Sunday, February 19, 2017

Surprises found in an old book

An old book which held surprises other than its writing
I'm re-reading a book I read many years ago, back when our kids were still in elementary school, John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley." I suppose I wanted to read a rambling travel book. Twice.
My copy of the book is old and beat up, from the second printing, with stains on the cover and pages which have yellowed in the 55 years since it was made. It is inscribed inside as a party gift from some hostess to some dinner guest at some feast held in an eastern state in 1962.
I'm pretty sure I bought it at a Friends of the Library book sale in the 1980s, in the basement of the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library, back when those sales were conducted among air ducts, junk, and a hodge-podge of rickety shelving. We often went there to buy books for ourselves and for our children, and many of the books we have on our shelves at home today were bought second-hand at their sales. In those days I was apt to pick up books by authors I recognized, and I'm sure I'd never heard of this book before, but I knew the name Steinbeck. It was an accidental discovery, and I may have paid the princely sum of one dollar for my copy.
Now that several decades have passed since I purchased the book and read it the first time I'm noticing things I could not have noticed before.
First off I noticed the simple joys of reading a real book, one made of paper and ink and binder's board and cloth. Even though I am a printer most of what I read these days is read on a screen of some type. Though I get a physical copy of the Kerrville Daily Times at work, I've usually read it on my iPad before leaving home, read at an hour when most of you are still sound asleep. I have subscriptions to a national newspaper and several magazines, but they all come to me wirelessly on that same device. I no longer receive printed copies of most of the magazines to which I subscribe, mainly because it's convenient and reliable to receive them electronically, but also because I tend to leave unread magazines in towering piles of clutter. Even old printers like me can enjoy these advantages.
This particular copy of "Travels with Charley" was printed on fine paper with a slight finish and cotton content. I believe I can feel the imprint of the letters on the page, suggesting it was printed on a letterpress of some kind, with lead type. It has a cloth cover that's rough in places from wear; the cloth is a light cream color and shows every stain. It's not a museum-quality edition, by any means. It's an ordinary book printed using techniques common in 1962, though those techniques are no longer used.
I can tell there's some acid in the paper, too. Most of the pages have age spots, and the edges are slowly turning brown. That acid will continue to work on the paper until it's brittle; if given enough time, the acid will eat it away until nothing is left but dust.
At least two readers made marks in the book as they read it. One of them was me, though a much younger me. I recognized the notations from the code of checks and brackets I used in those days, but haven't used for at least ten years, and cannot use as I read on my electronic tablet. Those marks I made many years ago, like the printing process used to make my copy, are obsolete.
Unlike others in my family, my memories of what I've read are hazy at best. Ms. Carolyn can recall with great clarity books she's read; I cannot. Looking at the marks I made in the book years ago is like looking over the shoulder of my much younger self, to see what interested him and to compare the judgments he made on the paragraphs he read with my reading of them today.
Those judgments are different. I'm more critical of writers today than I was then, less likely to be in awe of even Nobel prize-winning authors. I was more easily impressed twenty years ago, but I've read a lot more books since then.
Here's an idea, Gentle Reader: re-read a book you read decades ago. Read it in printed form. If you run across notes you made, see how much you've changed. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who has more books than he's actually read. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times February 18, 2017.

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