I bought a 35 book set of Honore de Balzac (1899) for Number 1 Son. They came in three makeshift cardboard boxes–one was a re-purposed Duraflame log box. It is something to contemplate these 100+ year old treasures traveling across the US in a box once used for compressed firewood.
They are bound in a tweedy cover: humble, yet elegant. I imagine them in a bookcase: rustic gentility. And I imagine reading one of them on a rainy day with a cup of tea and a cookie. (Never mind that I would rather drink coffee.) They smell of old paper, tobacco and aged leather. They sound like creaking chairs, ticking clocks and bird wings flapping. They feel like old bones, dry oak leaves, and a fairy’s eyelash. They evoke a rich and supple life where carriage wheels traverse gravel drives, land agents tally the hay harvest, and manners matter.
The greenish fabric covers are in reasonable shape with the label on the spine a fragile, tan paper designation. Inside, the beauty begins. I wonder if anyone has ever opened these books. Every engraving is protected with a piece of velum.
Many of the folded signature pages have never been cut. Back in “the day” (even when I was doing HS yearbooks in the 80’s), pages were created in signatures of 16 and 32. Printed back to back, they were folded and cut, then stitched into bindings. This meant that someone had to follow along after and cut every fourth or eighth page to free it from the signature. In the case of this 1899 printing, the floor clerks were asleep at the wheel. Balzac’s works were flying out of the print shop so fast that the workers couldn’t keep up. . .or perhaps this was a very lazy crew. This means that in some books, you cannot read the pages unless you pry then open and peer inside. What fun!
Here is a random selection from one of the books (Vol XXIX, The Brotherhood of Consolation, p 199):
“His clothing was entirely of black cloth, but cloth that was white at the seams. The coat, of an old-fashioned cut, and the trousers, showed various clumsy darns. The buttons had evidently just been renewed. The coat, buttoned to the chin, showed no linen; and the cravat, of a rusty black, hid the greater part of a false collar. These clothes, worn for may years, smelt of poverty. And yet the lofty air of this mysterious old man, his gait, the thought that dwelt on this brow and was manifest in his eyes, excluded the idea of pauperism. An observer would have hesitated how to class him.”
- Seven sentences
- One hundred twenty five years
- Three boxes of books.