Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Old Books

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.


  1. Books are more to me than that, though - logically, I agree with you but emotionally I don't. I've got a vast problem with my books. The ones I've bought aren't a problem. I can choose whether to keep them or dispose of them. But my parents' and grandparents' books are a different matter. It's absurd really, it has no logic to it.

  2. Just catching up on your blog after a spectacularly busy May, reminded me that I made a list of "old books". I think many of these were my grandfather's books and some were my mother's but I don't know what to do with them. My list is below:

    Volumes I, II and III of The Letters of Queen Victoria published John Murray 1908 - good

    The Apochypha translated out of the Greek and Latin tongues – Oxford University Press 1895 - good

    Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning published by Smith, Elder & co 1896 – age worn

    Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning published by George Routledge and Sons – 1891 – aged

    Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning published by Smith, Elder & co 1896 – age worn

    Pocket Volume of Selections from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning published by Smith, Elder & Co 1894 – age worn

    The Poetical Works of John Keats published by Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press - circa 1923 – slightly worn cover

    Lord Macaulay’s Essays – Lays of Ancient Rome – Popular Edition – published by Longmans, Green & co – 1893 – reasonable condition for age

    Cookery Illustrated and Household Management edited by Elizabeth Craig published by Odham Press copyright 1936 – some damage and well used

    Philip Harben’s Cookery Encyclopaedia published by Odhams Press – first published 1955 – reasonable condition (cover sheet loose)

    Essays of To-day and Yesterday by C E Montague published by George G Harrap – first published 1926 – age spotted paper back

  3. Z, I've kept my grandpa's Shakespeare. The rest have gone down the tip. Sometimes one has to be ruthless with emotions.

    Sue, the Philip Harben struck a bell. When I was about eight, I was made to dress up as him for some pathetic school fancy-dress event. I went along with it, and even enthused, but it was embarrassing even for an eight-year-old. The beard was completely wrong, a full-face job with hooks over my ears. I wouldn't allow that to happen today.
    But I bet the book has some intriguing recipes.