top of page

England: Day Five (Interlude)




“I just don’t get this thing you have for old books,” said lots of people, always.

It’s okay. Of all my strange affections, this is possibly the one about which I feel the least embarrassment. I’ve always been bashful about my tendency to read books with dragons, or my weird fascination with honeybees, or basically everything in thrift stores, but I am and will remain an unapologetic bibliophile. But I get it. I get why you think I’m crazy. How in the world, you ask, will I have time to read all those books, and why in the world would I let them take over my house–especially when you can store all that information on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad? What could possibly be enjoyable about rummaging around in a dusty bookshop for hours?

Let me explain, in bullet-point fashion for the sake of brevity.

— Old books smell good. Don’t believe me? According to a study by lead scientist Matija Strlicat at the Smithsonian, the chemical breakdown of old paper and binding creates “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, [and] this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents. One of my favorite things Pappy did when I showed him my finds was to open the book and thrust his nose into it, inhale deeply, and then sigh—as if this were as important a test of the book’s value as the publication date.

— A room full of books hearkens me back to my childhood—to vast public libraries, to my dad’s office at the church, and to the shelves of books at my house. A shelf of books is a shelf of possible worlds, possible adventures, possible discoveries, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I get the same feeling in an old library as I did when I was a kid in the family station wagon driving through the gates to Disney World. This sensation is heightened when I peruse the spines of books I have read and loved.

— Posterity. Because books will never be out of date—trust me on this; I enjoy my Nook and see the value in the eBook thing, but in 100 years actual books will be more valuable, not less—whenever I buy an old, beautiful copy of a book I love, I think of my future grandchildren and their children. They won’t have ever met me, but looking through these old fairy tales and books about Jesus and mystery and adventure will tell them something about what I believed to be important—or at least what geeked me out. Pappy and I visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford and beheld shelves of 500-year-old books. They weren’t in a glass case. They were readable copies. No, the actual hold-it-in-your-hand, thrust-in-your-nose-and-inhale book isn’t going anywhere, my electronics loving friend.

— Preservation. There are a limited number of first editions of The Great Divorce left in the world, and that number is actually getting smaller. In a book about Hay-on-Wye called Sixpence House (Paul Collins, 2003) he tells about the piles and piles of books that get shipped to this book town and never get sold, so sometimes they throw them outside where they’re eventually burned. BURNED. I shudder to think of the treasures that were inadvertently tossed out. But we can still buy new editions of The Great Divorce, you say. True. But they don’t smell good. Neither does the actual artifact represent sixty years of travel from owner to owner. Neither do you get the mild thrill of knowing that when C. S. Lewis opened his parcel from the publisher and first saw his new book in its completed form, this is what he held in his hands. Not only that, I like to wonder who was this person who happened to buy, during its first week of sale, what would become a classic in fifty years?

— Old books are beautiful. Not all old books, but many, especially in the Victorian era. My early editions of George MacDonald books are works of art, which doubles the pleasure when the story inside is beautiful, too. It’s like a literary Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

— This is a bit more mercenary, but it’s also a financial thing. While it’s thrilling to find a rare book at a rare book shop, it’s far more thrilling to find a rare book at Goodwill. And it happens. My favorite bookshops are the rambly ones, the ones with piles of books on the floor, with the books ever-so-slightly out of order, because you stand a better chance of happening upon something awesome for mere pennies. It’s the booksellers who know their business that tend to be overpricing killjoys. If I can pay four bucks for an old Annie Dillard book that I already own, I can sell it later for twice or thrice as much, or give it as a gift (don’t old books make the best gifts?) that’s worth far more than a $20 gift card to Starbucks. Perhaps my most valuable discovery was in one of those rambly old bookstores in Texas. It was an early edition (not a first) of J. M. Barrie’s biography of his mother. I’m not a huge Barrie fan (I’ve never read Peter Pan, but I did love Finding Neverland), but the spine was attractive so I pulled it out and thumbed through it. I was surprised to discover that it was autographed by Barrie himself. This little book in Texas had been held by the man who thought up Peter Pan a hundred years ago. It cost me $6. When I got home I looked it up and found similar signed copies for sale for $800. Now, if only I could happen upon a cheap first edition of The Great Divorce (which I’ve never laid eyes on), then I’d be happy. Right?

So it was with giddy anticipation that Pappy and I drove the two hours through hedgerows and little villages to the border of Wales and England, where the town of Hay (and its 25 or so used bookshops) rests on the River Wye, beckoning to book lovers all over the world.

It was also the first time in our trip that I wanted to throttle dear Pappy.

(To be continued…)

This is a shot of Hay-on-Wye, from Hay Castle. Yes, those are books under the awning, and yes, you can see three of the fabled bookshops along the street in this one picture. The place is wonderful.


bottom of page