after. These worlds were foreign to me and I became a silent and invisible participant in the stories. I joined the characters, lived their challenges and ultimately, I believe I became much richer from the experience.

I don’t know what happened to all of my childhood books. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and since many of the books were paperbacks, I guess they didn’t make it from house to house. As a result, for the last several decades I have been scouring used bookstores, libraries, garage sales and flea markets for all of the books I read as a child. I even went to an elementary school book fair one year. I am pretty particular about what I purchase: the Golden Books must have the opulent gold and brown metallic foil, the Nancy Drew books must have the hardcover yellow spine with paintings on the cover (by the way, these paintings were uncredited). The Ginnie books must have the line drawings of Liz Dauber (scroll down the listing to see several front covers) or Iris Beatty Johnson. And the Trixie books must have the cover paintings of Larry Frederick. (again, scroll down) I have been extraordinarily lucky retrieving many of these classics; nevertheless there were two works that eluded me that I was eager to retrieve. Even with the advent of ebay and alibris.com they were proving to be unfindable.

One was a book called Dot for Short, by Frieda Freidman. It was a charming, bittersweet story written in 1947 about an insecure ten year old who can’t wait to grow up. “She envies her two gorgeous sisters (Fluff and Peg) who are tall and slender and know how to talk to boys.” Her family is having financial difficulties, which she feels powerless to improve. Then she sees an ad in a ladies magazine featuring a contest to write a limerick about “why you use Masterpiece Muffin mix.” The prize was $10,000. She, of course, writes a limerick and…well, um…that’s all I am going to tell you! Needless to say the entire scenario of the book converged with my life, my interests, and even my fledgling fascination with…dare I say it?…branding.

All through the 1980’s I not only searched through flea markets and the like for this pesky novel, I also went into every mass market and private bookseller inquiring about the book. Lots of storekeepers were sympathetic and often suggested I order it—optimistically offering that one used book store might come across it if a mass search was initiated. I did that over and over, but to no avail. Then one fine day in 1988, as I was doing my usual perusal in the children’s section of a bookstore…there it was. Reprinted. Fresh and clean and new and…mine. I grabbed it, gave my money to the cashier with shaking hands and read the entire book out on the street, standing up. It was a magnificent, unforgettable experience. I still, to this day, believe that I am single-handedly responsible for Puffin reprinting this book.


The other was a Little Golden Book. I didn’t remember the title, but I could vaguely recall that it had dreamy illustrations on little scraps of paper on the cover, each with a whimsical drawing of an animal or a vegetable—somehow, I remembered a carrot. I thought the book was about art, as the main image I had in my head was a simply, yet profoundly rendered color wheel. I searched for this one as well, and finally, it found its way to me via the 26th Street flea market in New York City. But it wasn’t a book about art, ironically enough, it is called Words. I was lucky though, the version I found was the original edition, the one that I first read.


My library is now nearly complete. Every now and then I remember a new book that I read when I was eight or eleven or sixteen…the memory flutters into my head like a yellow butterfly…and then I am inspired to once again start a search anew. I love this recreation of sorts…knowing that I am simultaneously rebuilding and re-crafting my past and my present and my future. Knowing that, like Proust’s moment with his dear madeleine, these books “ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the depths of my being…But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.21.2005 BY debbie millman
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Thanks, Debbie.

I too was moved by Mr Bierut's article. It sent me searching online for Hardy Boys & Tom Swift cover art. And just now I had a quick look at some Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators covers which I had completely forgotten about owning. I had most of the first 30. They were given to me along with the first sixty-something Hardy Boys books (bright blue spine, painting on the cover) and a bunch of other good books. The only Tom Swift book I ever owned was Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere. (I always thought the space ships parked on the shore in the background were a bit cooler.)

Debbie, dare I mention that I was also a big Trixie Belden fan?

The thing I have wondered about for years is why can't novels for adults have great full-page illustrations at least once a chapter?

On Jan.21.2005 at 09:25 AM
graham’s comment is:

all these things are so important . . . where do they go? time speeds, and only moments intermittently stretch both into the past and the future even as they fade-i think the attraction of a writer like w.g. sebald (as an example of someone who made books whose-almost-sole subject could be memory) is that through the use of text and image he exhibits an empathy with the light-like quality of memory and how those flares and glimmers from the past impinge on every moment, waking or dreaming. the simple profundity of this (like many many books and things from childhood and growing) is the very natural expression of the notion that nothing exists in isolation-something children understand perfectly but that adults are so quick to (almost deliberately) forget.

jeff-for a novel for adults with illustrations, check 'jonathan strange and mr. norrel'. you could also check sebald-austerlitz is a good starting point.

On Jan.21.2005 at 09:45 AM
priya’s comment is:

Great post, Debbie. Your childhood and mine were very similar. I, too, have a collection of children's books, the favorites being the Roald Dahl books, complete with illustrations. (My absolute favorite book growing up was his Matilda.) First edition hardcover of those books were so hard to find but I'm so glad I looked. Some versions that I've seen don't have some of the little illustrations inline with the text. Some of those were quite memorable... I always remembered the one with Miss Trunchbull swinging the girl with the long blond braids around by her hair to discipline her. And the ones illustrating her horrible parents.

Libraries are a great place to look as well. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, every summer the Peabody Library would have a huge book sale. I bought at least 25 to 30 hardcover Nancy Drews there for 50 cents each (softcover were 25 cents.) as well as a second or third edition of Little Women and Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott.

On Jan.21.2005 at 10:01 AM
Rick’s comment is:

Books? Oh, I remember those. It's what they used to have before the internet, right?

Debbie, that was a fantastic post.

I, too, have a great amount of mindspace dedicated to the books I loved as a kid. I still think of Tom Fitzgerald as someone I was actually friends with. And my longstanding relationship with Tintin hasn't abated, thirty-odd years later.

One of the most pleasant aspects of childrens books, particularly old ones, is the smell. There is almost nothing in the world I love as much as the smell of a used book store, pulpy and full of promise. The few books that survived my childhood have this smell, and opening any of them takes me directly back to my bedroom in 1975.


On Jan.21.2005 at 11:09 AM
Gregory Nassif St. John ’s comment is:

It's not only a relief, but godsend to know that there are people just like me out there. Much of our society shows great contempt for people who revere and recall those happy experiences in childhood. Their contempt seems to be fueled even further by the fervent mission on behalf of many baby-boomers to reclaim those things in childhood that produced so much happiness; those things that struck chords deep within and burned themselves in our memory both visual and sensorial. I am fortunate enough to have so many of my beloved books and toys from my childhood. There have been, however, discovery/recovery moments of things that had been lost to me. The day I found Uncle Scrooge's Lemonade Stand was a golden day. And the joy and contentment of that reclaimation can only be likened to the warmest, coziest, safest bed on the coldest day of the year. Safe. One wonders why there is so much contempt for people like us when so many of those so contemptuous spend their entire lives scheming, plotting and working themselves half to death for vehicles that will breakdown and fabulous vacations whose glow will fade into oblivion with only photographs to prove their existence. My series books, my childhood books and all my wonderful childhood things - originally mine and those reclaimed - will keep me happy and warm forever.

Thank you Ms. Millman for sharing such a warm, happy story.

On Jan.21.2005 at 11:44 AM
Elizabeth Boyle’s comment is:

Thank you for a wonderful post, Debbie. It struck a familiar chord with me too. Now I want to spend my afternoon digging through used bookstores!

My special book was B is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood (who, coincidentally, illustrated some editions of _Dot for Short_). That was one of the few books I was able to hang onto, and I still pull it out to read it from time to time. I see I have some holes in my childhood reading education to fill....

Thanks for sharing!

On Jan.21.2005 at 12:36 PM
marian’s comment is:

It's amazing too, how we become attached to that particular edition of the books we read. My mother used to order books from the British publisher Bodley Head, and to me for instance, my Narnia series is the only one to have. If I were to lose them, I wouldn't bother replacing them unless I (like, you Debbie) could get that same edition.

So yes, graphically they become engrained in our memory; not just literarily.

A while ago I thought I'd lost my copies of Alice in Wonderland, and I went on a rampage, turning the house upside down to find them. Did I need them for any reason? No, I just needed to know they were still there. And I did find them ... um ... on a bookshelf. Relief. Order was restored.

On Jan.21.2005 at 01:00 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

Thanks Debbie. This is a wonderful recollection of memories.

Not only did it remind me of books stored in the back of my mind, it took me to the places I used to sit in… the tree on the terrace I would climb, the tree house and the rock I would lean on in the garden. I remember many of the books you mentioned, and on almost any trip to Mexico I re-read many of them. I love showing up with nothing to read (and nothing to carry) and peek at the bookshelves that my parents have kept with almost every book from my grandparents to their grandkids. It is great when you have a chance to re-discover an old favorite!

On Jan.21.2005 at 01:09 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

I should add how I love to walk into flee markets and used book stores and find that one particular copy that matches my memory!

On Jan.21.2005 at 01:42 PM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

Wow, Deb. Youre workin it today.

While I never got weepy, I appreciate and admire your fond reccollections. My personal fave was a Frog Book (forget Title) illustrated by the great (still working) Arnold Roth. I had a chance to hang with him a few years ago- what a character. Also: The Bernstein Bears was as excellent series. I should probably follow suit and start a collection!

On Jan.21.2005 at 04:15 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Debbie, you've hit on so many issues and influences that most designers share. What designer doesn't have a passion for books? You painted a wonderful portrait of the details and nuances that we relish.

You must have a large collection of books. Building a library is one thing, and admiring the objects inspires one. But as a designer, how do you feel you could contribute to the legacy of books?

On Jan.21.2005 at 10:00 PM
gregor’s comment is:

Having also read Beriut's article in the Design Observer, I think what can be said is his article was a eye opener, and going further Debbie's speaks volumes.

Often we get asked in this profession who our major influences are and typically our reply will be the names of industry giants, perhaps a fine artist ir even post-modern philosopher or literary critic. Both Debbie's article and Beriut's take this to another place entirely by calling homage to the illustrations and words of our childhood books, many of which we read and stared at (over and over) during the years that were certainly most most formative.

What is particularly pleasing in Debbie's entry is a chronicling her ongoing search to rebuild a library of long lost childhood books. To me, with out assuming this is Debbie's intention, this is an activity that consciously brings back past influencers to reintegrate that into our current reality as individuals and designers. While we may not necessarily use that past imagery in our current practices, it certainly informs our sensibility on some profound level.

Like Debbie, I've been on a quest to build a library of long lost books - not only childhood books, but also arcane political tracts from my college years on, say, Lettrisme or the Situationists. However childhood books provide the most pleasure both upon discovery and re-reading. WHile my reading was both typical and atypical - everything from the Hardy Boys to the copies of reader's digest laying around, the one I look for hardest is a 12 volume distance learning program in "Commercial Art," published in the 50s and given to me by one of my mother's boyfriend's in the 70s. Spiral bound, and sans-title I have no idea of how to search the web for this.

During my quest of combing thrift stores, antique shops, etc, I have also been fortunate to find amazing books I would otherwise never know.

I hope I'm not imposing by includiing some images here:

Nouvelle Bibliotheque Rose series (I've found roughly 20 volumes of this series form this period here in Seattle!)

Soviet School books:

A thin, oversized volume of Mayakovsky's poetry for children, printed on just slighlty better than newsprint:

Inside Illustrations from that book:

There's many more gems I've found including lovely pocket travel books from the 40s. 50s and 60s, childrens' books throughout the 20th century, amazing magazines with layouts seemingky unthough of for the period they were produced and more.

Odd, when looking at my office books, half the collection is industry journals - Print, Comm Arts, various AIGA publications

monographs on designers as well as design theory. The other half is the collection of books found in my combing of 2nd hand stores - and they are the ones I pull off the shelf more, done by the little or unknown Cadre of design.....

On Jan.23.2005 at 10:12 PM
lynda decker’s comment is:


I have vivid memories of the books you mentioned, especially Nancy Drew. But my reading memories are probably far different from my peers. At the age of 6 my beloved grandmother was hit by a car and then in a body cast for almost 2 years. (It was 1964—medical science was not what it is today.) I thought it would cure her to read to her and of course show her the pictures—it was the pictures that were important to the story—at least in my 6-7 year old mind. Ibelieve that books have long served as under recognized emotional generation bridges. The adult who reads to a child often finds the same child wants to read to the adult to provide comfort.

What started as Green Eggs and Ham went to those supermarket Golden Books and then to the adventures of Nancy Drew with her red convertible and boyfriend Ned Nickerson over that time period. It was important to me to read every day to my grandmother, because I had to do something—I’m sure she appreciated my effort, but it probably bored her senseless. In the end, whether or not my reading or my carefully drawn imitations of the illustrations which hung over her hospital bed had an effect, I learned to tell a story, and draw, and my grandmother, against all odds, relearned how to walk.

On Jan.24.2005 at 12:32 AM
Alley R’s comment is:

I'm not sure why, but many years ago I became haunted by the memory of a book I read when I was young, about eleven or twelve. The author had written an inspirational biography of his well-loved ginger cat who lived to be 14 years old, even though the cat had deformed front paws and could not walk. I no longer had the book, but I remembered the title and so began a search and found that it had been out of print for ages. I left notices with several used booksellers in case it should turn up, and two years later I got a call! Once the book was in my hands, I actually cried. I felt as though I had a piece of my childhood returned to me. Thanks, Debbie, for reminding me of that feeling... now I think I need to go read my book, again.

On Jan.24.2005 at 01:55 AM
Heidi Beatrice’s comment is:

I was also one of those who discovered that my parents had given away most of my old books when we moved, but was relived that they had kept my favourite ones. Covers can be seen here.

On Jan.24.2005 at 05:12 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Wow, Deb. Youre workin it today.

Felix: what can I tell you? You know I am a sentimental fool.

Gregor: Amazing illustrations. Thanks so much for posting them here.

I learned to tell a story, and draw, and my grandmother, against all odds, relearned how to walk.

Lynda, girl, that is one inspiring story. Two words: thank you.

But as a designer, how do you feel you could contribute to the legacy of books?

Jason: excellent question. My answer: I am not really sure. Respect them, honor them, collect and revere them?

On Jan.24.2005 at 02:23 PM
szkat’s comment is:

shel silverstein a light in the attic, one of my strongest early-book memories

maurice sendak: the night kitchen and really rosie

rudyard kipling: i'm very loyal to my version of Just So Stories.

but my all-time favorite - a book that i've only known to be called "the blue book" - is a cloth bound collection of hans christian anderson fairy tales. if i remember to bring it to work, i'll scan a few pages from thumbelina and the constant tin soldier. the illustrations are just breathtaking.

On Jan.24.2005 at 05:47 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Hrm... there are a few books (one I can't remember but can recite is about a bunny that went hopping down the road and down the road he went until he met a whatever... it's at my grandparents house now)...

And my copy of The Night Before Christmas...

along with my beatrix potter books.

mmmm. books....

On Jan.25.2005 at 01:58 AM
Tan’s comment is:

To date, I have more children's books in my house than any other type of books. And I'm not counting the half-eaten, drawn-on, torn books that our kids read and love. I'm talking about the collectibles from me and my wife's childhood, as well as more contemporary gems like Calvin and Hobbes, Toot and Puddle, Stinky Cheese Man and the Mr.Lunch series.

Our old collection includes everything from Richard Scary, to Golden Books, Sendak, Dr.Suess, TinTin, Asterisk, Lucky Luke, Holly Hobby, and lots of others found in antique shops and garage sales through the years. It's a treasure that we'd love to pass on to our kids for their kids.

On Jan.25.2005 at 02:10 PM
szkat’s comment is:

i second you on The Stinky Cheese Man.

On Jan.25.2005 at 03:10 PM
Susan ’s comment is:

I was on a similar quest for a book my mother used to read to me when I was quite a wee one, and that my older brothers were also able to read to me. "I can't said the Ant" by Polly Cameron is a story in rhyme about an ant that tries to put a teapot back together and back onto the counter - and every object, big and small, in the kitchen chimes in to help or hinder! A lovely lovely book. I could describe in great detail exactly how the artichoke was drawn, exactly how the ant look on each page, and oh the joy on reading the end of the story! As others here have described, it was a search of years and years in used book stores with no luck. When abe and ebay started up, we were so happy - we were able to get copies for my mother and all of us kids. Now my siblings are reading that book to their children - passing on the tradition!

Polly put the kettle on, we'll all have tea!

(goodness - just checked ABE and there are 58 copies of this! Strange to see that, when the whole family was searching for so many years without a single nibble at all)

I'm still looking for the exact edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verse" that I had ... I want the specific hardback edition with the specific illustrations I remember. The bugs in their leaf boats - that's the picture I remember most of all.

On Jan.25.2005 at 07:29 PM
Tan’s comment is:

A bit unrelated, but I just wanted to say that I really love the new commercials for eBay. My favorite is the boy who loses his beloved tugboat on the beach, only to find it on eBay years later as an adult.

eBay's amazing for these things. Years ago, for some reason, I tried to track down a Japanese TV series called Johnny and the Giant Robot. It was sort of in the same vein as Ultraman, and was my favorite show as a kid. I even remembered the corny music theme. Well of course, I found it on eBay, which also led me to a number of websites filled with older farts like me looking to find the same TV series.

I now watch it w/ my son, and he's getting into it. Though my wife still doesn't understand what the big deal is all about.

It's the same with children's books. It's not just their content that makes them endearing.

On Jan.26.2005 at 03:43 PM
graham’s comment is:

marine boy.

the aurora model kit of the spaceship from 'land of the giants' (called 'spindrift').

fantastic voyage movie poster (big red one with a big dark eye and type).

On Jan.26.2005 at 06:39 PM
Alley R’s comment is:

I loved Johnny and the Giant Robot!

Another childhood book I can't believe I forgot to mention is the German classic Der Struwwelpeter, with its sledgehammer morals and nightmare-inducing illustrations. Truly disturbing.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:49 AM
Sandra Green’s comment is:

An aunt bought me Der Struwwelpeter as a child and it gave me nightmares. Luckily my mother had the wisdom to get rid of it, in the bin.

On Mar.29.2005 at 10:54 PM
The California Tea Queen’s comment is:

Well, on a whim tonight, thought I would put "Dot for Short" in a search engine and see what I could come up with! :) What a wonderful surprise to find your story! Like you, I read "Dot for Short" as a child, and searched many years for the book as an adult. Unlike you, however, I do still have my scholastic books (sigh), BUT I never did own "Dot for Short", unlike the authors other scholastic books such as "A Sundae For Judy" and "The Janitors Girl". I always would check "Dot" out of the library and read that familar red worn edition.

In 1999 I made a wonderful new friend, whose favorite book was "A Room for Cathy". We bonded immediately as "kindred spirits". I shared my "Dot for Short" story with her. The next year for my birthday, she bought TWO copies of the book she found online. One for her and one for me. And would you believe, one of them was my "worn red library edition"?????!!! I cried. Every year we read the book together at Thanksgiving (you need to know the story to understand that. :) I must say when I read it again in 1999 the book held up wonderfully. AND I had no idea it has been re-printed!!! What a joy for new readers to be introduced to this most charming of stories. :)

On May.16.2005 at 11:53 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Dear Teen Queen--

Well guess what?!?--I also have a wonderful copy of "A Room For Cathy." Kindred spirits indeed. I also have most of the library of Catherine Woolley books. My personal favorites are Ginny & Geneva's Babysitting Business, Ginnie and the New Girl and Ginnie Joins In. The books and the illustrations are absolutely brilliant.

Very nice to meet you!

: )

On May.17.2005 at 02:21 PM
The California Tea Queen’s comment is:

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for your response. I love Catherine Woolley too! I had the scholastic "Ginnie and the New Girl" and "A Room for Cathy" which I read over and over again, well into adulthood. :) A few years ago I decided to look for her books in our local library. (I'm so used to having to dig through used bookstores, it NEVER occured to me they might be sitting under my nose!) Well, guess what....library had LOTS of titles...so I've been reading for the first time several of her books. What fun! The library doesn't have however "Ginnie and Geneva" or "Ginnie Joins In", so I have yet to read those. Of the "new" titles I've read, I liked Ginnie and the Wedding Bells. But my personal favorite is still "Ginnie and the New Girl". I probably read that book everytime I'm bedridden with the flu or a cold. My "comfort" book. :):)

On May.17.2005 at 09:25 PM
Rebecca’s comment is:


I enjoyed your post. I have just rediscovered the Ginnie and Geneva books after years of misspelling/misremembering the name.

For the books that you can't remember: you might try http://www.logan.com/loganberry/stump-form.html The book-stumper at Loganberry booksellers.


On Jan.30.2006 at 10:13 PM