If water, fire, or mice don’t get to them, books are endurable things. There’s no fiddling with file format or figuring out what device to use. Your fingers are all you need to turn the pages. Unless you have the privilege to happen across a book with uncut pages. Then you need a sharp blade, a dash of bravery, and a sense of wonder when you realize you’re the FIRST PERSON EVER to open that page. Old books are why we go to libraries, second-hand book sales, and save books from the junk pile. They smell great and they often have little clues about their past jotted onto the pages.
So with that in mind, I browsed my bookshelves looking for the oldest books.
1960: The Jewish War by Josephus: It looks old but is actually relatively young. But the brown cover design makes it stick out on my Penguin Classics shelf populated with their trademark black. It cost 5/- (that’s shillings) – a currency that no longer exists.
1951: The Story Of England And The Empire by John Mackenzie Wood & Aileen Garland: This is a revised edition of a school textbook published by The Copp Clark Company and it looks like the students who used it survive in their signatures on the back page. Sally, Jacky, Bonnie, Beverly, Nancy, Fae, Sharon, Linda, Shirley, Marilyn, and Marie: what did they think of this book? And I’m guessing they went to an all-girls school. Which suggests that Maurice, the one man who signed the book, at the front, and who included a phone number and room number, could have been a history teacher at Harewood, Ontario.
1900: Tennyson Select Poems edited by W.J. Alexander: The date’s right on the cover page: “Literature prescribed for the Junior Matriculation and Junior Leaving Examinations 1901”. Printed in 1900. What’s very cool (but probably was a bit panic-inducing for the University Of Toronto student at the time) are the reams of notes filling the endpapers. Definitions of metonymy and synecdoche. And useful advice like “Do not mix metaphors.”
1905: Biblia Sacra: Otherwise known as The Bible, this is the Latin Vulgate. If my Latin is still good (there is not a WORD of English in here, including the introductions), this is the sixth edition printed in Paris in 1905. The first edition received its imprimatur from the Archbishop of Lyons in 1887, and this copy was awarded as a prize in 1908 to Alban Grafty attending St Edmund’s College in England. It’s the most beautiful book I own: gilded spine, leather cover, decorative endpapers, and gorgeous page edging. And best part – it was free. A friend saved it from a church junk pile.
1890-1914: For Name And Fame by G.A. Henty: I have a number of G.A. Henty’s boys-own-adventure novels. Annoyingly, none of them are dated, so a little detective work is needed. Henty published this book in 1886, but his American publisher Hurst & Co. seems to have acquired rights sometime in the 1890s. The inscription is the most touching note I have in my books, and also gives an end date for possible printing.
1872: Archbishop Gray’s Register (Surtees Society vol. 56) edited by James Raine: An old friend from my thesis days. It’s an edited version of a thirteenth-century bishop’s register, or diary. From the bookplate inside, it looks like this copy came from the library of Ripon Cathedral. And, yes, I’ve worked with the original thirteenth century manuscript!