Friday, September 14, 2007

On the fascination of old books

While I'm in between scanning sessions, here's a post I wrote on my other blog, Atlanta Rofters, a couple of years ago:


Canadian tory pundit David Warren:

A civilization requires the lively circulation of old books. It is all very well to put their contents on the Internet -- you need the physical object to curl up with, and as a proof that the past really happened. You need the element of chance and discovery, in rooting through the remains of previous generations. Only a library or a used book store or sale can provide this, in the round -- for each contains, in addition to what is currently thought worth reading, a selection of what was once thought so. A computer screen is too small a window, and must be searched along a linear path, which no matter how it zigs and zags, remains a single line of inquiry.

Moreover, to my mind, a book is to a PDF file as sex to pornography. The book is something to hold, not just something to look at. I cannot see an excerpt from an attractive book on some backlit computer projection, without longing for the real thing.

Quite. In real life I get to rummage through a lot of old books, oftentimes entire estate consignments. They are the proverbial source of endless fascination for me, on many levels. One is of course the books themselves, and the interest they hold. The other is what a book collection tells about its former owner.

A retired minister's collection can be quite sizeable. It can contain books written by once-prominent pop-theologians, Biblical handbooks and reference materials, issues of a parish quarterly or some such, old Guidepost magazines, some lovingly-inscribed gift books from Christmases past. It's interesting getting a feel for his education and personality from the titles in the lot.

Or someone else might have belonged to a science fiction book of the month club years ago. Hardback editions of SF authors that only appear in paperback nowadays, if at all. (You know, if you say "new wave" to some people, they think not of music in the 80s, but science fiction in the 60s.) Old Universe compilations by Terry Carr. Any number of authors that I read when I was an spacey adolescent, but haven't thought about since then. And the literary memories flood back.

Of course a lot of book collections are quite prosaic. Computer professionals get rid of manuals that are scarcely five years old, depending on the software (or if they've moved on.) Nobody needs a 1970 set of World Book encyclopedias, or a 1960 hydraulics textbook. But a lot of vintage home economics handbooks can be quite entertaining reading.

And then there are the heirlooms, books given away by people unaware of their value. There are online tools for determining a book's monetary value, although I never take these books for myself. Borrow 'em for a day or two, maybe. When I find a century or more old book, with a personal name handsomely inscribed, sometimes I use other tools, out of idle curiosity, to find out more about that person. Only a bibliophile could understand the feeling I mean to describe, holding a book that was a Christmas or birthday present in the nineteen-oughts, and seeing the former owner's birth and death dates in a genealogy file.

I once had the opportunity to surprise a man with a box of books, whose existence he knew nothing of, that had once belonged to his late father, and some earlier ancestors. I bent some rules to do so, and drew a verbal reprimand, but darn it, I'm proud of myself for doing that. He had recently lost his other parent, so this reconnection with his past, and the chance to pass it on to his own children, was doubly poignant. Not bad for a load of old books.

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