October 10, 2009

Old, moldy, beautiful books

How appropriate that I found Awful Library Books just one day before we had to go clean out the church library.

ALB is a librarians' blog that partly mocks out-of-date books but mostly chides the librarians who keep them hanging around long past their usefulness. In fact, the hosts frequently point out cases in which out-of-date books have not only been kept, they've been re-bound.

Every bibliophile knows the agony of throwing away a book. Even a bad book is hard to throw away, as a co-worker and I discovered one day upon receiving in the mail an unasked-for review copy of a self-published book that was, ostensibly, about global economics but in reality was unintelligible. Not only did it not have any readily apparent structure, it was written by someone who did not have a firm grasp upon English grammar or syntax.

There should have been no qualms about tossing this incoherent screed into the garbage, but we hesitated because … it was a book. Someone wrote it, printed it, bound it. And the binding, at least, was neatly done. But, yes, into the trash it went. (Note to self-published authors: Before you send a review copy to a newspaper, make sure it's a newspaper that actually publishes reviews.)

I felt similar pangs clearing out the John Calvin Presbyterian Church library in preparation for the church's closure Oct. 25. As we pulled books from the shelves and spread them out on tables so the congregation could take their pick, we not only found the laughable sort of examples that provide fodder for ALB, we found curiosities, gems and battered treasures.

Between reading ALB and gutting the JCPC library, I've concluded that books come in a variety of types, none of which is readily discardable:

Not old, and still good looking

I have yet to find a volume from the JCPC library that has seen a lot of circulation. In fact, most of the books, once cataloged, never left the property. So even the ones that are ten to fifteen years old are in great shape. Well, except for the card pockets glued in the back and the "John Calvin Presbyterian Church" stamps in them. Even trade paperbacks are pretty when new. I love the way the trim creates a tidy rectangular polyhedron. The older ones have glossy covers, which is a bit garish. I prefer the newer ones that have a matte finish.

Just old enough to be mockable

Quite a few of the ALB entries fit this category. A recent example was a hair stylist's guide from the 80's that included some gag-inducing mullets. We didn't find many in the church's collection that fit this category, other than the Time-Life cookbooks. Yeah. I don't know why the church library had cookbooks either. These are the easiest type to discard, unless you anticipate their growing up into the next category.

Old enough to be cool, in a kitschy sort of way

One of my fellow congregants took home a temperance-era volume of family devotionals. This thing was huge -- the size of an unabridged dictionary. What convinced her to keep it was a doggerel poem about the evils of drink. She found it amusing.

Of ALB's entries in this category, my favorite is a home economics textbook from 1959.

Old, shabby, and priceless

I haven't seen any of this variety on ALB yet. Presumably by the time a book reaches this stage, a library will already have withdrawn it, or moved it to a special collection. I now have in my possession several of these, in varying stages of shabbiness, and am looking for a book conservator. There is an 1868 Bible with its covers off. An 1869 copy of An Illustrated History of the Holy Bible also has a broken binding. It is outdated, as it can't contain anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it has beautiful colored endpapers, with the edges of the book painted to match. Only handcrafters make books this way anymore. These books are foxed (which is to say, moldy) and worm-eaten, and they're treasures.

One of them is a Hebrew Old Testament. If there's a date in it, I can't read it, as it's not in numerals. In the back cover (what would be the front cover if it were an English book) is a rubber-stamped "Property of John Calvin Presbyterian Church…Donated by ___" and in the blank is handwritten "R.L. Hall."

Ridgely L. Hall was the founding pastor of JCPC, and though he died before I was born, I've come to respect and admire him. Those who knew him hold him in high esteem -- I would go so far as to say awe. Handwritten on the endpaper, with pencil, in what I can only assume is Pastor Hall's handwriting, is this quotation:

"Whence but from Heaven could men unskilled in arts, in several ages born, in several parts, weave such agreeing truths? Or how or why would all conspire to cheat us with a lie? Unasked their pains, ungrateful their advice, starving their gain and martyrdom their price."

…with the attribution "John Dryden(?)"

Yes, Ridge, that was Dryden. And I promise, when I hand this worm-eaten, rubber-stamped, Dewey-decimaled treasure to the conservator, it will be with strict instructions NOT to erase the note on the endpapers.

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