Saturday, March 19, 2005

Drowning in Books

I'm reading a book called "Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books" by Paul Collins. It's a non-fiction account of the time Collins, his wife and young son spent living in the town Hay-on-Wye in Wales. I'm not sure why Collins moved from San Francisco to Hay, which is apparently very near the English-Welsh border, other than he'd visited before and loved it. His accounts of the locals, their habits and house-hunting, among other things, are charmingly descriptive, and often both intellectual and hilarious, with digressions to a semi-related, often laughter-inducing passage from some long-lost tome that no one has ever heard of.

Hay sounds like the town for me. There are 40 bookstores in this town of 1,500 people, some of whom are quaintly odd. 40!!! And not only are there innumerable bookstores, but all, save one, carry used and antiquarian books. I would be in heaven. I am a bibliophile, to put it mildly. There are stacks upon boxes of books in my house, and the shelves are all over-flowing. And I still go to the library and check out other books. Add to these the books I have waiting to be read, patiently sitting and asking for my attention, those that I've begun to read but put down in favor of something more entertaining or intruiging (yet still intend to come back to eventually) and those that I've read seemingly hundreds of times already that I try to peruse every year or so.

And then, there are the books I collect. Old books, musty with age. Books that, when you open them and smell the pages, exude the scent of aged paper, ink and dust. My grandmother is allergic to this smell, saying that it is caused by microscopic dust mites, and refuses to have many older books in her house. But I love this smell (not to be confused with the new-book smell and the scent of bookstores that only carry new books, which is also another favorite smell of mine. Those books are mysterys in their own right, and hold all sorts of promise. But I digress...). Many of the old books in my collection are merely old, and aren't all that valuable. Some have damaged spines. Many people would look at them and see trash. But they have character, and, much like the written journal, a past. They are treasures in their own right.

I try to read all of the old books in my collection at least once. Some are melodramatic novels, like "The Tides of Barnagat," by F. Hopkinson Smith, circa 1906, where I wouldn't have been surprised if the book ended with the sentance, "And the moral of our story is...". Others, though, are funny, like the "Modern Priscilla Home Furnishing Book," published by the Priscilla Publishing Company, which apparently put out women's magazines. This how-to book gives the with-it homemakers of 1925 handy tips on furniture arranging, instructions for making lampshades, the care of linoleum, and asks the all important question: "Where Shall We Use Cretonnes?" If the book mentioned what a cretonne was, maybe I'd know where to use it! :-)

But I think the main thing about collecting old books that really attracts me is the sense of history they have. For instance, inscriptions in books always fascinate me. Sometimes I can't even read the flowing cursive handwriting, or only the first name is legible, and the date, "Christmas, 1906." Or if I can read it, who was Bertha Langmill, and where was she in March, 1919? Was this book her favorite? Why did one person give this specific book to another in 1891? What was their relationship? And how did a book make it's way from East Middlebury, Vermont to the Friends of the Library booksale in Lakeland, Fl?

More fascinating still are the items people leave in books to mark pages. I've found handwritten poems, holy cards, pressed flowers, bits of newspaper and, once, a set of train ticket stubs from a trip someone made between Chicago and St. Louis in the 1920's. It's amazing to me that people don't flip through the pages of their books before they donate or sell them. I always leave the markers in between the pages where I find them. Often, the page has discolored to show the placement of these artifacts, and it seems wrong to move them somehow.

There's a book store in St. Petersburg that I've only been to twice. It's called Haslem's, and I long to return. It takes up an entire city block, and is filled almost entirely with used books. The last time I was there, with my Mom and brothers, I spent a blissful four hours searching the shelves, sometimes stopping to pause and just sit, taking in the unique smell of the thousands of old books, reveling in them, knowing that they have been places that I may never go (sitting also served the practical purpose of resting my arm, nearly numb from carrying the ever-weightier basket of books around the store). After those four hours, everyone else was hungry, but I wasn't even half done looking through the store. I could have happily stayed there the rest of the day.

Thinking about it though, if that one store took so much time, I would certainly drown in a whole town of books. You could never get me to leave. Maybe it's best that I don't live in Hay. :-)

1 comment:

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