Old Books

I can't resist an old book.

By old, I mean anything published from about before about 1950.

I'm going to guess that this love affair started when I was a child and I read the books my parents had in the house: a first printing of The Wizard of Oz, or an early version of Pinocchio. I also took an early fancy to The Nancy Drew series - but only the ones written in the 30s and early 40s. They were an entirely different book - and, as I've learned since, written not only by a variety of writers, but the first was, in fact, a man.

In these books, Nancy wore "frocks," drove a "roadster," and had "chums."

But it's also true that some of my fascination with elderly tomes isn't just the language (and the proper grammar!), but the feel of the paper, a cloth-over-cardboard binding (stitched, not glued), the smell of the ink. Certainly I've written admiring old books before.

Now I add to it another charm: in earlier times, publishers were fascinated by compendiums. Perhaps it was the same impulse which led to gathering things, sorting and grouping them, and putting them in museums - historic, artistic, or natural history. I can recall many days spent in the Natural History Museum in Buffalo, New York, dwelling on the detailed dioramas depicting life in earlier times, or marveling at the bones of a mastodon. Learning is easy, somehow, when it's also entertaining.

So imagine my delight when I found, in a box of old "junk," a book with the exciting title: Fact, Fancy and Fable: A New Handbook for Ready Reference on Subjects Commonly Omitted from Cyclopaedias; Comprising Personal Sobriquets, Familiar Phrases, Popular Appellations, Geographical Nicknames, Literary Pseudonyms, Mythological Characters, Red-Letter Days, Political Slang, Contractions and Abbreviations, Technical Terms, Foreign Words and Phrases, Americanisms, etc.

How's that for a title? I suppose I should stop there and submit my 50-word essay.

The book was compiled in 1889 by  Henry Frederic Reddal, published by McClurg & Company, and owned by a Mr. Henry Box, who not only added his library sticker, but signed in ancient ink with beautiful penmanship. He did not, I'm sad to say, add any notes to the pages - I am always most excited when I find someone's commentary on what they have read, a bit of another person's life and thoughts left for posterity and someone years later to discover.

As the writer explains in his Preface, "Some will think this book needs no excuse, and others will receive none." Suffice to say that this alphabetically-organized work contains such things as "Evil May Day," "Gauntlet," "Jeffersonian Simplicity," "No Man is a Hero to his Valet," and "Rump and Dozen." I had never heard of any of them, though I could guess at the Valet entry.

I can't recommend the book, because you'd probably never find a copy - but I can recommend a swap meet, book shop, or even your grandmother's dusty attic for a hunting expedition. You never know what you might find.


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