History hiding in stories

Amazon, Oxfam, Smiths or bric-a-brac, whether your book collection derives from shiny shelves or pocketed from your best friend’s library when her back is turned, your book will hold a story. Where it was bought, who recommended it, when and where you read it; a book might be bought fresh but as the clean edges crinkle, tear and crease your novel will soak up history and turn into a little piece of legacy to share, pass on or abandon for someone else to discover.

I am a self-declared lover of ‘old things’. Especially old books. I love the dusty scent of yellowed pages, the library feel of bound leather. I love the feel of thick paper pages, and the sound of a creaking spine. But most of all I love the hint of history. Every Tuesday night my local auction house opens to buyers of all things pre-loved; furniture, jewellery, paintings and the like. My soon-to-be-housemate-boyfriend and I went scouting for all things practical. Chairs and desks, maybe a table – something to furnish a home. I came away with a stack of first edition children’s books and a vintage Paddington bear. Not practical – but definitely a little bit wonderful.

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Opening each book was like a treasure chest. Of course the Victorian and Edwardian stories inside are often remarkable; Bab; Or the Triumph of Unselfishness was my favourite, although the boyfriend liked Desert adventures in Libya and a strange book about the Russo-Japanese war. For a very reasonable £15 I came away with a host of names, Enid Blyton, Angela Brazil, even AA Milne! More than the names and titles however, I was excited by the sense that these books had their own personal histories stretching back seventy, eighty, even one hundred and thirty years. Occasionally dedications can give a glimpse into a home at Christmas time, or an illicit after lights out read; ‘Our darling Nigel, from Mummy and Dadddy, 1915’ reads one inscription, while another has an angrily crossed out ‘To Jean Valerie, with our love, Xmas 1950.’  When these books were being read Queen Victoria was at the peak of her reign, war was breaking out in Europe and man was about to land on the moon. The first owners of these books are old now, or gone – and yet they remain young, remembered in the pages of their books, and imagined by strangers.

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Books that are discovered like this, like treasure unearthed in a desert of rugs and Tupperware are of course exciting, but the emotional baggage that a book can carry doesn’t have anything to do with its publication date or gilded cover.  My favourite book is a copy of The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfield. I loved the story and wished more than anything for a dog called Chewing Gum, but what made it particularly special was that it had been my mum’s when she was a little girl and she had coloured in all the black and white illustrations. When I read it I felt like I was somehow connected to this ghost of a girl. Similarly, I have been reading stories to my three year old niece Evie that I heard when I was her age. As generations share the same stories, and memories are repeated through grandparents and parents and children, books begin to exist outside of the narrative that they contain. The memory of reading becomes as important as the story itself, and in that way you forge a link, you bind your history and your heritage closer and more securely. Family is not made only by blood after all, but by sharing culture, memories, and stories.

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3 responses to “History hiding in stories

  1. I really love finding old books! My absolute favourite is this old boarding school book I found at a market for only £3. It says ‘To Nellie. Xmas 1924’ inside. Lovely 🙂 I also bought really old copies of Enid Blyton’s Girls at St Clares, and Mallory Towers.

    Lovely post!

  2. I agree, they are a wonderful springboard for imaginings. But there’s an excitement in new books, too. I love being the first person to read those particular words, on that particular page. And almost as good is the thought that I’m setting up a collection that will one day be passed on to the children of my as-yet unborn great-nephews and nieces. History, after all, has to have two ends.

  3. I’m with you Stacey and Becca – I can’t walk past an antiquarian bookshop without spending hours inside. I have a few beauties on my bookshelf – my favourite being a 1960s Everyman edition of North And South by ‘Mrs’ (as she was called) Gaskell, complete with someone’s underlinings and occasional scribbles. I like to compare them to my own A level edition which still has with my scribbles and notes in it. There is something as Becca says about imagining how many other people might have read and loved a book that you’re now the owner of.

    But Linda, I love the thought of you collecting books to pass on to future relations. This Christmas one of my favourite gifts was a set of old Penguin Classic Editions of the Mitfords passed on to me by my boyfriend’s mum. It’s the one thing that I worry about with ebooks, and reading electronically, which I do now, all the time. There is nothing better than passing on a book to someone else, or the thrill you get when looking through someone else’s book shelf. I really hope that that is one tradition we can keep alive, despite the ease of ebooks…

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