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How to Read an Old Book

By Susan Brown

First you must get the book. Find a book made before the birth of the most elderly person you ever met was born. Find one written before there were computers or astronauts or Hitlers, before there were airplanes, cars, central heating, or electric lights. Find a book that crossed the Atlantic in a ship with sails, and was hauled from the wharves to the booksellers by horse. Find a book that hasn’t been opened in a hundred years. Choose one written under a kerosene lamp with a fountain pen, or by candlelight with feathers. Study the books you inherited, the books curated by eight generations of your family.

Buy a spinster’s estate and find books in her attic. Go downstairs to the basement of the University’s library. Sign in at Special Collections. Place all your belongings in the locker. Fill out the request form with the call letters of an old old book, then sit at the table under watchful eyes and cameras, and wait. Spend your weekends searching garage sales, thrift stores, antique shops. Wreck your budget buying books at auction.

When you have become the custodian of an old book hold it in your hands. Feel the covers. Are they crumbling and cracking? The book might fall apart as you read, however carefully you turn the pages. Is the cover embossed and gilt? Is it linen or leather? Is it battered and faded? Has it ever been repaired? Notice the scent. Does this book smell of wood smoke, tobacco, perfume, old hide and glue, or mildew? Where has it been? Do the pages have decorative edges? Are they deckled? If they are smooth and marbled, or gilt, the book was likely meant to lie flat on its shelf.

Open the cover of an old book. You are an historian, an archaeologist. Be alert for inscriptions and artifacts. Look for penciled prices, library stamps, bookplates, signatures, gift inscriptions, childish scribbles, doodles, handwritten notes and comments. Keep the loose pages, but resist the urge to erase and fix. Leave the names and the children’s drawings. Use no tape or glue, but search for inclusions and remove damaging items. Things that leave shadows on paper hasten its crumbling to dust. You might find bits of tape from failed repairs, old newspaper clippings, pressed flowers, feathers, butterfly wings, calling cards, colorful ribbons and embroidery thread, letters, prescriptions, drawings, handwritten recipes, or grains of cinnamon and sugar. Throw the destructive bits, the shadow-makers, away. Keep the rest.

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Susan Brown is currently living near Seattle and working on her MFA at the Creative Writing and Poetics program at the University of Washington. In 1999, she attended the Writer’s Workshop at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her previous publications include visual art that recently appeared in Breakwater Review, Mayo Review, Inscape 2010, Chaffey Review, and 322 Review. In 2007, San Diego University’s Pacific Review published her short fiction, “The Clues,” under the pen name Alice Indigo.

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