Books are great. And like fine wine or some overwhelmingly repugnant smelling cheeses, they only get better with time. The only thing better than browsing new books, is browsing old ones. Especially in quirky little stores in the middle of remote, alternative towns, which don’t so much as have a Tesco. In these nooks, you often find tiny pieces of history, pages turned and turned again, and turned brown and spotty, with worn spines and loving dedications. Take that Waterstones (not really, Waterstones, you know my love for your modern lined shelves in unending), and W.H.Smith! You’ll never find an 1976 Sherlock Holmes anthology in either of those stores, but wonder into a charity shop specialising in book sales and the shelves are rife with decades old dusty volumes at just £1.99. Last year, during an ill-begotten, ill-ending visit to London, I found myself inside a dozen small antic book shops, which always boasted a selection of insanely priced antique tomes, pretentiously perched high up on display stilts, and an otherwise uninspiring collection of fairly modern texts in poorly designed jackets. I wish I were making that up.
Really, it’s not just old books I’m looking for; it’s not about age, so much as the withstanding of time. Certain stories have certain connotations. It’s the classics, coated in a red leather wrapping, with spotted pages and that smell only yellowed pages have, which really stoke a fire in the mind. The meaning comes from the fact the the story is so timeless, it has survived to read time and again by thousands of people over hundreds of years. Discovering a wrinkled version, stained and a little bruised, hiding away in a corner gives that timelessness a physical presence, and the older the better. How many hands might have leafed through the same pages I have? How many eyes have dug into those words and sentences, formed ideas, build a character in their minds that I am building now? The notion that a single copy of a story could have been on a journey through many lives to reach a shop window is astounding enough in itself to contemplate, but when you factor in the same counting method for every copy of the story ever produced, the conclusion is astounding. A story told and retold, and retold and retold until it becomes common knowledge, and most bookworms have one version or another displayed on their shelves. Yeah. Old books are great, the stories they keep are priceless.
So, I know have a copy of Moby Dick and Sherlock Holmes: The Long Stories bought from a small charity shop in Totnes. I also ate Victoria sponge cake and took a twenty minute trip on a train. I’m feeling pretty old timey.
Buying the books, got me to thinking about the classics. I went through a period when I was about eleven, when reading first started to become an enjoyable activity for me, of reading the classics. In just over sixth months I had almost exhausted by favourite teacher’s classroom stock of classic books. I read everything from Jane Eyre, Little Women, and Great Expectations to The Snow Goose, Wuthering Heights, and Emma. After that, Mrs Kramer, by far the best teacher I ever had, suggested I get into Shakespeare. So I did. To this day I have an enduring love of Shakespeare, who I understood pretty well even when I was young. After managing a good dozen of his plays, with frequent eager questions for Mrs Kramer and the help of a large dictionary, I decided to move onto the school library. Then I got addicted to fantasy and the classics fell a little to the wayside.
I still read classics of course. Most recently I am proud to declare I made it through all 1286 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (two years prior to the release of the recent movie staring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathoway). I think these stories are important to our history and to understanding the foundations of most modern fiction. There certainly vital to me; without those books back then I might not be the reader, and certainly not the writer, I am now. Classics are considered so for a multitude of differing reasons. Some project a sense of history, others have themes which still strike cords with who and what we are today, and others present adventure in the everyday. They’ve lasted because they offer the knowledge of what has changed and what hasn’t, and the struggles and beliefs that have kept these things alive or not.
Long live the classics, say I! And thus, I shall help them long live with a new ‘secret’ project I’ve got on the burner. Back in January, on a cold day on a Swiss mountain I pondering a project and told you I’d have to bake it. The oven has recently pinged, signifying the cookies are just about ready. I want to share my love of these old books with anyone who’ll listen, and this is getting to be the perfect place to do that. If you like old stories, maybe watch this space.