I have, to the side of me, an old book.
Could we ever say that of an e-reader. Well, yes. In these days of planned obsolescence today’s device is always going to be tomorrows embarrassment when weighed against newer, flashier editions of the same item. No doubt the first Sony e-reader already features in collections of the retrospective, alongside Polaroid cameras and Apple iMacs.
But could we ever truthfully say that we have an old book held electronically for us to read? I’d say no. Electrons are so indicative of everything that is now. They are immediate. We don’t see the results of passed electrons; we always see what they are doing in this instant.
By contrast, let me tell you about the book by my side. It is a small collection of poetry by Herbert Palmer, named Season and Festival, and was published in MCMXLIII (1943) by Faber & Faber, so it is at least second-hand. This is an insensitive use of that term. A book can no more be second-hand than it can be ‘used’. It was a gift from someone close, this Christmas past, so in many senses it is brand new, to me, although pre-owned by others.
It is part of a Sesame Books collection which highlighted work by various poets from the first half of the 20th century. All are now household names. Some died in war, although online resources inform me that Mr.Palmer managed to survive to within 2 months of my own birth. I also learn that he was from Lincolnshire, where I spent most of my first 35 years, and that he was a friend and benefactor of C S Lewis, for whom we must thank him. Where would we be without Narnia and Screwtape?
The books in the Sesame collection retailed at 2 shillings and 6 pence, and the book has 2/6 printed on its dust jacket as a comforting reminder of those pre-decimalisation days, and the ‘net’ tells us that this was the ‘net book price’, reminiscent of life before supermarkets bullied the book trade into allowing them to choose their own prices. And yes, even after 70 years this little tome retains it’s original dust jacket, now slightly faded by the environment into the pastel green colouring only found elsewhere in cheap clothes, and slightly torn at the top. The discolouration around some edges marks where companions in the bookcase kept it shaded from the light. The shiny residue on the spine shows where the questing fingers paused and the index caressed.
Inside, the book is a perfect example of the art of the bookbinder, an inspiration. The pages are stitched, in small groups comprising 4 sheets, giving 8 pages, and the book is actually a collection of five of these groupings, sandwiched between hard covers, meticulously glued to stay intact for centuries. When I say perfect, I perform a disservice. Beauty has to be flawed, in this case by the individual booklets differing in height subtly from their neighbours. This demonstrates the extent to which a human hand has been involved with this book before it hit the bookshops.
All of this information, even before I started to read the book.