Saying that old books are like old friends has turned a bit cliché over the last years, so I’m not going to go there. I don’t even think I ever thought of books in general as friends, but more as complex little worlds I could disappear into for hours at times. What could be better than a book? Well, an old book.
Growing up, I used to browse the shelves of my parent’s library that never really seized to amaze me. Adult books, a genre standing on its own, that looked as exotic as their titles. I was still at the young age when, although not admitting it, was still judging a book by its cover. When not even the covers of the neatly aligned books satisfied my wishes, I would try and pick up the oldest I could find. Thinking about it now, I believe there was always something that seduced me in the old, dusty, and forgotten. Some call it mystery, and perhaps old books have a dose of that, but I believe that for me it was something else, something beyond that.
It was the smell. The heavy, dusty, almost choky smell that I loved to inhale as deep as I could, while turning the pages fast with my thumb, making the book look like a brown colored fan. For two seconds or less my brown curls would dance around my face and I would close my eyes inhaling the smell of old paper. I was thinking at all the years that passed leaving its imprint on the book’s pages, until the old ´´breeze´´ would stop and the smell would be gone with it. As a child, the idea that tens of years have made the paper look brown and old was something amazing, especially since time is such an abstract concept for a child.
There were small ´´gifts´´ readers before left for me to wonder at. A small tear of the page made me think of a reader before me being startled by something, or perhaps someone turning the page too fast wanting to see what happens next. Small annotations and underlines made me squint to be able to decipher them. Sometimes I would leave my own marks. I would turn the corner of a page to a favorite part so that I could find it later and re-read it, or spill a liquid by mistake, all this without knowing that years later I would find them intact: the funny looking stain, the corner turned at that poetic passage.
Then there are all the times when I read something that makes me cry, or laugh out loud. And if it happens to be an old book, I always think of what the readers before me thought of it. Did they find it was funny? Did they cried too? Did they enjoy it and ´´lived´´ the book as I did? People separated by generations, some that I don’t know and will never be able to, have something in common with me: we read the same book. It is almost a defiance of time and space. At some point me and other people picked the same book, liked the same character. And I always ask myself if they ever caressed the back cover of the book after they finished it, as to comfort it, or if it is just something that only I do.
Old books make me aware of the book itself much more. I am more careful when I read an old book because I don’t want to do any more damage. I have respect for old books: someone bought this book, finished it, then they put in their bookshelf and I found it, like a treasure. Old books are my parent’s books, books I got from the library, or books I bought from an antiquarian. Somehow these old books made their way to me. If there is magic anywhere, I believe it is here.
When does a book become old? After you finished it? After x years have passed? The majority of people think of old books as of physically old objects; some collect them perhaps without reading them, and only because they look nice. I agree, and I believe books become at some point art objects, their beauty being found beyond their content. Think of old leather-bound editions, expensive and radiating dignity. Bookbinding is an art in itself, and it is very tricky to master (yes, I have tried).
Books have their charm no matter how you look at it. After returning home from a well spent vacation in my parent’s house, I ended up home with a luggage full of old books. Some are mine, and some were gifted to my mother (who re-gifted them to me at some point). I plan to re-read them all this summer, and enjoy every minute of their smell, small marks, and their pages filled with memories.