The Half-Life of a Vintage Book
On how we read vintage books, on what they mean to parents, and on how that meaning changes between generations.
Children’s stories have a curious nuclear half-life. Those well-thumbed, musty-smelling, soft fingered pages that have seen questions and scrawls, nestled on laps and been pored over, over the years mostly end up on bookcases, sold at garage sales or forgotten beneath beds. Yet, by some magic, once discovered anew, they are so often resurrected by those who loved them first.
The joy that I find in re-reading my loved books of old is not mirrored exactly by my own children. This is the thing it is easy to forget in resurrecting stories to our spawn: that the natural passing of time, of possession, of holding onto those things we love, means that our thumb-print of affection has fallen upon the pages well before we expose them to our child. Our children, obstinate individuals that they always are, in turn find their own moments of connection with the raw materials we offer them; a distillation of our own loves, our own growth.
It’s an awkward risk, prising open the pages of a beloved, now older, book. I anticipate whether my children will be as enthralled as I was, and look anxiously for signs of boredom, of comprehension, of connection. There are as many failures as successes. But the excitement I feel to see my sons laugh out loud at something I used to, or better still, laugh at something I didn’t get at the time, is worth the risk of a wounded memory of having to file a beloved but rejected book back on my private bookshelf, unaccepted. Still loved by a child of the past, but with the memory of it just a little bruised.
Perhaps the better way is how my mother used to read to me. The first thing she would do would be to open the pages to a random middle, throw open the pages and nestle her nose deep inside.
Smell it, she would say. That’s the smell of a book.
The smell of a book always changed. Sometimes it was the inky smell of bank notes, or the cool sleek smell of processed paper. It was always delicious to me, irrespective of printing or book, probably only because of the reverential tone my mother would take in doing this little ritual. She was so pretty to me, my mother, and so young – only nineteen when she had me, she never read a book in her spare time, preferring magazines and heavy metal. Yet the ceremony of reading to me was something she elated in, took sensual pleasure from, and endeavored to share as an experience of the sacred.
Thrusting one’s nose into a vintage book is not altogether the same experience. The composed quality of novelty and discovery is gone, but there is something better in its place.
Take her in your hands. She is heavy, and leaves a residue on your fingers. She has lost her sheen and luster, and is imprinted with past experiences. She has aged like you have. Yet isn’t she more beautiful for the passing of time? Dunked in juice, dipped in sandcastles, used as signature practice, she asks you to consider something more than the novelty of her. She recalls the wonder of waking up on a birthday morning to a bicycle. Of memorizing words, from a time when you had the time to memorize them. Of imagining that, if you fed your fish too much, it would grow to a size that the local Olympic-sized swimming pool could not hold.
My mother had a rule that we would not write in books. Nor draw in them, nor tear them, nor fold them. Now that I am grown, I have purposely bucked my education, seeing scrawls as a sign of love. I use my books. I write in the margins, fold the corners, highlight passages again and again. My books do not mind me using them so. They are wrinkled and loved by life. As a happy person’s laugh lines, they are evidence of it.