Why Do We Love Old Books?
My grandmother is trying to get rid of the 'clutter' in her house. Most of it is craft-related, cute Nana-risms that she's collected over the years. There are lots of photos, lots of dolls with beautiful hand-made dolls' clothes, and lots of books.
My most treasured books are ones she gave me. There's The Old Curiosity Shop, A Tale of Two Cities and Gulliver's Travels. There's also two Shakespeare plays, printed by The Plain-Text Shakespeare company: As You Like It and Coriolanus. They belonged to my Nana's father – my great-grandfather – and they're very precious to me. There's even a cheeky inscription from him on a title page that I can't quite make out. Something about 'bananas'. I'm sure we would have got on.
A green plant sits next to a stack of old books that Maddy inherited from her grandmother. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.
These editions used to sit on my bookshelf above my Harry Potter collection, and if you know me at all, you'd know that's a big deal. Now, they sit on my desk where I can see them as I write.
So why do I love them so much? Why do we feel attached to old books?
In one of the first classes of my Masters degree, we were discussion the future of publishing and the changes that digital literature has brought about. We were asked to identify what we love about print. Is it the tactile act of turning the pages? The weight of the book in your hands?
Most people had a simple answer: smell.
CG Drews writes on Hooked to Books that there are scientific explanations for why we want to smash our faces into the spines of books. The compounds making up the paper begin to break down over time, producing chemical reactions which can smell slightly sweet.
The Smithsonian Magazine quotes a study on the smell of old books, announcing that they smell like '[a] combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness'.
I always think that bookshops and libraries must spray some kind of perfume in the space each morning. I always wanted a bottle of it.
In this TedTalk, Brian Dettmer explains how to rejuvenate antique books. Video: YouTube, 2015.
Books have always brought me a tactile comfort: the feeling of touching the rough pages, judging the weight of the spine and the sound of turning the paper over to read the next section of text. The motions of reading and the feeling of the books themselves often give readers joy.
Matt McCann, in an article for Lens, describes the nostalgia and extra stories that are involved in examining old books. These items take on a historical significance, as each one shows 'worn edges and torn covers', giving the reader an idea of the 'ephemera of the library experience: the check-out cards and the paper pockets they went into'.
We often find grains of sand, a squished insect, a scribbled notation or a mustard stain butterflied between the pages. Each imperfection makes the book unique, providing proof that someone else has loved it before you picked it up.
This photo is artfully staged by Kerry Mansfield to feature many old editions of some classic books in a collection called 'Expired'. Image: Kerry Mansfield, 2013.
Matt McCann also describes Kerry Mansfield's work: a photographer who hoards a love for old books and their histories, she created an art project called 'Expired' – a collection of photographs depicting trace memories found on the pages of these objects. McCann shows how her work allows the books to become 'more like artifacts than bundles of knowledge or diversion'.
My family's copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was probably the most-read book on our shelf. Everyone in that family has read it, shared it, slobbered over it, eaten over it and shoved it unceremoniously into a school bag.
On the opening pages, masking Dumbledore placing baby Harry on the front doorstep of the Dursleys', is a collection of colourful scribbles. I'm not sure which of my sisters is responsible for this artistry (it could have been baby me), but I do know that I smile every time I see them.
Books are more than just receptacles for words. Their pages are filled with much more than fantasy stories of dragons, magic and daring. They're also filled with spaghetti bolognese, flicks of toothpaste, hair follicles, scribbles and tear stains.
They're filled with memories that are irreplaceable and precious.
Thanks again for reading with me.