The birch boards serving as bookshelves look fitting for the volumes they hold. Unpolished, they are rugged like the worn spines; tea-coloured to match pages of some of the older books; and strips of white bark, streaked with black, mimic torn pages. I notice a small brown book tucked away to the far side. A filigree pillar has been stamped underneath the title, but the embossed words are now so faded that I have to flip open the book to see what I’ve found. To my delight, it’s Tennyson’s Idylls of The King. But I meet more than King Arthur within this tiny tome. There are notes both on the front page as well as the back, and a name written along the bottom. Jimmy G. This is my great grandfather’s book from college.
I’m drawn to old books even before I know what’s inside them. Cloth-covered, gilded, and stamped, the covers are well dressed even when faded. The pages are speckled, and turning colour like autumn leaves. To some there is even a slight bronze sheen. The prose and vocabulary speak of a different world. An old book carries an air of mystery as well as beauty. I remember when I worked at my little local museum one of the best privileges was being able to handle the vintage books. I would turn fresh pages for the children’s books in the ‘home life’ room and for the illustrated bible from the ‘community’ room. It is both wonderful and saddening to think that these books were once looked through so often, but while on display I was the only one to turn their pages.
There is a closely related beauty in books that grow old before their time. I find this most common in Bibles. Pages grow rippled and velveteen along the rim by being read so many times over. Folded corners, underlines in pencil, and notes in the margin illuminate significant passages. I’m convinced that even when books lose some of their readability, they maintain- or increase- their value. My box set of The Chronicles of Narnia only has four surviving books. Prince Caspian is split in two at chapter eleven, The Last Battle has a loose cover, and The Silver Chair had been chewed by Puppy. It’s a set that has been through so much that it can’t properly be called a ‘set’ any longer- but instead of tossing it, I hold it closer.
An old book is a storyteller two times over. There is the story told in ink- but then there is also a story told in the covers where the reader’s thumb has worn a hole, where a college student made a note, where a child wrote their name. These things remain long after the reader has passed away, and as the book is handed down to collect further tales.