I was interested to read Lynda Waterhouse's post yesterday about getting rid of sentences which are treasured but unnecessary. It struck a chord - not because I am editing at the moment, but because I have been driving around for some months - yes, months - with a boot full of blue encyclopaedias.
I saw them again yesterday, when I opened the boot to put some shopping in. I've been away for a while, so I'd forgotten they were there, and they eyed me reproachfully. What are we doing here? they demanded. Is this any way to treat The Book of Knowledge?
When I was a child, not that long after they invented the wheel, we didn't have many books in our house. My dad loved reading but hated waste, and it seemed to him a waste of money to buy books. He borrowed them from the library, and he made an exception for reference books, and in later years he loved to receive books as gifts, but my sister and I didn't have many books to read as small children. This may have been an advantage: Mum bought us a few Ladybird books, and because we read the same few over and over again, we learned them by heart, and I'm sure that's how it was that I could read before I went to school.
Once I had access to libraries, that was fine. But in the meantime, The Book of Knowledge was what I had to fall back on. It was - is - a set of dusty blue encyclopaedias, published by the Waverley Book Company. Here's the title page, where it declares itself to be: A Library on every Subject, simply and accurately written, and Illustrated by a wealth of Pictures never before attempted. Together with an Easy Reference Fact-Index and a Series of delightful Study Outlines. (I have to admit I have no recollection of the 'delightful Study Outlines'.) I picked one volume out of the boot at random, and, looking through it, I see that it has stories and extracts from books as well as factual entries. I still remember some of the stories I read there: King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid... well, that's the only one, actually, but I'm sure there must be others.
It doesn't say anywhere when it was printed, but the caption to this picture tells you that it must have been published between the wars: Three happy Croatian girls in the chief city of Hungary. Their native country, which has seen many changes, formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before the World-War, but is now included in the new state of Jugo-Slavia. So it was already thirty or so years old when I first saw it: (I don't know whether it came from grandparents or maybe even from a jumble sale.) There's a jolly little entry under 'Calculating Machines': These wonderful little machines add, subtract, multiply, divide, and perform other mathematical operations that make them most useful wherever figures are constantly dealt with on a large scale. There are machines for every need... Who'd have thought it, eh?
So it's massively out of date. My parents handed it on years ago during a clear-out; sentimentally, I didn't want to throw it out, so it sat in a cupboard for years. Then my son wanted the cupboard space, so had a clear-out in turn. Strangely, he couldn't quite bear to throw it out either, so he piled all the volumes one on top of the other and used it as a bed-side table. Finally, with the threat of more books arriving from my mother-in-law's house, I decided the time had come. The Book of Knowledge must go.
And it did. Into my boot. But no further. And now, looking through it for the purposes of this post... well, there's all sorts of interesting stuff in it. Look, there's even ancient dried flowers - it's a positive treasure house!
What do you do with old books? I don't have a problem with new ones - unless I think I'll read them again, I recycle them pretty quickly now, to charity shops usually. It's the old ones. It just seems so- well, mean, somehow, to take them to the dump. Ungrateful. What do you think?