As a writer, of course I love books. And physical books – especially when it comes to fiction, I find it nearly impossible to read fiction on a device. News stories and the like are just fine on a phone or computer screen, but fiction, that can only be truly poured over on paper, like it has been done for centuries.
Moreover than loving physical books, I love old books, especially old, used books. Old used books can tell so many stories besides the ones that are printed on its pages. They can tell the stories of the previous owners, which only serve to enhance the reading process all the more. And then there’s the smell of old books. That specific scent is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced and it always brings me home.
All this came to mind yesterday when I went to Scarce, in Addison, Illinois. Rather than just being another thrift store, they are a nonprofit that focuses on keeping items of all sorts, especially books and other media, out of landfills. Because of that mission, they sell things at a very cheap price. In the past I’ve gotten a number of old volumes of Hemingway, Faulkner, and others, and yesterday I picked up W. Somerset Maugham’s Introduction to Modern English and American Literature for a dollar.
Published for The New Home Library in October 1943, it’s in pretty great shape and contains pieces by many of my favorite writers. I flipped to the introduction and was immediately pulled in when I read these words:
One of the minor, but delectable and innocent, pleasures of life is to wander about a well-stocked bookshop, looking at titles, taking up a volume here and there, and turning over the pages; and the pleasure is enhanced if there is in the store an assistant sufficiently well-informed to tell you something of a book that has excited your curiosity or to suggest one that you did not know of on a subject that happens to be of interest to you. But this is a pleasure of which the vast majority of the inhabitants of the United States are deprived, for, relatively to the population, bookshops, real ones, I mean, are few and far between.
In this in 1943! As we all know real bookstores have been going the way of the buffalo as more and more people shop online. But there is no substitute for handling real books in a bookstore. That was enough to sell me on purchasing this book, but then I stumbled on the inscription.
Addressed to a John J. Bradbury, a member of the 263rd infantry division stationed at Camp Rucker, Alabama, it was sent to him by a woman named Catherine who wrote, “May this book with its good stories start you on a collection of the best for your own personal library.” It is dated May 10, 1944. The world is on fire with war and no one knows how it will end. A young man is at army camp, presumably preparing to join in the fighting. A woman sends him a book containing some of the best stories and poems in English and American literature.
Wow. How I wish I could know more of their story. Was she his sister? A lover? A friend? She makes a couple of notes throughout the table of contents, perhaps most interestingly she draws an arrow to William Butler Yeats’s poem The Wild Swans at Coole, noting it is “a beautiful love poem.” Is this a veiled reference for their own love or potential love? Was it an unrequited love, with her pursuing him? Was it so he wouldn’t forget her once he shipped overseas? Were they married for years ahead of this?
For me, things like this are pure magic, ways to truly touch the past. Feeling this book, smelling it, reading these notes, John and Catherine are alive to me, and that is an amazing form of time travel. Flipping through the pages I don’t see any notes made on the stories or poems themselves, but maybe once I start reading I’ll find a few. You never know what stories you’ll find in an old book, and no digital reading device will ever be able to reproduce that.
What’s the best thing you’ve found in an old book?
I’m equally intrigued, with such romantic hopes as I don’t have the words to express. The handwriting looks rather lovelorn, too, if I may suggest so.
I thought so too, but then again nearly everyone back then had such great handwriting. Think I may try to do some deep Google searching to see if I can find them 🙂