Monday, 1 August 2016

Old Books

At a wedding reception I attended last weekend, the bride had assembled a number of old books and arranged them on the windowsills and mantelpiece of the wedding venue, interspersed with branches, leaves and flowers. As I was getting ready to go she told me I could take any that I wanted, barring the Charles Dickens volumes and the Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass. I find it hard enough to resist the lure of free books but when those books are also old hardbacks? Well...

I was strong and able to limit myself to three. There were a couple of Lewis Carroll books and I hoped the one the bride wanted wasn't the lovely copy I liked the most but it was - good taste, that bride - and so I picked up one of the others.

The lure of old books for me is the fact that they carry hints of their own stories. The Black Arrow by R.L.Stevenson had a piece of string lingering in it as a forgotten bookmark, and an inscription in the front that read:

Miss Roberts
With love from the Stratford Girls
March 1929

Who was Miss Roberts? Who were the Stratford Girls? How delicious that I will never know and could spend hours in conjecture. This message was written nearly fifty years before I was born. I've kept the piece of string and may well use it as a bookmark when I get round to reading this book.

So many charity shops these days only seem to stock books in excellent condition that are only a few years old. Is this what the modern customer wants? I'm a pretty frequent charity shopper (so frequent that I now have a loyalty card for St Elizabeth Hospice - yes, charity shops have loyalty cards now!) and I like seeing books that are getting a bit on the tatty side. They have more character. They show more love. Yes, a shiny new paperback with no cracks in the spine and immaculate front and back covers looks nice but the fact that is it so pristine is not exactly a recommendation. A book that shows wear and tear - now that's a book that has been read a number of times, evidence that it may well be worth reading.

I love the fonts in old books too. Not so much the ones on tracing-thin paper with as many words on the page as can be managed with the meanest size. I'm talking about the ones with generous (or at any rate reasonable) line spacing and serif fonts with ornate framing here and there and an old-fashioned illustrated border at the start of each new chapter or new short story. Illustrations that look old-fashioned to modern eyes used to Quentin Blake and Chris Riddell. Flourishes that look a wee bit pompous now but are still charming in spite of that.

I like history as well as reading so perhaps it's no surprise that I like old books as much as I do. They represent history. I hate to think of books like these being thrown away or pulped. Book-shops specific charity shops tend to have a more careworn collection in amongst the new and the untouched. The secondhand bookshop is something which is disappearing from our high streets, feeling the pressure from charity sales and cut price books, and these were also repositories for the battered and beloved books that I can be so drawn to.

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