I know that some collectors value their books as works of art, wrap them in protectors or boxes and store them away from sunlight in closed bookshelves. I was always brought up to believe that books must be read to be really enjoyed.
I was ten years old before I was deemed sensible enough to touch one of my grandfather's treasured possessions. Up until then I had always harboured the belief that something akin to the apocalypse, quickly followed by the Day of Judgment would occur if I touched one of them. In fact, to avoid temptation I even averted my eyes from the shelves on which they dwelt whenever I entered the library.
So you can imagine my apprehension and excitement when a few days after my 10th birthday, my Grandfather announced that he believed I was now grown up and responsible enough to hold one of the books.
Of course, I had seen the wonderful disappearing pictures from an early age and my grandfather would delight in showing me each of his new acquisitions, displaying them dramatically as a magician with a special trick. But to hold one.
Having made sure that I had washed my hands and they were thoroughly dry, something I still do out of habit and reverence for the book to this day, he asked me to hold out my left hand. Into it, to my great surprise he placed an egg.
He then told me to gently raise my thumb and little finger and cradle the egg. He asked me to remember how carefully I held the egg and said this was the way to hold a book. Now, he took the egg away and placed in my hand a very old book. I recognized at once as having the exciting scene of men in a boat chasing a large white fish with spears and ropes. Cradling the spine of the book in my left hand, I gently turned the pages of the book with my right hand. I now know that this puts the minimum amount of stress on the binding.
He told me not to open the book fully but only enough to read the words on one page at a time. The pages were left to fall naturally and kept back by the thumb. You must hold the first page in line with your eye to read but keep the next page vertical to your face. To read the next page you rotate the book so the right page is easy to read but the previous page is now vertical to your face. Strangely this quickly becomes second nature and is a habit worth developing. This is the secret of reading a valuable book as my grandfather taught me and I now tell you.
So on that rainy afternoon I read aloud to my grandfather from the first painted book that I had ever held.
"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse,
and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world....."
How to Read a Book, with a Fore Edge Painting
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27 July 2008
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