What do you do with old books? I don’t mean the fly-by-night paperbacks I haul in periodically from Waterstone’s, read once and then recycle via the bookbank up at the tip. (Or not, sometimes they get kept, reread and, rarely, find their way into the permanent library.) No, I’m talking about really old books.
About sixty of them have been furnishing my dining room for twenty years or more, in a bookcase next to the fireplace. They range from assorted Prayer books and semi-religious tracts (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, anyone?), through an almost-complete set of Dickens reissues (Unwin editions, 1930s I’d guess), to worthy tomes like The Origin of Species, Macaulay’s Essays on English History, and The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle. Plus a fair smattering of Victorian verse anthologies, several Works of Shakespeare, and a possibly earlyish edition of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. They’re all fairly tatty, almost certainly financially worthless and, most importantly, with one or two exceptions have never been read by anyone still alive.
I’m getting rid of them because I don’t think books ought to furnish a room. I’m going to go slightly metaphysical on you now. Books have no intrinsic value. Their only worth is in the thoughts they express. In turn, this value is circumscribed by the quality of both the thoughts themselves and their expression in a particular book. But above all, if I’m right here, that worth dissolves into nothingness unless the book gets read. I’m not going to read any of these sixty or so books, and I can’t find a way of enabling or persuading anyone else to do so. So in every sense, they’re worthless. So they’re landfill. Right?
And yet. And yet, perhaps they do contain, at least some of them, an ineluctable value beyond the paper, the cardboard and the words within them, read or not. I skim through the flyleafs (flyleaves?) and find inscriptions which seem to carry their own stories, ones that will never be told but just might still exist in a memory or an imagination. Certainly in an imagination, in fact: I find myself creating their lives and relationships even as I transcribe them.
Poetical Works by Moore: “Caroline Matthias on her 13th birthday from her affectionate cousin J M Laws. Jan 1861”
The May-Flower by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “R. A. Scammell. A birthday gift from A.G. Feb 10th 1882”
The Poetical Works of William Collins “Edward Geo. Browne Presented to him on the 26th May 1834 by his friend and tutor J. Blern(?) Anstis(?) with the sincerest wishes for his welfare. St Helier Jersey”
And in one of the Shakespeares: “E L Rea ‘02” That’s my grandfather.