Wednesday, January 4, 2012

There is no such thing as obsolete...

I collect strange old books. For some reason, medical books. These can be difficult to find, particularly in a small regional city. I think, unfortunately, that a lot of old medical books are destroyed because the information in them is either obsolete, or incredibly dangerous. My British Pharmacopoeia 1932 might not be up to date with the latest gimmicks, paracetamol, it does tell me how to mix up a medicinal tincture of cocaine. Mmm, sparkly goodness.

I am in love with Embalming, Theoretical and Practical by E. F. Scudamore F.B.I.E. I would love it slightly more if it was called Embalming for Fun and Profit, but you can’t have everything. This is the book that taught me that eyeballs liquefy three to five days after death. Invaluable stuff!

The oldest book I own is called Elijah the Tishbite. It is from the 1860s, and has been handed down in the family for ages. First, I guess, because someone was religious, then from habit, and now because you can’t throw out a book that old. I’ve tried to read Elijah the Tishbite a few times, if only to see what a Tishbite is, but I can’t do it. This book has defeated me. I get a few pages in, and am suddenly overcome by the urge to do harm to myself and others. Nobody can veer from dull religious pomposity into casual racist bigotry like the Victorians. 

But that’s what I love about old books. The “facts” might be laughable, but in a century or two ours will be as well. Old books are a snapshot in time, part of the zeitgeist, and a window into a very different world.

Mum once said those old encyclopaedias were just collecting dust. But, really, how can we get rid of them? Where else are you going to see a cliffhanger like this:

What's the most impractical, wonderful book you own? 


  1. I have a 1951 edition for French for the Modern World Book Two from a church rummage sale. No idea where I could even buy book 1 lol.

  2. I adore old books... and like you I can't bare to part with them... they are so a snapshot of that time... They usually make me laugh, but are great for getting a feel for that timeframe:)

  3. I sniff books! There it's out, and I can't retract the admission.

    My oldest book was printed in Dublin in 1933 (The Great Earl Of Kildare). It's my current bible as this non-fiction is a complete biography of my current main character's life.

    It smells heavenly.

  4. When visiting a friend on Cape Cod in a very old house, I stayed up late one night reading an 1800's medical text that would give anyone goosebumps. Or at least a cure for them involving something since banned from medical practice.

    And the most impractical, wonderful book I own is the one I'm writing, though I think it actually owns me.

  5. We have my granddad's dictionary. I don't know how old it is exactly, but my mum remembers it from her childhood., excuse me while I giggle over the cliffhanger...

  6. @ Steph, that sounds fantastic! I'd love to know what all the cool French kids were saying in 1951.

    @ tf, absolutely! They're great as a primary resource, but they're also hilarious.

    @ Pauline, I'll join your Book Sniffers Anonymous Support Group. I love the smell of old books! I don't whether or not it's the glue in the spines or something, but modern hardcovers just don't smell the same.

  7. @ MC, old medical books hit that perfect balance between hilarious and toe-curling horrific! My doctor has one in his office just called "Gunshot Wounds." One day I'm going to work up the courage to ask for a look.

    I know what you mean about your WIP owning you. But I don't agree it's impractical. Anything that fires your imagination is never impractical. It's too important for that!

    @ Miss Cole, hello! Yes, I can't wait to get the next edition and find out if we gave those Germans a damn good thrashing.

  8. LOVE old books. They are often difficult to read, but can be full of great, quirky stuff to use in novels. And that cliff hanger is, I wonder how it ends? :)

  9. I have a huge bundle of old books that I just can't throw away. My husband wants me to, but that's not gonna happen.

    Great post.

    Happy New Year!

  10. I know, LG! I'm on the edge of my seat!
    Old books are brilliant.

    @ Mina: Protect the books at all costs! Old books are so much fun. I was reading one of mine last night about etiquette. I veered between hysterical laughter and outrage the whole time.

  11. I LOVE old books! The oldest on my shelf is Howe's Historical Collections of Ohio (the state I live in), 1859. A treasure for a history lover, that's for sure :-) Thanks for the reminder. I need to pull it off the shelf again soon...

  12. Umm, I have an original Mrs Beeton's cookery book. Does that count? My Mum handed it down to me, more in hope than expectation, I fear :-)

  13. We collect old books too, usually found in antique stores. We have an old dictionary from around 1932 (a huge one like the types found in libraries - hubby's family); we have The Scarlet Letter 1850, and Two Gentlemen of Verona around the same time in the late 1800s, but independently published in that time. Both are smallish sized books (to fit the pockets of the day, no doubt).

    I think the attraction is that they remind us that we have a history. An interesting thing I noticed, these two old books are in better shape than old paperbacks from the 1970's. The printing is better, the quality of the binding still holds on one of them. The paperbacks have yellowed quite a lot making them hard to read.

    Keep collecting, it's a good thing.



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