There are some things which are improved by time.We don’t have to sideline everything old in favour of something new. When they are left to develop, whether it is an idea, a favourite jumper or a bottle of brandy, some things just keep on improving. The same can be said of a book. Holding a pristine book, unread, unexplored, is a thrilling feeling: no blemish of a fingerprint, the endless possibilities of a good read jumping from each page. But think of the deep fulfilment of finding an old book, knowing its crumpled cover has been turned over by many hands, its pages bruised and thumbed and avidly read.
Second hand book shops smell of dust and warmth and love: the books hold the scent of every person who has touched a page and there is promise of so much magic. As you move around the shelves and sift out a book, sliding the title towards you with interest, there is a secret shared between the binding.
I picked up some ancient books on a market stall this week. A coverless copy of Victor Hugo, with stained pages, the past leaping out, letters black against the grey. The book lay in my palm like a prayer, and then the bookseller held out another book by Alphonse de Lamartine: maroon cover wrinkled, dry as an old fig, the gold letters of Poésie almost worn away.
I continued to search, touching each book lightly with my fingers and found Tout Compte Fait and Réflexions sur la question juive, by Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, side by side as they probably are now at the Cimetière du Montparnasse.
The books cost me five euros altogether. That’s currently just over four pounds; a pound each and a few pennies for each piece of genius.
Last week someone recommended to me that I read a novel called The Butcher’s Hook. It was brand new and cost me £6.99 and I will give it away to anyone who wants it for free. I read the first hundred pages.
Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus may be old, battered books, creased and coverless, but they hold a special place in my heart. And now they are on my bookshelves.