Why I Like Old Books
Walking into a bookstore – nay, a mere store with books – is like a drug for me. When I go thrifting and enter one of those glorious shops with a wall full of books at the back, I am like a bullet heading for its target. There’s no stopping me.
Some people would probably say that my obsession has gotten out of hand. In recent years, my collection has grown by the hundreds, and I now probably have more books than I could ever read (this is also partly due to the fact that I keep buying more and am a loyal member of the public library). If you want to blame someone, blame my parents. It all started when I was six or seven, probably, and my mom took us kids to Barnes & Noble and said we each could pick out one book. It seemed like a daunting task with all those shelves and titles, but in the end it was probably one of the most exhilarating experiences I’d had up to that point. Now, every time I go into a shop with books and tell myself to choose one (ha!) I get that same rush of exhilaration, and it continues, even, when I get home and stack my new treasure(s) in their new home.
Of course I love Barnes & Noble and other big time booksellers (though they are dying out :'( RIP Borders), but if we’re honest, I root harder for the little guys. Those independent booksellers and shops filled with secondhand books hold a little more magic on their shelves. There is just something about old books I cannot resist. With new books, though I long for them, the cost alone often gives me pause. Used books, antiquarian books in particular, are generally forgotten, scorned, disrespected by the moths who have been eating their pages for the last half-century, but I love them. And here is why.
1. That old book smell. There is nothing – nothing! – as pleasant as walking into a store that smells like old books. Immediate peace. New books have a smell, too, but it’s a factory smell – clearly manufactured. All old books smell the same but different; their long lives have carried them across state lines and maybe even country lines, and they smell like adventure, like the past, like memories. There are even candles and perfumes devoted to this smell – it’s clearly a winner!
2. Old books (like, really old books) have an obvious craftsmanship to them that isn’t always present in new books. The fact that I have books on my shelves that are over a century and a half old is frankly remarkable. Paper, cardboard, and cloth sewn together so meticulously and with such love that it has endured multiple wars and economic depression, not to mention the changing of hands over the years. Would our new books last so long?
3. Inspiring covers/bookplates/illustrations. Rarely can you find books anymore that have beautiful cover designs, bookplate inserts, and illustrations. I mean, to a certain extent the “beautiful book” is coming back as a trend (B&N Collectible Editions, Penguin Drop Caps, Penguin Clothbound Classics) but in general, affordable books are cheaply produced and very basic looking. Almost every antiquarian title I own has some degree of unique design, and they inspire me so!
4. Shelves full of beautiful old books add character and sophistication to a room. There is just something about a room that displays old books centerfold. It is one of the easiest ways to decorate a house, and as Cicero so bluntly put it, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
5. Old books are stories within a story. I love flipping through an old book to find hand-written dedications on the title page or little notes made in the margins. It reminds me that these books have been places; people, like me perhaps, owned them before I did – maybe an artist or a surgeon or a florist – and they read them and felt things about them and talked about them to their friends. Sometimes I imagine up the histories of the people who owned my books before me, and it’s a little easier when their thoughts are marked on the page. Some people hate when books have been written in, but I find it merely adds charm and a little magic to the pages. No harm, no foul.
[Post first published on Consider the Peel, March 11, 2015]