I am a sucker for old books. No, not the dog-eared silver fish nibbled paperback that you had to read for High School English but old books – books that have an odour acquired over the years, solid covers – often leather-bound and a history that can be traced well over 100 years. My oldest treasure is a Jonathan Edwards book printed in 1778 or MDCCLXXVIII as it is written on the Title Page.
Some people rescue stray animals, my weakness is stray books. Recently I acquired a 9-10th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica plus Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and Scotland Illustrated. All up, it means I have to find over 3 metres of heavy duty book shelf space on my over-full book shelves or a family member with the same sensitvity and compassion. The added problem is that I already have a 9th edition of the Britannica.
You may consider me greedy or just plain loopy but the problem is that these books have a lineage and pedigree that needs to be preserved.
The 9th edition of the EB comes from a time when scholarship was taken seriously. It wasn’t the democratic hodge-podge of Wikipedia but a collection of the most renowned thinking of the era. Mind you, as with all learning it has to be read with discretion. Julius Welhausen may have been a great classical scholar but I still don’t have to agree with his article on Israel. It reflects a time when science and engineering inspired enthusiasm and excitement. The car, planes and the space race were still to come but the possibility was in the wind.
When a book was printed it was an event – it made a statement. In the C16th a person could be put to death for having a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament in their possession. Now we can buy books by the kilo and recycle them as soon as we are done with them. Some of us have transitioned away from books altogether and swan about imperiously with our loaded Kindles.
I was once asked what heaven would be like. I answered, “The biggest and most comprehensive library ever!” The closest I got to heaven on earth was my visit to the British Library in London a few years ago. Its collection of old treasures is amazing. A few years ago it purchased St Cuthbert’s Gospel which came from the C7th. Now, that is old!
Wait, a phone call has come in. A stray volume has been discovered wandering and alone. I must go and rescue it.