• Carolyn Steele Agosta

Old Books. Or if you prefer, SENIOR Books.

I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey and, of course, I love the library that features in so many scenes. I wish they would do a close-up so I could see what they’re reading. (The TV series Gilmore Girls used to let us know what the daughter was reading, all the time.) Closer to home, I’ve several times visited the library at the famous Biltmore Estate, where it’s possible to at least get a glimpse. Most of the books in the library are non-fiction, but when you get to the servant’s quarters, they actually have shelves full of the (inexpensive) popular fiction of the day. I guess they wanted to keep the servants from filling up on trash.


The thing that’s lovely about these libraries are the old books, with their elegant bindings. I bought my first set of old books when I was about 24, from a used bookstore across the road from where I worked. It was a complete set of Dickens, published in 1900 by Collier, with an unidentified illustrator. The complete set of 28 volumes cost me $35 – a real bargain, although it was still 1/3 of my weekly take-home pay in those days.





I love those books. I love the thin sheets of paper, the cloth bindings (not leather, sadly), the weight and heft of the books. They set me down the path of buying other old books, including Their Wedding Journey by William Dean Howells, published in 1894, and a handsome illustrated book titled Bachelor Belles, published in 1908. It features illustrations by Harrison Fisher, linked to various poems.


In the past five years, I’ve accumulated a complete set of Sir Walter Scott (1898), a complete set of O.Henry (1917), a very delicate copy of Jane Eyre (1898), and other old books. I’ve found that E-Bay is my friend. And it’s quite surprising what bargains are out there.


I’ve also collected books that aren’t quite as old, but still look fantastic on the bookshelf. A partial set of Anthony Trollope, published 1940. A complete set of David Hume’s History of England, from 1950, and several books from the Modern Library press, with publication dates in the 1940’s and 1950’s. I really like the size of these books, so different from today’s enormous hardbounds.





I do enjoy these authors, but I have to say, I enjoy them more in antiquarian books. It’s nice to hold a piece of history in your hands. Some of the books have inscriptions in them – somebody gave them to somebody at some point, and someone read them. It’s nice to think of them giving pleasure to various people over the years.


As for modern books, I have plenty of them still lining up on my bookshelves, but I’ve removed their dustjackets. What??!!!! I prefer the way they look without them. Sue me.


It’s my understanding the rich folks like the Vanderbilts or the fictional Crawleys often had books professionally re-covered, if their original bindings weren’t impressive enough. Lay on the marbled end papers! The gilt lettering! The Moroccan leather covers! (and then, sell them to me…)


None of my old books are quite as luxurious as that, but I prefer them to the gaudy reprints you now see in bookstores. I like my books old and well-used. There is, for example, available in stores today, a boxed set of Jane Austen’s books, clothbound, published by Penguin, with lots of gilt and marbled endpapers – but they just look TOO NEW. Too colorful, too large, too bright, and with illustrations that look too modern. They just don’t work for me. In fact, I much prefer my old set in paperback – at least those are more approximately the size of the original books, and with cover art that’s more evocative. The pages are very thin, and the books – which have been reread many times – feel old.





Seeing as I’m heading into my own antiquarian years, I just feel more comfortable with these elderly books. They are my old friends and we’ve grown accustomed to each other’s face.

Do you, too, like old books? Or are you perfectly comfortable with your Kindle and glossy moderns? (I will not hold it against you. You’re wrong, but I won’t hold it against you. Sometimes the modern version is all we can find.)


However, as I say this, I’m about to dive back into a modern paperback – The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain. I’m enjoying it, but after I got more than 100 pages in, and was quite caught up in the rising tension, I made the mistake of reading the blurb on the back cover – and immediately learned too much. The editors did this whole huge SPOILER that ruined all the author’s work of building a sense of dread. I AM SERIOUSLY DISPLEASED. Fie on these modern book publishers and their pushy PR departments!!! I will continue reading the book, but I just hope my displeasure is duly noted.

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