Tomes of love

Old books -- perhaps I love them more indiscriminately than I should. There is something in old books that I approve of even before I've read the first paragraph. I love their rigid spines and cover boards, wrapped in taut cloth or leather. I love the careful binding and precisely sewn page signatures. I am fond of the powdery velvet of well-read pages, the brush-soft corners tamed by expectant thumb and forefinger. And to tell the truth, I love the smell of an old book. (Ask, and any bibliophile will confess the same.) It is the smell of old ink, of must, the slow burning of paper pages by decades of sun and air. It is the smell of time, I believe. It is something like human days passing.

It is not merely their age or their rarity that I prize. A ''book collector'' pursues only ''first editions'' -- and printed issues of a famous title, preferably in pristine condition and (if possible) unread. But I am not a ''collector.'' What captivates me is the quality of naive artifact that a book acquires, the half-intentional, half-accidental witness to human history. You can get all the information from a new paperback reprint; a college anthology may gather the same stories and supply all the critical exegesis you could ever desire. But with an old book selected from the shelf of library or bookseller there is the implicit declaration: I was there.

Each book has about it just that scent of history. Look here, for instance: Dylan Thomas comes to America to read his poems, to clown for the college audiences, to earn enough money to go back to writing. The year is 1952; In Country Sleep has just been published and he goes to the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan to see how it's selling. Perhaps this book was the one the clerk asked him to autograph. Robert Frost had a difficult time peddling his poems. Dejected , he moves his family to England where his first book A Boy's Will, and his second, North of Boston, are published to moderate acclaim. And now, in 1915, he is back in America, in the city his book title uses as a compass point. He walks down to the old Goodspeed's on Park Street; in the window there are several copies of the book and, beside them, a small newsprint photograph of ''the author.'' His hands clenched deep inside his overcoat, Frost knows then he is a success. This book might have been one burned gold on the edges from the window-sun that day. Or look at this book here: the first volume of Emily Dickinson's poems, published in 1890, Roberts Brothers, Boston. After the title page, you read that the price for this edition is $1.25; 25 cents more if you'd like gilded pages. Miss Dickinson never lived to see this book, to see her own poems published. A friend of mine has a first edition of The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. When this book stood prominently on the shelf at Old Corner Books in 1850, it was not a ''classic,'' not a chapter in American Literature, not the subject of countless college classes and critical essays. It was just a story, passionately set down by its author hoping to capture a few readers' imaginations. Had you decided to purchase a copy then, you would have received change from your dollar.

But, as I said, it is not only ''great'' books that earn my esteem. I have a little volume next to me: Horses and Men by Sherwood Anderson. His stories speak of the struggle of men and women to live with dignity in the confusion of ''modern'' city life. Anderson almost paints with language; his words are tangible, sensitive, honest, clear. In this direction (he declares) waits the future of American prose. No small pronouncement -- especially in cold black type where your word and your name are inextricably tied.

Can you even find Horses and Men today in 1982? Try. Winesburg, Ohio, perhaps; but Dark Laughter or Poor White? When you lift this small book, with its rich blue cover lettered in gold, when you read its half-wry half-solemn prose and listen to its clear American voice -- it is not literature you are dealing with. You have in your hands a man's offering, his life, unmitigated and untamed by time, but also unproven -- just as he first set it down for the world to laugh at or praise.

No, of course it isn't just the things, the book-objects, that play on my senses with an almost physical exhilaration. And it is not simply the text, either. There is a certain effort that a book requires of its readers, the patience and the enthusiasm it demands from you in order to tackle its ideas, feel out its style and voice, discover its subtler moods. This relationship is part of the book as well, the questions it raises in each one's mind; is this book true? Is it worthwhile? Is it beautiful or graceful or strong? Does it make you laugh or weep or (as another poet once warned) does it make you change your life? If your imagination is alive you will find that all this is still at issue -- between the book and you, regardless of history's judgments. The unknown, unacclaimed title gathering dust on the bookstore shelf -- this might be the one , the book that makes you begin again.

Sometimes I believe I can feel all that in a book; I can sense the book's history in the finger-marked pages, in the rough or loving treatment revealed in its cover. Who carried this volume in his coat pocket? Who read these chapters first thing after waking, on lunch hour at the shop, in the long lonely summer evenings? Who brandished this book in a fist (as if it were a weapon, or a shield) and shouted, ''But it's true! I read it here. Listen!'' Who read this chapter slowly and hymn-like, reclining on her pillow, line after line hovering on the verge of sleep until the book and the dream were one thing, blended into an unspoken yes.

So there is a special pleasure for me in discovering an old book, in slipping it from the shelf and slowly leafing through its pages. I ask a silent ''Who are you?'' with my hands and the book, in its own Cheshire Cat manner replies: ''Who are you?''

Today? Though our contemporary bookstores are all too often supermarkets of popular culture, there are always a few in each town that are suitable for quiet browsing. And the new titles? Yes, I love them as well, but not all equally. They are newborns, creatures of my own time. Some are packaged like the newest breakfast cereal; a few are lovely just to look at or touch. Some are uncovering new ideas, and many are old rhymes in new disguises. Some of the books speak to me, others do not. But I think that one of the most respectful compliments I can say of them is that one day, if they are fortunate, they will grow to be old books too. This will never be a civilized country until we expend more money for books than we do for chewing gum. Elbert Hubbard, The Philistinem

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