Friday, January 19, 2007

In Praise of Used Books

For library class this week we had to answer some basic queries using a variety of print and electronic encyclopedias. One set of questions could only be answered by using the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published back in 1911. Fortunately, we have a copy here at Catholic U. The 11th was a real landmark edition, because it'smore than just a collection of factual articles. It also contains essays of real literary quality by people like GK Chesterton and Bertrand Russell turning it into quite the noted item for all intellectuals and literati of the time to have.

The questions we had to answer weren't hard. They were easy, in fact. But it was a lot of fun just flipping through all the tattered volumes. Even dopy entries like the one on photography were made fun with quaint illustrations. Bound in heavy green leather, pages hand-sewn to the binding, and made with quality paper, these books were made to last. Even though they had a dusty-musty smell these volumes are still likely to outlast many books just printed today. These were books with a presence, books with a history, books with a story to tell beyond the words on the page. Since all the material is now beyond the bounds of copyright protection, there are few websites devoted to recreating the original feel of the volumes, most notably Love to Know 1911 and Online 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. While you don't get to feel the pages or smell the leather, you can at least get a sense of some of the articles and what made it such a unique project.

Don't get me wrong. I love all the developments in electronic publishing. It's been just about the most democratizing force for the word since Gutenberg. But there's just something about books as a physical object that I love.

I guess that's why I love used books. In a lot of ways, I may prefer them. There's an oddly heroic feeling when you rescue a lonely tattered volume from some random library booksale or a dusty used bookstore. Some people are bothered by notes and marginalia left by previous readers but, not me. There like little notes into people's quiet lives, and I feel like I'm sharing some odd connection with someone I'll probably never meet.

Like when I bought Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees. I bought the book at Second Story in Dupont Circle here in D.C. on a lunchbreak and then ran down the street to eat a burger at Zorba's. I was thumbing through the Calvino novel and waiting for my order when something fell out from between the pages. It was an advertisement flier for a bookstore in Florence, Italy, of all places. I looked at it for a minute, thinking about how far this little book travelled and being quite amused that a book in English by an Italian author came to me via some Italian bookstore. I started thinking about what kind of collage projects I could use it for when a voice interrupted my thoughts.

"Excuse me, may I see that?"

I looked up and saw a man in front of me, wanting to look at the flier. I shrugged and handed it to him.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I lived in Italy when I was a teenager. I lived next to this bookstore for three years."

There was a bright light in his eyes, like a river of happy memories was flowing through his mind. I told the man how I came upon the flier and he seemed even more amused than I was. Of course, I offered it to him. He was ecstatic, slipping it into a manilla folder he had with him and swearing he was going to frame it when he got home. While I may have lost a cheap flier I gained a great memory, a great story. And a webpage can't bring me least not yet.


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