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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

The Pleasure of Old Books

The Saturday before last I spent a very happy few hours at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, having received this free admission ticket at the book festival at Copley Square last month.



I’d really wanted to go to a talk on the history of espionage Sunday afternoon, but I was on duty during the day, so I just went to the “Intro to Scrimshaw” talk on Saturday. Scrimshaw is the art of etching or carving on ivory or bone, often sperm whale teeth (or the bones of other aquatic animals), so I felt a little weird going to this talk, even if the presenter (Stuart Frank of the New Bedford Whaling Museum) did clarify that these animals were never killed for their teeth. As a vegan this particular art form may squick me out, but my next children’s novel is set in an 18th-century maritime community, so being there was very productive for me research-wise. (Funny how I couldn’t attend the presentation on a topic I’ve already researched for a book that’s long since been put to bed. I often feel like I’m being nudged in the most fruitful direction.)

But did I buy any interesting old books? Why yes, yes I did.




Most of the stalls were quite high end—pricetags of up to tens of thousands of dollars for first edition classics and rarities alike—and for the first half hour or so I thought I’d probably come away empty handed. I found several books (on Victorian ghost stories, Scottish folklore, etc.) that are most likely available via Google books, so there was no way I could justify a $200 or $250 expenditure even for a beautiful edition in very good condition. I love old books, but I’m not a collector by any means. I’m way more interested in the actual content—so much so that my own library is completely marked up and highlighted, and therefore “worthless.” Sweet, sweet irony.

I eventually discovered Willis Monie and Penny Daly of Wellread Books, both of whom make a point of offering obscure antique books at affordable prices. I must have browsed this single stall for an hour. (These bookshops are respectively located in Cooperstown and Northport, New York.)

Do you ever feel the magical lure of old books? I choose an interesting old tome, and I haven’t paid for it yet, but it’s already mine, it’s definitely definitely mine.

…Then, with a queer little flash, I understand it chose me first.

(At least it’s tempting to feel that old books have secret lives and wants, especially when their former owners’ names and date of purchase are written on the fly in beautiful penmanship. This book has been places. It has lived on other shelves, been held in other hands. Maybe it has traveled a long, long way to reach me.)



Sisters of Sorcery, published in New York in 1976, with cover illustration by Edward Gorey. It has a “library edition” label, but I can tell I’m the first person ever to turn these pages. (Yup, I have already devoured it. So so good.)



A Little Book of Courtesies by Katherine Tynan and Charles Robinson, published in London and New York circa 1906.



A Child’s Dream of a Star by Charles Dickens with illustrations by Etheldred B. Barry, published in Boston in 1903.



Underwear and Lingerie, published by the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences in Scranton, P.A. in 1930.


I’m looking forward to sharing these books with you in much greater detail in future posts!


3 Comments to The Pleasure of Old Books

  1. November 26, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    So jealous! My favorite old books are cookbooks. Makes me realize how different our tastes are (literally and figuratively) these days!

  2. November 26, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I just love your selections. A Little Book of Courtesies would’ve attracted me too. Happy Thanksgiving, Camille.

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    January 3, 2014 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    More details on the last one please 😉

    The Courtesies book was published at the same time our house was being built.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.