Yesterday I was enthusiastically discussing a book I had recently read, when my friend said to me, “Cool – I’ll get it on Kindle“. I was immediately aware of a feeling which I can best describe as a sort of vague sadness. I was reminded of another conversation with a friend who works in a secondhand bookshop in the village: we were discussing how pencil notations, margin comments, names or dedications written on the endpaper, underlining of parts of the text, deliberately dog-eared pages, gummed ex libris labels, bookmarks or unexpected pressed flowers with their ghostly watermarks devalue the book in the eyes of many customers, and reduce the likelihood of making a sale. I said these were, for me, the charming little surprises which, in addition to the tactile experience of holding the book itself, add further layers of interest to the experience of reading. Who drew that shaky underline, or exclamation mark, and why was that sentence or encircled word so important to the reader? Those handwritten dedications on the endpapers connect us with the past owner whose hand rested on this very page some fifty or a hundred years ago, writing these words. It is the same uncanny feeling I experienced standing before paintings in The National Gallery in London last week: in my proximity to the physical painting (as opposed to a reproduction) something of the artist seemed to be present. As if one senses a trace of the living, a residue of presence. Even if one were to dismiss this as an overly vivid imagination, the tactile experience has it’s own fascination for me: why did the owner of the book slip in an old train ticket to mark this specific page? I imagine a man on a train journey during the war perhaps, trilby hat and horn-rimmed spectacles, his thoughts turned to an uncertain future. Who picked the little flower whose faded skeletal form is entombed between the paper leaves? It was alive and growing once, it’s face turned to a sun perhaps fifty years past. In one book I found a pamphlet from the Warsaw Uprising, calling for the urgent assistance of the allies: the war was not yet over. In another – a small volume of philosophy published during the second world war – a dedication from a woman to her husband, with affection and hope that he would take courage from it – all in a beautiful script. I imagine the fountain pen touching the page, the varying thick and thin strokes an expression of her affection. Other things I love about old books: an embossed cover, faded gold tooling on the spine, perhaps some fraying of the linen cover; they speak of a history, a narrative hinted at but not disclosed.
To hold an old book is to hold two stories: the written story and the story of the book itself.