I both love and hate owning old books. I love it because old things are awesome. I love the mystery of reading an old book and picking up occasional clues as to who owned it before and where it came from. I love the look, the feel, and the smell of old books. It turns reading into a very sensory experience.
I hate it because old books grow fragile. As I read them and use them, I often can’t shake the thought that I am contributing to their wear. I feel guilty about touching it.
At one point I got my hands on a cheap Latin Bible that was over a hundred years old. It was beautiful and also very portable. I could fit it in my pocket. One time I was casually reading it in my university dorm room. I opened it gently but the fragility of the binding was greater than my exceptional care and the hard cover tore from the spine. I’ve done a lot of morally questionable things in my life but breaking that Bible was definitely the worst.
So my antiquarian bibliophilia presents a conflict of interests. I want to own old books because I love them but I also think that far more deserving people should own them because I know they can care for them better.
I was thinking about this dilemma while waiting for the bus a few days ago and something occurred to me. My use of the centenarian Vulgate led to its partial destruction but it also lead to me better understanding the Latin language. The book ages but the words on the page and the language itself find new life. I may have contributed to the wear of the book but I’m contributing to the continuation of the language and text at the same time.
The physical vessel for the words, the book, is worn down but the words find a new physical vessel, myself. I’m not going to go around destroying books on purpose now, but ancient things find new life when we study them and carry them forward.
One of my favourite pieces of music is The Seikilos Epitaph, which according to Wikipedia is “the oldest complete surviving musical composition.” I’ve committed it to memory and its tune is one of the things I’ll whistle to myself while impatiently waiting for the bus.
If I were to go back to first century Ephesus where the epitaph was found, I would have something in common with them right off the bat. It’s nice to know I have friends 2000 years ago.
Physical things are still well worth preserving. In fact, they should absolutely be preserved and by people more capable than myself. 100 year old books are not actually all that rare but there are things that are hundreds or thousands of years old that should probably be out of my reach. But we can all play our part in preserving the beauty of ancient things by studying them and sharing them.
As for damaging the old Vulgate, I will turn myself into the police immediately.