Sunday, January 22, 2012


 New books are nicely impressive – a glossy, grand, perfection of the latest printers’ art; but old, second hand ones have a different charm. Their markings can suggest intriguing histories.

Hélène Fouré’s little blue book titled The French Cathedrals Their Symbolic Significance, published by Bruce Humphries Inc. in Boston in 1931, arrived in the post. The patina on the spine, the haze on the pasted title label, the slightly worn ends, and the faded library numbers were the only external signs that showed that there was some age to this small publication. Internally, a distinctive sweet smell of bookshop bookshelves permeated the pages that were interspersed with crude black and white photographs, confirming the age of the item.

Opening the front hard cover revealed a nameplate that declared boldly in the present tense that ‘This book belongs to Agnes Dureau.’ The lettering was surrounded by a brown, monochrome graphic of the rays of a glowing candle beside a drawing of an open book. On the opposite page was a note in sepia ink from the author to: ‘A Mademoiselle A. Dureau, Affectueux Hommage,’ signed ‘Hélène Fouré,’ all, it seems, in her own hand. Below this, in a different hand, in a bolder and more floridly grandiose script in blue ink is the name: David H. Novak. Where are these folk now?

Enigmatically, on the inside of the rear cover is a library envelope glued to the board, with the number ‘726.5 F82’ typed on it in classic Courier, inked-ribbon text. Stamped above the pocket is ‘WITHDRAWN,’ boldly skewed across the upper portion of the envelope as if to emphasise the certainty of this message.

Fingering through the front pages, one finds another stamp under the publisher’s name: COLLEGE LIBRARY, BORROMEO SEMINARY, WICKLIFFE, OHIO.

Why did the library no longer require this book? It is only a small item. It would not take up too much shelf space. Did Agnes donate it to the library? Did David own the book before or after its being withdrawn? Whatever the sequence of events, Hélène’s loving tribute to Agnes seems to have started a journey that took this small study well beyond the intent of this first giving.

One wonders if the subject of this book has similarly had such an interesting ride? Is no one now interested in the symbolic significance of French cathedrals? Why? Fashion? Surely the subject matter has not dated? I wonder what Agnes would think? Hélène? Still, in spite of the subject, if I had to choose, I’d have the old books any day. In this case, I selected the book from the bookshop list on the basis of the subject, and it has already given me much satisfaction just pondering the inside covers. I can’t wait to read the remainder of the book. No new book could do this. One is only left with disappointments with new publications if they fail to live up to expectations. Old books only get better. Do they carry the love and care in them? It is strange that such sentiments are not acknowledged by the seminary.

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