Friday, 11 September 2015

Buried Treasure

 When I'm not writing letters I'm reading. I love books and I don't mean a little. I worked in a book store for 13 years and that was fuel to the fire. These days I haunt the charity shops buying second-hand books to add to my hoard collection. One day when I'm no longer living on a building site, I'll have a small library. Until then, my latest treasures reside on my bedside table. I'm currently binge-reading classics. Titles next to my bed include The Queen's Necklace by Alexandre Dumas, War and three volumes to make it easier reading and a brilliant little gem, beautifully bound in leather, of Bacon's Essays and a biography of Marie Antoinette.

To me, old books are like old friends. I get that kindle is handy, travels easily and holds volumes and I recognize the convenience it lends, but to me nothing can replace an old book, and especially a used one. I like the handwritten dedications some have or the notations in the margins by previous owners but what I like best are the forgotten little tuck-ins that are often used as bookmarks. These things give the book character and make it live. Pages with dog-eared corners mark things to re-read or remind someone where they left off, underlined passages highlight notes for later review and the odd doodle tells me someone is daydreaming instead of reading. All these things speak to me.

Dedication inside leather-bound book of Bacon's Essays

When I worked in the book store, I remember a conversation with another bibliophile whose bored five year old asked his mother why she had to buy so many books. She told him books were our friends and he piped in and quickly said “You must have a million friends!” That still makes me smile but it's so true. I read books more than once, enjoying them all over again and the notes and ephemera do make it seem like an old friend.

Yesterday when I made my weekly trip to town to do my letter posting and shopping I found a tatty old cookbook and started leafing through it. It was so old some of the pages were loose but it had some interesting recipes so I bought it. Later on when I looked at it more closely there were recipes marked, page corners turned down throughout and a handful of clippings and labels from cooking products with recipes, randomly placed in the book, probably to mark favourite recipes. There was also a card. It was a pretty floral thank you and when I read it I laughed out loud. It was from the dog of a neighbouring family thanking the cookbook owner for looking after it while its humans were away on holiday; lamenting it's inability to use the tin opener himself. It must have struck a note with the recipient too to have been saved in a place where it would be found often.

As a letter writer, I value these things most. It's this sort of forgotten treasure that gives you an insight into the person who once had that cookbook on their bookshelf. They are priceless little windows into lives. Everything from the handwriting to the style of their words tells you something. The Egyptians believe that to say the name of the deceased gives them immortality and I think reading a letter or card does the same thing. What memorial could be better than that?