Old books evoke the aroma of chocolate and coffee according to a study. I am not sure old books smell of coffee and chocolate but I nevertheless love them. Old books demand and deserve a reread. Dog-eared, moth-eaten, much thumbed and with cracking spines, fraying pages, disfigured margins, they stubbornly remain on the book shelf, unable to leave.
Smelling musty and damp, they are still cherished and we cling to them the way we cling to our ageing parents, not wanting to let go because they nurtured us, and walked with us holding our hand in our need. They are still our greatest confidence boosters.
One of them gracing my bookshelf is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the thrilling journey of a gutsy fourteen year-old on a raft on the majestic Mississippi, running away from a drunken father and the ‘civilising’ pressures of a small town. The adventures of Huck make for a fascinating read and in the end he is himself as uncivilised as ever. The book is “Twain’s hymn to the child of nature”. Great Expectations, one of Charles Dickens’ greatest novels waits expecting to be reread. It tells us of a young boy’s great expectations, many of which fall through in his quest for social advancement and wealth. The novel is the bildungsroman of an orphan, Pip, who realises in the end that grand expectations are all right but along the way he should also recognise simple human goodness, affection and loyalty and settle for achievable goals.
Jane Austen wrote to be read and reread. Her Pride and Prejudice, the world’s favourite novel, is a country romance as all her other novels are. It is about relentless matchmaking and finding the suitable boy for the suitable girl through a maze of machinations leading finally to holy matrimony. The tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, her prejudice and his pride, make for delightful confrontations. “I could easily forgive his pride if he had not mortified mine.” Finally she recognises the true Darcy and the novel ends on a happy note.
Many others jostle for space and attention. In the medieval morality play Everyman, unable to undertake the arduous journey of life, the eponymous hero laments: “To whom shall I make moan/ For to go with me in that heavy journey?” The character Knowledge steps forward: “Every man, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side”.
The quotation appears on the title page of all Everyman library volumes. These books, old and tired, will walk with us when others have left.