What Is It About Old Books?

The lure of my guilty pleasure

#amwriting #amreading

I’ve been preparing to paint and rearrange my office. I bought a new deskmy current one is over 40 years old and, truth be told, is falling apart. I also bought an actual file cabinet, as opposed to another (ninth?) small bin to keep my records in.

But the biggest job has been emptying my bookshelves of over a thousand books. Doing this, I’ve had the pleasure of re-discovering books I inherited from my parents and grandparents. Many of these aren’t considered classics, but are by authors who were popular several decades ago and are on the verge of being forgotten.

Are these books still worth reading today?

I say yes. As a reader I enjoy learning about the societies of the past, which can’t help but be revealed in these books written during or about bygone eras. As a writer, I find I have much to learn from these novels, however unpopular they may be today.

One area in which older books excel is description. Not always concise, but definitely creating a character or setting you can easily visualize. I’m going to use examples from two authors you’ve probably never heard of: Thomas B. Costain and Donn Byrne.

High Towers by Thomas Costain was published in 1949, and it tells the story of the early days of Montreal and Louisiana from the perspective of the Lemoyne family, who were among the first French settlers of North America. Describing a character, Costain tells us:

“This one was a very tall and stout man, with a great round face like an uncured cheese, and a pair of sharp eyes set rather closely together in its dead white expanse.”

OMG! I laughed out loud and smiled until the character left the scene. And every time he reappeared, I had a distinct picture of him in my mind.

Further on, to describe another character, Costain says:

“…he had stripped off his clothes and put on a dirty cotton nightgown, in which he looked like a rather unhealthy and quite unhappy monkey. A new cap of braided velvet with a gay tassel perched jauntily on his long and knobby head, and his feet had been thrust into the finest of embroidered moccasins.”

Unsurprisingly, we come to know this character as one who spends money only on himself, buying fashion accessories of the highest caliber. But he will not purchase cotton for a new nightgown, as his wife might just use the fabric for herself or one of their dependents. These few sentences form the basis of our understanding of the man, and so it’s no surprise when we learn this self-indulgent stinginess carries over to other parts of his personality.

But precise description isn’t limited to characters in these old books. In Blind Raftery (1924), a fictionalized biography of a wandering Irish poet born in the 18th century, Donn Byrne demonstrates his gift for depiction here:

The sun would rise on their left hand and the warmth of it would come on them, soft as honey. Great drowsy [River] Shannon would go with them part of their way, and listening one could hear the leap of the trout and the plunge of the otter and the soft crooning of the river as it touched some little beach of rounded stones.”

It just makes me want to sit by this riverside and let my feet dangle in the water.

Byrne goes on later to describe the town of Galway, as Raftery most often roamed its environs:

Gray with the soft grayness of old people who have achieved rest, sunny with a sun that is like golden wine in nerve and blood, and sometimes a vast purple shadow comes over it and it is like a city one might see in a dream…

Who would think of a city as an old person? Or equate the sun to fine wine? But the similes work perfectly here.

As a writer, I can recommend reading older books for the pleasure of getting inspiration from the descriptions. And where I felt High Towers tended to get a bit bogged down in politics and battles, Blind Raftery was a pure joy to read.

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