Old Is Gold

Bookshelves

Some of Susan's antique books

Susan here. We've had flu in our house, so we require lots of hot tea, soup, quilts, and endless tissues, as well as comfort reads and doses of TV in between naps. Despite my fluey state, there’s research and writing to do, though I haven't had much energy for it. So I'm going to my own bookshelves, my own library (bookcases all over the house), to further the current project to browse and do some wool-gathering among old books. The older the better suits the project I’m working on. Contrary to a more modern approach, which needs the most up-to-date research to support the goal and prove a point, research for historical fiction benefits from outdated sources, especially those in keeping with the time period. The older the source the better; and if the historian is opinionated, perhaps even fanciful, that's okay. There are lots of ideas in there along with information.

19087341.thbI spent years in academia studying medieval art and history, where old sources are as valued as new ones, with careful footnoting, context, and caveats, though an old unreliable source is to be avoided. But when writing fiction, a gossipy Victorian history, for example, can be a gold mine. I’ve found more juicy tidbits of facts and ideas between tattered covers than in shiny new books with the newest information.

Over the years I've collected a good number of antique and vintage books. I love these old books—the feel and smell of them, the gentle signs of wear and tear, the thought of those who have held them before me. I love the look of them on my shelves, too – embossed, gilded, threadbare, faded and foxed, gone golden over the years. What wonderful stuff is in those old pages!

When I’m writing about 19th-century characters, what better resource than a book the characters might have had on their own shelves–Austen for close and authentic insights into daily life and attitudes, or Sir Walter Scott for juicy bits of historical trivia. His library at Abbotsford is one of my favorite places on earth—I’ve been there more than once, and had to be literally dragged out of there by friends.

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Abbotsford library (photo www.scottsabbotsford.com)

I love the gossipy, sentimental, dramatic Victorians, Andrew Lang and W. F. Skene, whose histories are part fact and part fancy. Going further back, there's the intriguing biases and fictitious details of late medieval historical chroniclers like Froissart and Holinshed. Their slants, prejudices and flat-out fibs are just the thing for understanding history from a historical perspective rather than a modern one. Historical fiction does not always require absolute accuracy – authenticity is more crucial to writing a readable, enjoyable novel. And researching quaint, sometimes downright wacky old histories to find nuggets is pretty enjoyable.

Edouard-john-mentha-maid-reading-a-book

Edouard Mentha, Maid Reading, before 1915
Johnstevens1793John Stevens, Maid in Library, 1793

One of my novels (Waking the Princess) focused on 19th c. archaeology and the search for Arthur. In the research, I skipped quickly through current archaeological sources to go straight for Skene, that old intellectual lion and armchair Indiana Jones, whose work on ancient Wales, the Matter of Britain, and the Celts is still rock-solid today, and still has radical aspects. His fascination and immersion with ancient British cultures reflected the interests of his own society in the hidden, the mysterious, the deliciously mystical and enchanted, and his work was a possible inspiration for Tolkein's academic and literary "story soup."

I’ve been researching fairy lore and Celtic myths again, something I often draw on for my stories. With the plethora of sources about fairy lore available, it’s hard to know where to begin. Going back to the oldest studies I can find makes sense, find the origins and the core versions of the magical stories my own fictional characters might have heard.

I’ve found some great antique fairy tale books too, tattered old Florence storer bookshop discoveries or in lovely reprint versions—Thomas Keightly’s Fairy Mythology, Evans-Wentz’s Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. B. Yeats’ fascination with fairies and Celtic lore; stories, myths, and superstitions collected by Lady Gregory and Lady Wilde; and Andrew Lang, a respected Victorian academic whose red, blue, green, orange, purple, pink fairy tale collections rank right up there with the Brothers Grimm.

When I’ve got real research to do and want to understand an area of history, the oldest books are the best. What great, unique sources for a fiction writer looking for authentic, delicious sources and inspirations for new stories.

Do you also have an obsession for old books, the older the better? Are your bookshelves sagging with beloved, tattered, faded and unique volumes? What is the pull of these beautiful, venerable old volumes? 

35 thoughts on “Old Is Gold”

  1. I enjoy both old and new books! I am fortunate to live in an area with many thrift stores that have exceedingly well organized book sections; most of those stores have many shelves of old, old books that are fun to browse. In one old logic book, I found a University of California, Schedule of Final Exams for April – May, 1915 that was in wonderful condition.
    The vast majority of exams were three hours long. (My husband who attended UCB in the seventies said that was true then as well.)
    The final exam for Subject A was scheduled for Monday, April 26, at 2:00pm. My husband said that Subject A was still offered when he attended and was commonly referred to as Bonehead English.
    My husband went looking for, and found, exam times for Professor Hildebrand’s Chemistry classes. This professor who was teaching classes in 1914 was still a member of the department some sixty years later when my husband was there!

    Reply
  2. I enjoy both old and new books! I am fortunate to live in an area with many thrift stores that have exceedingly well organized book sections; most of those stores have many shelves of old, old books that are fun to browse. In one old logic book, I found a University of California, Schedule of Final Exams for April – May, 1915 that was in wonderful condition.
    The vast majority of exams were three hours long. (My husband who attended UCB in the seventies said that was true then as well.)
    The final exam for Subject A was scheduled for Monday, April 26, at 2:00pm. My husband said that Subject A was still offered when he attended and was commonly referred to as Bonehead English.
    My husband went looking for, and found, exam times for Professor Hildebrand’s Chemistry classes. This professor who was teaching classes in 1914 was still a member of the department some sixty years later when my husband was there!

    Reply
  3. I enjoy both old and new books! I am fortunate to live in an area with many thrift stores that have exceedingly well organized book sections; most of those stores have many shelves of old, old books that are fun to browse. In one old logic book, I found a University of California, Schedule of Final Exams for April – May, 1915 that was in wonderful condition.
    The vast majority of exams were three hours long. (My husband who attended UCB in the seventies said that was true then as well.)
    The final exam for Subject A was scheduled for Monday, April 26, at 2:00pm. My husband said that Subject A was still offered when he attended and was commonly referred to as Bonehead English.
    My husband went looking for, and found, exam times for Professor Hildebrand’s Chemistry classes. This professor who was teaching classes in 1914 was still a member of the department some sixty years later when my husband was there!

    Reply
  4. I enjoy both old and new books! I am fortunate to live in an area with many thrift stores that have exceedingly well organized book sections; most of those stores have many shelves of old, old books that are fun to browse. In one old logic book, I found a University of California, Schedule of Final Exams for April – May, 1915 that was in wonderful condition.
    The vast majority of exams were three hours long. (My husband who attended UCB in the seventies said that was true then as well.)
    The final exam for Subject A was scheduled for Monday, April 26, at 2:00pm. My husband said that Subject A was still offered when he attended and was commonly referred to as Bonehead English.
    My husband went looking for, and found, exam times for Professor Hildebrand’s Chemistry classes. This professor who was teaching classes in 1914 was still a member of the department some sixty years later when my husband was there!

    Reply
  5. I enjoy both old and new books! I am fortunate to live in an area with many thrift stores that have exceedingly well organized book sections; most of those stores have many shelves of old, old books that are fun to browse. In one old logic book, I found a University of California, Schedule of Final Exams for April – May, 1915 that was in wonderful condition.
    The vast majority of exams were three hours long. (My husband who attended UCB in the seventies said that was true then as well.)
    The final exam for Subject A was scheduled for Monday, April 26, at 2:00pm. My husband said that Subject A was still offered when he attended and was commonly referred to as Bonehead English.
    My husband went looking for, and found, exam times for Professor Hildebrand’s Chemistry classes. This professor who was teaching classes in 1914 was still a member of the department some sixty years later when my husband was there!

    Reply
  6. Lovely post, Susan, and so sorry to hear about the flu! Hope you are feeling much better soon! My shelves aren’t sagging with old books, but do hold some treasures I cannot help but touch each time I pass by. I have a late 19th century collection of Wordsworth that belonged to my schoolteacher grandmother. It has a gold imprinted leathery cover, but also looks as if one corner of the collection was dipped in a cup of strong coffee. No one could tell me how that happened! I have several late 19th c. copies of Pride and Prejudice, most from thrift shops. My favorite was called a “travel read” by the bookseller. It is about 4×5 inches, has the thinnest possible pages, between a lovely soft navy blue cover. When I traveled on business almost constantly, it was always with me – something wonderful to read no matter how long the flight or how slim the other choices! I like to think the bookseller was right and I was just the latest to carry it with me on my travels.

    Reply
  7. Lovely post, Susan, and so sorry to hear about the flu! Hope you are feeling much better soon! My shelves aren’t sagging with old books, but do hold some treasures I cannot help but touch each time I pass by. I have a late 19th century collection of Wordsworth that belonged to my schoolteacher grandmother. It has a gold imprinted leathery cover, but also looks as if one corner of the collection was dipped in a cup of strong coffee. No one could tell me how that happened! I have several late 19th c. copies of Pride and Prejudice, most from thrift shops. My favorite was called a “travel read” by the bookseller. It is about 4×5 inches, has the thinnest possible pages, between a lovely soft navy blue cover. When I traveled on business almost constantly, it was always with me – something wonderful to read no matter how long the flight or how slim the other choices! I like to think the bookseller was right and I was just the latest to carry it with me on my travels.

    Reply
  8. Lovely post, Susan, and so sorry to hear about the flu! Hope you are feeling much better soon! My shelves aren’t sagging with old books, but do hold some treasures I cannot help but touch each time I pass by. I have a late 19th century collection of Wordsworth that belonged to my schoolteacher grandmother. It has a gold imprinted leathery cover, but also looks as if one corner of the collection was dipped in a cup of strong coffee. No one could tell me how that happened! I have several late 19th c. copies of Pride and Prejudice, most from thrift shops. My favorite was called a “travel read” by the bookseller. It is about 4×5 inches, has the thinnest possible pages, between a lovely soft navy blue cover. When I traveled on business almost constantly, it was always with me – something wonderful to read no matter how long the flight or how slim the other choices! I like to think the bookseller was right and I was just the latest to carry it with me on my travels.

    Reply
  9. Lovely post, Susan, and so sorry to hear about the flu! Hope you are feeling much better soon! My shelves aren’t sagging with old books, but do hold some treasures I cannot help but touch each time I pass by. I have a late 19th century collection of Wordsworth that belonged to my schoolteacher grandmother. It has a gold imprinted leathery cover, but also looks as if one corner of the collection was dipped in a cup of strong coffee. No one could tell me how that happened! I have several late 19th c. copies of Pride and Prejudice, most from thrift shops. My favorite was called a “travel read” by the bookseller. It is about 4×5 inches, has the thinnest possible pages, between a lovely soft navy blue cover. When I traveled on business almost constantly, it was always with me – something wonderful to read no matter how long the flight or how slim the other choices! I like to think the bookseller was right and I was just the latest to carry it with me on my travels.

    Reply
  10. Lovely post, Susan, and so sorry to hear about the flu! Hope you are feeling much better soon! My shelves aren’t sagging with old books, but do hold some treasures I cannot help but touch each time I pass by. I have a late 19th century collection of Wordsworth that belonged to my schoolteacher grandmother. It has a gold imprinted leathery cover, but also looks as if one corner of the collection was dipped in a cup of strong coffee. No one could tell me how that happened! I have several late 19th c. copies of Pride and Prejudice, most from thrift shops. My favorite was called a “travel read” by the bookseller. It is about 4×5 inches, has the thinnest possible pages, between a lovely soft navy blue cover. When I traveled on business almost constantly, it was always with me – something wonderful to read no matter how long the flight or how slim the other choices! I like to think the bookseller was right and I was just the latest to carry it with me on my travels.

    Reply
  11. I have only a few old books, which are family hand-me-downs, but I love browsing in antique bookshops. And I love the paintings of the maids reading!

    Reply
  12. I have only a few old books, which are family hand-me-downs, but I love browsing in antique bookshops. And I love the paintings of the maids reading!

    Reply
  13. I have only a few old books, which are family hand-me-downs, but I love browsing in antique bookshops. And I love the paintings of the maids reading!

    Reply
  14. I have only a few old books, which are family hand-me-downs, but I love browsing in antique bookshops. And I love the paintings of the maids reading!

    Reply
  15. I have only a few old books, which are family hand-me-downs, but I love browsing in antique bookshops. And I love the paintings of the maids reading!

    Reply
  16. I love delving into the writing styles of various ages. Sometimes I’m surprised how NOT so different they are from now, especially the Victorians.
    Among my old books is a set of Mark Twain from around 1900. A cheap edition, and worth less than you’d think except to me. It’s moved with me numerous times over the last, oh, 55 years. (I bought the ~25 book set for $5 around 1968.) Twain wrote much more than the books we think of today, including an absolutely scathing satire called Christian Science, a supposed travel memoir in which the author-narrator breaks a leg hiking the Alps and a fellow traveler insists on fixing it with her mental powers. I don’t think Twain cared much for intrusive women or spiritualists!

    Reply
  17. I love delving into the writing styles of various ages. Sometimes I’m surprised how NOT so different they are from now, especially the Victorians.
    Among my old books is a set of Mark Twain from around 1900. A cheap edition, and worth less than you’d think except to me. It’s moved with me numerous times over the last, oh, 55 years. (I bought the ~25 book set for $5 around 1968.) Twain wrote much more than the books we think of today, including an absolutely scathing satire called Christian Science, a supposed travel memoir in which the author-narrator breaks a leg hiking the Alps and a fellow traveler insists on fixing it with her mental powers. I don’t think Twain cared much for intrusive women or spiritualists!

    Reply
  18. I love delving into the writing styles of various ages. Sometimes I’m surprised how NOT so different they are from now, especially the Victorians.
    Among my old books is a set of Mark Twain from around 1900. A cheap edition, and worth less than you’d think except to me. It’s moved with me numerous times over the last, oh, 55 years. (I bought the ~25 book set for $5 around 1968.) Twain wrote much more than the books we think of today, including an absolutely scathing satire called Christian Science, a supposed travel memoir in which the author-narrator breaks a leg hiking the Alps and a fellow traveler insists on fixing it with her mental powers. I don’t think Twain cared much for intrusive women or spiritualists!

    Reply
  19. I love delving into the writing styles of various ages. Sometimes I’m surprised how NOT so different they are from now, especially the Victorians.
    Among my old books is a set of Mark Twain from around 1900. A cheap edition, and worth less than you’d think except to me. It’s moved with me numerous times over the last, oh, 55 years. (I bought the ~25 book set for $5 around 1968.) Twain wrote much more than the books we think of today, including an absolutely scathing satire called Christian Science, a supposed travel memoir in which the author-narrator breaks a leg hiking the Alps and a fellow traveler insists on fixing it with her mental powers. I don’t think Twain cared much for intrusive women or spiritualists!

    Reply
  20. I love delving into the writing styles of various ages. Sometimes I’m surprised how NOT so different they are from now, especially the Victorians.
    Among my old books is a set of Mark Twain from around 1900. A cheap edition, and worth less than you’d think except to me. It’s moved with me numerous times over the last, oh, 55 years. (I bought the ~25 book set for $5 around 1968.) Twain wrote much more than the books we think of today, including an absolutely scathing satire called Christian Science, a supposed travel memoir in which the author-narrator breaks a leg hiking the Alps and a fellow traveler insists on fixing it with her mental powers. I don’t think Twain cared much for intrusive women or spiritualists!

    Reply
  21. Susan, I love the paintings of the maids sneak reading in the library, especially the one in the naturalist’s library with the stuffed animals on the top shelf!
    I haven’t same kind if trove that you have, but there’s no shortage of books here….

    Reply
  22. Susan, I love the paintings of the maids sneak reading in the library, especially the one in the naturalist’s library with the stuffed animals on the top shelf!
    I haven’t same kind if trove that you have, but there’s no shortage of books here….

    Reply
  23. Susan, I love the paintings of the maids sneak reading in the library, especially the one in the naturalist’s library with the stuffed animals on the top shelf!
    I haven’t same kind if trove that you have, but there’s no shortage of books here….

    Reply
  24. Susan, I love the paintings of the maids sneak reading in the library, especially the one in the naturalist’s library with the stuffed animals on the top shelf!
    I haven’t same kind if trove that you have, but there’s no shortage of books here….

    Reply
  25. Susan, I love the paintings of the maids sneak reading in the library, especially the one in the naturalist’s library with the stuffed animals on the top shelf!
    I haven’t same kind if trove that you have, but there’s no shortage of books here….

    Reply
  26. You’re right, the old ones are so beautiful! I bought some at a nearby auction just because I loved the covers. They do look perfect on a bookshelf! But I also like new books, especially series with covers that match. All books are great!

    Reply
  27. You’re right, the old ones are so beautiful! I bought some at a nearby auction just because I loved the covers. They do look perfect on a bookshelf! But I also like new books, especially series with covers that match. All books are great!

    Reply
  28. You’re right, the old ones are so beautiful! I bought some at a nearby auction just because I loved the covers. They do look perfect on a bookshelf! But I also like new books, especially series with covers that match. All books are great!

    Reply
  29. You’re right, the old ones are so beautiful! I bought some at a nearby auction just because I loved the covers. They do look perfect on a bookshelf! But I also like new books, especially series with covers that match. All books are great!

    Reply
  30. You’re right, the old ones are so beautiful! I bought some at a nearby auction just because I loved the covers. They do look perfect on a bookshelf! But I also like new books, especially series with covers that match. All books are great!

    Reply

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