On the Worth of Old Books

Each age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C. S. Lewis

The greatest tragedy in the life of a book, in my humble opinion, is that of being purchased by a decorator—at a fabulous sum, no doubt—to stack artfully on a table, or to fill a barrister case that will never be opened. How is a book’s value determined but in the worth of its content? It is a sad commentary on the literacy of our day to see lovely old volumes piled up in displays in shopping malls and to know that no one will ever entertain the slightest notion of reading them. To be sure, there are reverent collectors who will pay a great deal of money for a first edition of Little Women, but will it profit them any more than the young girl who received a vision of womanliness and goodness upon reading it for the first time? Indeed, the bounty carried in her heart will so far outweigh the collector’s investment that they are not worthy to be compared.

I have handled a good many books in my time. Working for years in an old and rare bookstore, I was often entrusted with the restoration of a battered volume. I always saw it as such a privilege. The dingy cover was wiped clean with a thin coat of lighter fluid, and the illustrated plate at the front was secured with a careful bead of glue. Perhaps the spine needed a little reinforcing, or an old library card holder needed to be removed. At any rate, it was a joy to me to give these old books back their dignity.

Some had fallen into dereliction by abuse or neglect, cast out and orphaned, their only hoped pinned on the chance of someone looking past their ragged cover and crumbling pages in search of a timeless message, and that was always painful to see. But others had been loved into shabbiness, read into their worn condition by someone who had treasured the worth of their tale. Those books never seemed like orphans to me; they had a mission yet to fulfill, a charge from the one who had written them—and perhaps the one who had loved them—to work their way into another generation in another world and to tell of things that are true and honorable to those who yet have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

There is a staunch, enduring quality to them, these messengers of a gentler, simpler era, and whether one regards their message or not, one must respect their tenacity of life. I have a weakness for all things old, but especially old books because of their great potential. They are a tangible link to the heart of another time, a time when godliness was venerated and womanliness and manliness gloried in. They are the sign posts directing us to the ways our hearts are longing for in this tumultuous time. What riches might lay within to charm, to inspire, to challenge! They have been the very fuel of my dreams from the time that I first picked up Anne of Green Gables, and was thus ushered into the presence of realities that have since run through my life like a lovely, irresistible song: beauty and purity and the divine glory of everyday life.

Indeed, such verities are all the more precious in our modern-day world for their scarcity, but they are still there, and to find them we must often only follow the pointing finger of a bygone author who had the gift and the foresight to entrust them to their pen. After all, what did Louisa May Alcott do but portray the beauty of virtue? Gene Stratton-Porter proclaimed the power of moral courage, and Lucy Maud Montgomery glorified the commonplace. There is no comparison between such classics and the drivel that is passed off as literature on the girls of today. There are those who would rather have a bright new paperback, no smudged fingerprints or underlined passages to mar the pages, no one else’s name in sweeping script inside the front cover. But to me, it is the marks and pencilings, the very name itself that give a book a life of its own. The faded gilt, the sleek, heavy pages, the sweet, slightly dusty smell—all of these things are wine to the soul for the lover of old books. Yes, give me the old ones, the classics, the timeless and the noble—but give me old copies of them.

One Response to “On the Worth of Old Books”

  1. Cheryl says:

    you speak what my heart thinks about old books………..l love your descriptions.
    Cheryl