Some of my old books.
When speaking of books, how old is old to you? To me, “old” is anything before 1900, but in England, books aren’t considered “old” unless they have 700 years-worth of dust. Not kidding.
When we lived there, I snapped up any book from the 1800’s I came across that was under 10 quid. If I’d been more diligent to look, I could have left the country with boxes upon boxes. As it was, I ended up with around fifty. They’re displayed in my living room.
One of my favorite pastimes is to open the cabinet and drink in the musty scent of them, then take one out and appreciate the feel of it. The binding, cover, paper—every part of the old books were carefully created to be thoroughly enjoyed, to impress, to last. Not so anymore. So sad.
My 1792 Bible
My oldest book is a Bible from 1792. I got it for a few pounds at a flea market. Incredible, huh? The history behind that one Bible has got to be rich. Too bad I don’t know it.
I thought I’d share with you a few lines from a few of my favorite old books. See if you can guess which ones they’re from. I’ll start with an easy one…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Phew! I’m outta breath. Did the man not believe in periods? Can you guess who the author was? Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities—from my early 1900s copy.
Here’s another. A hint for you, think Disney…
Once upon a time, there was…
“A king!” my small readers will exclaim.
No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.
Figure it out? Charles Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio”—from my 1940 edition.
Odd are slim you won’t get the next one, so I’ll just tell you what it is, then you can enjoy the first line. It’s from a children’s novel called “Alone in London” written by Hesba Stretton. The inscription on the inside reads, “To dear little Freddie with love from Auntie Alice. 1891”
It had been a close and sultry day—one of the hottest dog-days—even out in the open country, where the dusky green leaves had never stirred upon their stems since the sunrise, and where the birds had found themselves too languid for any songs beyond a faint chirp now and then.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Here’s another set in the countryside, but this one is a fairy tale…
It was beautiful in the country, it was summer-time, the wheat was yellow, the oats were green, the hay was stacked up in the green meadows, and the stork paraded around on his long red legs, discoursing in Egyptian, which language he had learned from his mother.
Tough one, huh? I’ll just give it to you. It’s the first line from my 1851 edition of “Andersen’s Fair Tales, The Ugly Duckling.” The book was given to Violent Barnard for her “good conduct, satisfactory progress, and regular attendance” at High Wych C.E. School. So cool!!
Last, I’ll share with you the first lines from a novel written in 1859.
On the library wall of one of the most famous writers in America, there hang two crossed swords, which his relatives wore in the great War of Independence. The one sword was gallantly drawn in the service of the king, the other was the weapon of a brave and honoured republican soldier.
That snippet is from Chapter 1 of “The Virginians” by W.M. Thackeray. I’ve always wanted to read that one—a novel, written from the British POV about the Americans during our War for Independence. One of these day, I plan to!
Do you have any beloved old books? Care to share a few lines from them?
–April W Gardner is an award-winning author and the senior editor at Clash of the Titles.