April 28, 2009

The nostalgia and joy of collecting vintage books

Old books have always fascinated me. Perhaps my interest in them was first sparked by my mother’s extensive collection of original Nancy Drew titles (which I read voraciously, often by moonlight when I was a wee little thing), perhaps it came from the fact that reading was encouraged and fostered in my home. Whatever first planted the bookworm bug in me, I have loved reading and vintage books for as long as I can recall.

As a child I had a rather odd (for someone my age at the time, I mean) assortment of medical books that ranged from 50 to 100+ years old. It wasn’t the largest collection, but at one point I must have had at least eight or nine heavy duty, hard cover medical text books (at that stage in my life I was interested in going into a career in medicine) of the very sort that would have once sat on a doctor’s shelf. Many of these books were lovingly given to me by elderly neighbours, one of whom had been a nurse for many years.

It wasn’t just medical tomes that caught my eye though. I’ve always scoured second hand book shops, garage sales, flea markets and library sales (when libraries sell of their old books) for literary treasures. Though sadly at one point in my life I had to sell off most of my book collection to help raise funds to move overseas, I still have the wonderful memories of the times I spent sifting through stacks upon stacks of books, some older, some newer, endless piles of inexpensive paperbacks and microwave cookery books (seriously, why is there such a glut of microwave cookbooks almost anywhere retro and vintage books are sold?), to find an early printing of a Steinbeck or Hemingway novel.

There is something almost transcendent about holding an older book in your hand, its paper often yellowed as if dipped in tea by the passing years, a slightly musty smell emanating from each page, its typesetting done up in a classy, concisely sized font. As you flip through the pages of any book that’s lived with someone else before, it’s hard not to catch yourself wondering what sort of memories that book would have to tell, if it were alive and able to speak. Did it cross over on an ocean liner, ride around in the back of an old roadster, sit beside someone on a Hawaiian vacation, provide a moment of respite for a weary WW2 factory worker? What thoughts did those who owned the book before you think as they absorbed its knowledge or tale, how did what they read shape or impact their lives – and what impression will it leave on your own?

There is indeed something marvelous and valuable about vintage and antique books; their worth lies not only in their age and content, but in the place in time when they were first released into the annals of history to which they will forever belong. It is this essence of time and distant place, that I feel weaves itself through so much of my love of vintage. When I don a 40s inspired outfit, a pair of 50s heels or a 30s hairstyle, I am reaching somewhere deep into my soul to connect with a world that I while I did not experience firsthand, I can sense I belong to.

{A stylishly well dressed literature fan from a 1941 Vogue spread. Photo found via myvintagevogue’s Flickr stream.}

If you’re a fellow bibliophile, what memories and thoughts do vintage books invoke in you?


  1. I was always intimidated of old books when I was younger~ Never did they have colorful dust jackets or easy to figure out synopsis of what's inside. Now I appreciate them and get excited as to what I might find inside!

  2. I am always heading to the older books and the used book stores... I love the language and the images the books paint in a time that has past... It makes me so happy!!! And the Smell Oh that smell!!!

    Just wanted to stop by and let you know I have a couple of awards for you on my blog....

    Hugs and All My Best!!!

    Just A Gal...

  3. jessica, i think we our soul sisters! each post i read of yours I find myself saying "me too!" or "that's exactly how I feel!" and this one is no different... I am the same way with old books. i feel like beyond the clothes and hairstyles, I'm really stepping into that time period when I open a vintage book.

  4. Hi ladies, first off thank you each very much for your lovely comments! Secondly, my apologizes for taking a little while to reply. My husband is headed off on an overseas business trip in a matter of days I'm insanely busy at the moment helping get him ready for that. Until a few minutes ago, I hadn't even turned on my computer on since Tuesday morning - yikes!

    @Katie, that's true, many older titles certainly did resemble law books (or the like) in the starkness of their covers. I think there is a certain sort of elegant beauty is such covers, but definitely see how they might not excite younger readers. Certainly amongst my siblings and I, I was the only one who cared an ounce about older books when we were growing up. How awesome though that you now adore vintage books!

    @Just A Gal, well aren't you just the sweetest thing! Thank you so much, as soon as I wrap up here, I will zip over to your blog at once to see what sort of kindness you have bestowed upon me. Thank you you!!!! (I adore the smell of older books too, and luckily I'm not too allergic to dust, so I can usually rummage for second hand book treasure sans sneezing ;) )

    @MissRedLips, what a beautiful thing to read, thank you very much, honey! I definitely think that we are vintage soul sisters, as I'm in love with all of your posts and definitely agree that we seem to share a lot in common! (BTW, I absolutely adore your recent post about adding retro dazzle to your decor...those phones have me swooning at the knees!).

    Again, thank you each very much for your wonderful comments - I hope you're all having lovely, and less hectic (than mine) weeks ♥

  5. Ah, there's nothing like the smell of an old book! I stumbled across your blog just a few days ago and haven't been able to tear myself away. So delightful. I look forward to your new posts.

    Love from ST Helens, North West UK xx

    1. That is tremendously lovely to hear - thank you for kicking off my Wednesday with such a thoughtful comment. It always brings a jolt of happiness my way when someone comments on an old post like this.

      Happy post reading!

      Big hugs,
      ♥ Jessica