In 1929, children’s book author Anne Parrish was visiting Paris. She left her husband at a cafe to visit one of the city’s many bookstores. There she found a copy of Helen Wood’s Jack Frost and Other Stories, a favorite of hers from childhood. She returned to the cafe, sat down, and showed her husband what she had found. He opened the book, turned a couple of pages, and paused. He handed it back to her, opened to the flyleaf. There, in the hand of a child, she read, “Anne Parrish, 209 North Weber Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado.”
The book she had found half a world away turned out to be her very own childhood copy. It was as if she had found a long-lost friend.
A book is just a physical object. And yet, as every book lover knows, it is something more than that.
A book is not merely a vehicle for the transmission of abstract ideas. There is something about the tactile nature of a book that seems to embody what it tells us. It somehow incarnates the words written on its pages. A book is something we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.
I am talking, of course, about paper books, not a Kindle or an iPad. These are not things we will ever happen upon later in life, in a far-off place, years after we have lost them. And if we did, they would be long obsolete.
A real book is never obsolete.
Any true book lover will tell you that it is not only the sight of a book, or the feel of it, but that even its smell can affect your soul.
When I was a child, my father had a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias that he had bought with what little money he had when he was a student at Clemson University in the mid-1950s. They were among the few books we had in our house. They had a peculiar but pleasant smell that hit your nose when you opened up a volume.
It is said that among the senses, it is smell that you remember the longest. To me, the smell of those encyclopedias was the smell of learning and knowledge. I will remember it until the day I die.
Books are artifacts: They are important for the ideas they relate, but they also have a life and a history of their own.
One of the books in my library is an old hardback edition of R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of Nature. It is one of the great accounts of the shift from ancient to modern thought. But, beside the quality of the book’s content, it has a bookplate on the inside of the cover bearing the name of Richard Neibuhr, brother of the philosopher Rienhold Neibuhr. Richard was famous in his own right for Christ and Culture, one of the great books about how Christians should relate to the culture in which they live. In this copy of Collingwood’s book, once a part of Richard’s library, are Richard’s marginal notes on what Collingwood had to say. I bought it for $3.00 from a careless bookseller.
I mark in all my books, including this one. When one of my sons saw me marking in it, he protested and accused me of desecrating an otherwise valuable book. I looked at him calmly and said, “This book will now not only bear the marks of Neibuhr, but the marks of your august father. And since this book will one day be yours, I know my marks will only increase its value in the eyes of my devoted children.”
What could he say?