Old books – more than the sum of their parts

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A couple of weeks back Mrs SC and I were in England. We’d been summoned by my mother the centenarian to help her clear out all her books. “I won’t read them any more,” she said. A lot of them were volumes she must have acquired over the last couple of decades.

My mother’s books

A stack of archive boxes fill of books standing in front of one of my mother's now empty bookshelves

There was a two story rotating bookshelf of coffee table books about art and artists, ballet and ballet dancers, gardens, gardening and garden birds. A shelf of hardback autobiographies, mostly of TV personalities (Parkinson, Attenborough, Graham Norton, Terry Wogan). Several shelves of popular paperbacks – including all three volumes of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, definitely read, if not re-read.

There was a shelf of my own University books, mostly poetry and plays. I’d given them to her when she was studying for her English A Level as a mature student. (Mum left school to work when she was 15.) And finally, there was a shelf of old books that I remember from when I was a child. What memories they brought back!

Although she had to leave school very young, Mum came from a highly literate family. Her father fancied himself as a poet and essayist. (Though what he wrote seems very wooden to me.) And her mother, my beloved Grandma, read everything that came her way. Grandma introduced me to many authors, including HG Wells, John Wyndham and (I think) Olaf Stapledon.

So Mum had an eclectic collection which I read my way through much of when I was quite young. Now, sitting on the floor in her guest bedroom/storage space, occasionally sneezing with all the dust, I found them again.

Saved from the charity box

Book Production War Economy Standard statement: This Book is produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards

That was the hardest part of the job, picking through these fragile old texts and packing them for the charity box. Many had been published during the war or soon after and had the Book Production War Economy Standard mark on their flyleaves. Discreetly I threw out a few I thought were in too poor a condition, or too out of date. (Mum’s famous-in-the-family coverless one volume encyclopedia from 1936, for example. The one with the entry referring to “Herr Hitler” as the Chancellor of Germany.)

As I filled the archive boxes bought for the task (we filled 10 in the end), I kept a little pile of books to one side that I kept coming back to, adding to and subtracting from. Books that just to look at, just to touch, brought back such powerful memories.

Covers of John Lennon in his Own Write and The Young Visiters

In the end I kept only three. Mum’s copy of John Lennon In his own Write (published and presumably bought in 1964). The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, a copy I bought Mum as a birthday present in 1973 because she had talked about it as a book she had loved as a child and lost. And The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.

The Egg and I

This last is the oldest of the three I kept. It was published in 1956 so is my senior by two years. I’ve just now finished re-reading it. Reliving Betty MacDonald’s experiences (as an 18-year-old, newly married housewife on an egg and chicken farm in the wilds of Oregon) from 100 years ago, and at the same time my own memories of reading this same book, sometime in 1969 or 1970, it must be, lying on the carpet as warm morning sun falls through the bay window of the front room of our home in Hove. And all while I’m sitting, wrapped against the cold, on the balcony of our flat under a dull November sky here in Sweden.

The book in my hands is nearly falling apart, but the memories it contains are far greater than the sum of its pages.

Front and back covers, and the spine, of my mother's - now my - copy of The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

If I disengage the nostalgia and look at The Egg and I as a piece of writing, I think it holds up surprisingly well. Mind you, the racism Betty MacDonald directs against native Americans was a surprise. I don’t remember it from when I first read the book 50+ years ago.

What about you? Are there books that hold for you much more than just the stories they contain?


I’ve been absent from this site for a month now. Pressure of work (and travelling to England), I’m going to blame that. I’ll try to come back now, but no promises. This piece was written for the website of my writers’ group Pens Around the World, and appeared there, in slightly different form, on Monday.

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1 thought on “Old books – more than the sum of their parts”

  1. Greetings, Mr SC,
    You were very fortunate to have grown up in a home with lots of books. As a child, I don’t remember ever seeing my parents reading a book. But my high school education picked up where my parents failed me. I loved English classes and became enamored with F Scot Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great American writers of a certain era, if really quite different. College did the rest of the work to turn me into a reader for life. Thank god there were outside influences to guide the less fortunate.


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