Every Book Tells a Story

It is true to say that every picture tells a story – time, place, people and events – all are captured in the blink of an eye or the flutter of a shutter.  When it comes to old books the same is true – every book tells a story.  For me, one of life’s little pleasures is to find an old book that catches my attention.  Sometimes it may be on-line through e-bay or a bookseller site, most often it is while browsing a used bookstore in whatever city I may be visiting (I research them ahead of my visit), rarely it is in a garage or estate sale.  Walking into a previously un-visited used bookstore is first a pleasure to the olfactory senses akin to entering a coffee-roaster, a wine shop or a distillery (to understand why see http://tinyurl.com/99tlo72).  Secondly, it is a tactile pleasure – to take down those old books, feel their weight and open the cover in anticipation of what lies beneath.

The first thing one typically finds on the fly page is an inscription or dedication – perhaps the owner’s name or the giver and recipient’s names and possibly the date and place.

Dedications and Owner Names

Dedications and Owner Names

These are a few examples from some of my old books.  They cause one to stop and ponder the lives of these people and the times they lived in – the First World War, the Depression era and the Second World War.  “To dearest Uncle with treasured memories of a very happy month.  Freda 6/9/44”  Really?  Three days after the D-Day landing in Normandy. Fascinating!

Some are a little more typical – family gifts to children, for example.

Kipling's Rewards & Faeries

Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies

Rewards and Fairies was Kipling’s follow up to the famous Puck of Pook’s Hill.  It is delightful to contemplate Uncle Charles sitting down in front of the fire to read to his nieces and nephews after Christmas dinner in 1911 with no television or radio to distract them.

Books were always on my Christmas wish list – in fact, because our Dad worked in Fleet Street, he would bring home an extensive list of books he had access to and we children could browse the list and make our selections from it.  It was a delight, on Christmas morning to find those beautiful new books waiting under the tree for us – perhaps one of my favorite childhood memories.

One of the books I remembered clearly was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter – the story (obviously) of an otter.  Set in Devon, England in the early 20th Century, it is a remarkably detailed and accurate catalog of the flora, fauna and overall ecosystem of that part of the country.  It also tells (unsympathetically) the story of Tarka from his birth to his untimely and tragic but noble death, along with an accurate portrayal of the annual otter hunts which took place in those years.  Just this past year, I decided to find a copy of the book and re-read it.  It was even better than I previously recalled.  When I opened the cover, there on the fly page sat an inscription:

TarkaConsidering that the recipient received his book around the same time I received mine; and given the fact that he had a very distinct name, my curiosity was aroused and I wondered what became of this boy.  As it turns out, he went on to obtain his PhD and is now the headmaster of a prestigious private school in New England.  It reinforces that old adage that ‘readers are leaders’.

Some books come into our possession via other means.  I don’t know if it is still common practice or not to will books to others, but I found this in one of my books:


It would appear Mr. Rich had a stamp made specifically for the diaspora of his library upon his demise.  That’s a nice way to be remembered by one’s friends and family members.

Another means by which books are transferred is as Advance Reader or Complimentary copies (as in this instance):English Forest

A charming little illustrated book with the stamp of the publisher.  It would appear that it was subsequently sold for the price of seven pence.  That alone should giver the reader some idea how old the book is!

One of the outstanding features of many old book dedications is the quality of penmanship.  In this digital era the art of writing is rapidly diminishing among the population at large (to say nothing of spelling!).  So when one opens the cover of an old book and discovers a beautifully written inscription with lovely penmanship (using a fountain pen), it is a visual pleasure (as in the following example – which has the added pleasure for me of coming from my hometown, Glasgow – significantly before my time (in fact while my parents were infants in Glasgow).Penmanship

Then, of course, there are often other surprises and stories to be told in the pages of the books by those things tucked between the pages.  Take a look at this website for some interesting examples: http://www.thingsinbooks.com/.  I have heard of people finding such oddities as the skeleton of a Kipper (Smoked Haddock) which had been used as a bookmark!  Perhaps the one that delights me the most is this tram ticket from Melbourne, Australia which must have been placed there by the reader while riding the tram in the early part of the 20th century.  It has been there so long that the color of the ticket bled into the paper of the book.Tram Ticket
Another find that fascinated me came in a book by a favorite author Antoine de Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars) called The Wisdom of The Sands.  In this instance the story was told by several pieces of correspondence (hand-written and typed) and a snapshot of a castle or monastery (presumably) somewhere in Europe.  I have been completely unable to determine the location!  Regardless, it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two friends (male and female).  It is rather strange that it should have been left there when the book was discarded.  Perhaps someone was cleaning out a family member’s possessions upon their death and the book was boxed up with others in haste.  Who knows, but it is fun to speculate!WisdomFinally, there are those books that make their way to us from strange and exotic locations and one can only wonder how they traveled and by what route.  I have an old book of poems by Rudyard Kipling – a collection from his other books.  It was once part of the library of a hotel in the South of France (according to the stamp).  The hotel is still thriving and I’m sure they are not missing Mr. Kipling!HotelThere is a fellow in England who has a blog geared specifically to book dedications.  Of course, I find it quite fascinating!  http://bookdedications.wordpress.com/author/waynebg/

Don’t forget to dedicate the books you give away – posterity will look on and wonder…


Flights of Fancy

I would like to say that the current topic was inspired by our zip-lining experience this past weekend (to celebrate my wife’s birthday we all went as a family to http://www.historicbanningmills.com/ which is just 20 minutes down the road from us).  What fun it was – flying through the air hooked on to a steel cable!  Well anyway, I already had this topic in mind but the zip-lining gave me the momentum I needed to get writing. 🙂

Flying has always fascinated me for as long as I can remember.  I can’t recall my earliest interest in aviation but I do know that as a boy my hero was none other than that intrepid airman, Biggles – Bigglesworth of the Royal Flying Corp to be precise.  He was a character created by Captain W.E. Johns and I followed the adventures of he and his compatriots through the two World Wars and the Cold War that followed.  Captain Johns knew how to capture a boy’s imagination.  So much so that when I was old enough, in my early teen years, I joined the Air Training Corp (a youth organization which is part of the Royal Air Force).  There, I was finally able to realize my dream of flying – first in an open cockpit glider then in a small single engine trainer plane.  I can still recall donning the parachute and flying helmet prior to ascending to fly over Southwest England where we performed some aerobatics that had me looking “up” at the earth.  I was hooked!

In the years since then I have taken to the sky in commercial jet liners, in a closed cockpit sailplane over Stone Mountain, GA, in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley, CA and para-sailing over the Gulf of Mexico in Destin, FL.  Give me the opportunity and I’ll take to the sky in a heartbeat.  One item, high on my bucket list, is to fly in an open cockpit biplane – but when I get up there I may not want to come back down!

So, while I’m grounded I love to immerse myself in tales of flying – a holdover from those old Biggles days (and yes, I have a couple of Biggles on my bookshelves including the one shown above).  Among the authors who have fueled my imagination are Beryl Markham of “West With The Night” fame who was the first to fly solo from Europe to North America, Charles and Anne Lindberg who both wrote of their flying in “The Spirit of St. Louis” and “North To The Orient”, Rinker Buck who wrote of his transcontinental flight as a teenager with his brother in the small plane, Richard Bach (best known for “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull”) who was a USAF pilot and wrote extensively of his various flying experiences including a summer as part of a barn-storming troupe with his Stearman biplane, Richard Halliburton the remarkable adventurer who (among his many books) wrote “The Flying Carpet” recounting his fantastic exploits and my favorite of them all, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (best known for “The Little Prince”).  A lot of his flying experiences were expressed in his novels but the classic of all his aviation writing has to be “Wind, Sand and Stars” – a collection of essays wherein he recounts his experiences as a pioneering pilot for Aeropostale carrying the mail deep into the heart of the North African Desert and across the vastness of Patagonia in South America.

As both an accomplished pilot and author his prose is unsurpassed for its beauty as it relates to flying.  Let me share just a brief portion:

“A minor accident had forced me down in the Rio de Oro region, in Spanish Africa.  Landing on one of those  table-lands of the Sahara which fall away steeply at the sides, I found myself on the flat top of the frustrum of a cone, an isolated vestige of a plateau that had crumbled round the edges…Without question, I was the first human being ever to wander over this . . . this iceberg; its sides were remarkably steep, no Arab could have climbed them, and no European had as yet ventured into this wild region.
I was thrilled by the virginity of a soil which no step of man or beast had sullied.  I lingered there, startled by this silence that never had been broken.  The first star began to shine, and I said to myself that this pure surface had lain here thousands of years in sight only of the stars.
But suddenly my musings on this white sheet and these shining stars were endowed with a singular significance.  I had kicked against a hard, black stone, the size of a man’s fist, a sort of moulded rock of lava incredibly present on a bed of shells a thousand feet deep.  A sheet spread beneath an apple-tree can receive only apples; a sheet spread beneath the stars can receive only star-dust.  Never had a stone fallen from the skies made known its origin so unmistakably.
And very naturally, raising my eyes, I said to myself that from the height of this celestial apple-tree there must have dropped other fruits, and that I should find them exactly where they fell, since never from the beginning of time had anything been present to displace them.
Excited by my adventure, I picked up one and then a second and then a third of these stones, finding them at about the rate of one stone to the acre.  And here is where my adventure became magical, for in a striking foreshortening of time that embraced thousands of years, I had become the witness of this miserly rain from the stars.  The marvel of marvels was that there on the rounded back of the planet, between this magnetic sheet and those stars, a human conciousness was present in which as in a mirror that rain could be reflected.”

On days like we’ve been seeing recently when the sky is clear and the mildest of breezes ruffles the fresh green leaves of Spring, the sound of a small plane flying overhead automatically draws my eyes upwards and my breath catches a little as I place myself in the cockpit beside the pilot and gaze out at the broad landscape spread out below and the blue horizon that awaits exploration.

We are earth-bound creatures but how we long to fly like the birds.