Old books

Print More

(Host) A recent literary encounter has reminded commentator Madeleine Kunin that — while they may get old in terms of years — some things remain ageless.

(Kunin) The Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary was a wedding gift in 1959.

When I opened it to look up a word recently, I noticed that the pages had turned a delicate pale brown, more the color of parchment than tissue paper.

I needed both my reading glasses and a flashlight to find the definition I was looking for. I thought perhaps I hadn’t used the dictionary enough over the years. That’s what made it appear so fragile. It needed a good airing.

The instructions that came with it years ago said that a book that size should not be open to one page for too long. It should be turned to different letters of the alphabet from time to time.

I recently lent one of my sons my treasured copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Inside the front cover was a purple mimeographed syllabus. It was so brief, compared to the electronically filed syllabus I give to my students today. No hint of a copying machine, and almost no hint of the Madeleine May who was taking an English class on T. S. Eliot and James Joyce in 1956.

The green cover of the Modern Library edition of 1946 had begun to fray. But I still could decipher the notes I had written in the margins when the professor had said something profound. The ink had not faded.

We students at the University of Massachusetts were eager to please. The professor had told us if we had some new insights into Ulysses, he would write our names in the margins of his book, smuggled into America when Ulysses had been banned.

He was a professor at Amherst College, representing the Ivy League to which we aspired. When he told us one day that we were even smarter than his Amherst students, our chests expanded with pride.

As I looked over my early library books — Bullfinch’s Mythology, an anthology of English and American poetry — I realized with some shock that my books had aged.

They were old.

Did that mean that I had aged with them?

I had to conclude what I had not admitted to myself: that a long time had gone by since I first touched these big volumes with such care.

Almost fifty tears.

I had been certain that, in an uncertain world, these books would last forever. Time could not gray their pages or fade their bright covers.

I leafed through Ulysses and read the soliloquy of Molly Bloom once again. I was thrilled by how fresh it was. I had read it with great joy when I first had encountered it. But now, I returned to it, happy with the sense of rediscovery.

I felt relieved.

We had both aged, the book and I; but the words, those wonderful words, were more alive than ever.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine Kunin is a former Governor of Vermont.

Comments are closed.