Books grow old, too

January 19, 2014

This post is prompted by my picking up an old favourite Philip K Dick novel to re-read, and discovering that I first read it thirty-eight years ago. I can’t quite get my mind around that, I’m afraid: intimations of mortality &c…

I bought it as a brand-new paperback for 60p in 1974, most probably from the wonderful and long gone Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool. It’s now seriously brown around the edges, and the glue is very old and cracks when I turn the pages; there are loose sections. Books do age over time, especially paperbacks, and books manufactured in the UK generally, I find, even hardbacks, because they are made of cheaper materials and to lower standards than in the US, where the market is much larger, and the cost of using better quality materials is therefore cheaper. UK hardbacks increasingly have glued rather than sewn pages, and I wonder how long the glue will last. And even the well-made Everyman’s Library hardbacks, printed on good quality paper and with stitched pages, have begun to show some signs of foxing… Paperbacks from the 1980s particularly had incredibly poor glue which crumbles: all the pages eventually fall out, and the only remedy for a well-loved book is to demolish and re-bind it: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to do this.

Some books have lasted for centuries; the oldest one I own is over 200 years old and will probably last another couple of centuries if it’s looked after; book being produced now probably won’t, and who can foresee what will have become of the printed word in a couple of centuries more? Will libraries be much smaller? I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his lifetime, Chaucer had acquired a library of about sixty books…

Some books I’ve had to replace: my much loved copy of Ursula LeGuin‘s The Dispossessed fell to bits and has been replaced by a more durable hardback; when I was teaching I wore out several copies of Lord of the Flies before buying a hardback, which finally saw me through to retirement. If I really like a book, I now tend to make sure I have a good copy that will last, and outlast me. Books are objects to love.

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