Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pursuits of a Bibliophile

When I was young, I was always the shy girl in the corner with her head tucked away in a book. Not much has changed! Being a lover of literature has obviously led me to read as many books as possible. Which makes for a lot of reading. Reading that comes with many benefits to a dreamer like myself. Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for all things old, which has led to a natural inclination to read the classics. I’m sure many of you can relate to the fantasies of Regency dress that entered your head whilst reading Pride and Prejudice or the longing for a lover who would profess grand statements of love in the flowing language of a Shakespearean character.

It isn't just the text I'm interested in, I love the whole package of a book. Surely the aged, faded form of an old book emphasizes this journey into the past. The art enthusiast in me can’t go past the nostalgic charm of an antique book. While some can’t wait to get the latest mp3 player, I drool over the embossed leather covers, if you’re lucky some quaint illustrations, and yellowed pages with the inscription of their first owner’s name.

Doesn’t this seem a bit more exciting that yet another cheap paperback? I am often amused by the re-packaging of classics. The same title given a flashy new cover to align itself with the contemporary books on the shelf. This doesn’t fit the romantic, adventure-filled and classic tales that these texts narrate. I recommend to all youthful readers out there to rummage through their relatives’ bookshelves. There is bound to be a lovely copy of Shakespeare or Austen hidden away, and unwanted and unappreciated. These beautiful books are just waiting to be opened and enjoyed by an enthusiastic reader like myself.

I went home the other night in pursuit of said family treasures. This year I studied works by Milton and Dickens at university, published in modern paperbacks. On the weekend I discovered a copy of Martin Chuzzlewit that dates from 1849. Flicking through the greasy, yellowed pages suddenly made the novel seem so old. This sounds silly I know, but it is easy to forget that books like this were written in an age before computers, often by hand, and were expensive to purchase. There were certainly no stands of classic Penguin books for under $10 when this was written.

All hunters of aged books quickly learn what to look for. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you can find the thoughts of previous readers tucked away the the margins of the mottled pages. No need to click onto Wikipedia to explain these complex passages – someone else has already done it for you. I like knowing that a wise family member also stumbled over complex passages. If only I knew about this quant red-leather bound 1910 edition of Book One of Milton's Paradise Lost, complete with detailed analysis of the complex poem by an unknown owner. I’m sure I would have had less difficulty following the poem! Well to be honest I’d need a magnifying glass to decipher the miniscule handwriting, but at least the flowing cursive is lovely to look at!

Speaking of relatives, my great-grandfather was a teacher, Virgil’s Aeneid from 1901, with an index of Latin vocabulary that may prove useful for any forthcoming trivia night. This said great grandfather also possessed a copy of an arithmetic book from 1832. The book’s pages of mathematical tables certainly make me grateful for the invention of calculators. The inner cover has the handwriting of my great-great-grandfather writing how the book was owned by his father. You can even see several places where my great-grandfather wrote his name – it is reassuring that I’m not the only one who has often practiced different handwriting styles. I love looking over my collection of old books that provide hours of enjoyment, all without having to buy a single book!

I do realise that not everyone has my fortune of inherit treasured old books. There are many places to find great old books, or even just look at them. Your best bet for a 19th or early 20th century gem is at second-hand bookshops, antique shops, or best of all, in your elderly relative's bookcases. Most national and state libraries have a rare books reading room where you can look at some fragile texts. Make sure to handle with care, or you will risk the fury of protective librarians. It is nice to know that ther are some people out there that are more obsessed with old books than myself!



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