The Writer’s Shelf: New uses for old books

I just inherited the full Encyclopaedia Britannica for 2002, and, I must say, the books look quite impressive, lined up neat and tidy across one shelf. The black binding looks official, an impression strengthened by the logo, an engraved gold thistle. The spines still bear orange “For Library Use Only” stickers, which I can’t remove without damaging the covers.

The books were an unexpected gift. An Oakville woman found my name on the Indexing Society of Canada’s website. She had bought the whole set for $15 from a book sale held by the Friends of the Oakville Public Library, thinking it would be helpful as she started an indexing career. At 80, perhaps she was being a bit optimistic. Her husband’s failing health led her to cast aside her indexing ambitions and to box up all 29 volumes (not counting the index and propaedia).

I’m happy to take books if they’re offered. I do have a frugal side, and the 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannica set was probably worth a few thousand when acquired by the library. At the same time, I was gifted with two newspaper style guides, Whitaker’s Almanac 2000, and The Unofficial Guide to Hockey’s Most Unusual Records.

Over the years, I’ve accepted carton after carton of old books. Friends and family know their old sci-fi novels and beach-read doorstops will find a good home with me. Why not? I’ll read anything.

I have also accepted slightly dated non-fiction books in the past. Just yesterday, I came across a third edition of Written Communication in Business, a 1971 college textbook. I can picture this book being carted from class to class by pony-tailed young women—women destined for careers as secretaries, women well positioned to find and wed promising businessmen. There is an entire chapter on dictation, and, of course, no mention of e-mail.

While I likely won’t use this textbook to improve my writing, I can get a better picture of the mechanics and context of business communication in the ‘70s. What would a student of business need to know before sitting down to write a report? How has resume writing changed in the past 35 years? (Would you believe readers were counseled to include their height and weight in a job application?) Was the semi-colon as detested as it is today?

While some second-hand pieces of my library find their way up to the cottage—Nora Roberts and Debbie Macomber being the most likely to be banished—books like the communication textbook will probably stay right where they are. The same goes for other found dated gems, like my second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage; a decade-old Canadian atlas; and a book on the best home-based businesses of the ‘90s.

As a writer living in and observing the world, I know the books I purchase will fade away, lose their immediacy, become old-fashioned, quaint, archaic. Yet those same resources are the ones that remind me that all I can do is record my own brief moment in time. The instant I write one word, the world has already changed. I am a new person by the time I finish a sentence. Yet that moment of change is what gives each piece its own luminous, eternal significance.

I’m sure I’ll cherish my new/old set of encyclopaedias. The Internet can take me only so far, and I don’t completely trust the communal and changeable nature of Wikipedia. While the encyclopaedias won’t help me if I want to read up on current events, I still value their physical heft and their thoughtful essays. I am left gaping in wonder that all those volumes still only manage to capture just one brief, bright perspective of a vast and varied humanity.

So, a question for my fellow Restless Writers: what resource in your library gives you a nostalgic thrill?

Maria McDonald

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1 Comment

Filed under Books and stuff

One response to “The Writer’s Shelf: New uses for old books

  1. B Jas

    Nostalgic thrills for me include firstly, The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language (1988 Encyclopaedic Edition), in addition to… tattered journals/frayed pages, dream dictionaries, astrology rolls, multiple copies of ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ from the 70’s, grade-school bookmarks made of yarn, and fiction faves like Ramona the Brave (Beverly Cleary), Blubber (Judy Blume), Bridge to Terabithia (Paterson), Lord of the Flies (Golding), The Tomorrow City (Hughes), The Time Machine (H.G . Wells), and the Neverending Story… old faves are still reference resources to me. And of course, great comforts to my writing world today. As is Tequila. P.S. Does “Lovers & Other Strangers” (radio show)count as a Nostalgic thrill? Ouch.

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