In this Christmas season, I decided to look back at some of the books I’ve purchased or been given over the years. Of all the books I have, two stand out as being almost unique. Back in 1955, my grandfather gave me two books which I’ve kept longer than any others I own. I still use them and refer to them occasionally. Neither are books that tell any type of story; they’d be considered reference books if they had to be catalogued. But I still have them.
The first is the Rand McNally Standard World Atlas of 1955. Or, in Roman numerals, MCMLV. Atlases have always been important books, for everybody, especially for authors. It helps to know a little about the place you’re setting your story, and an atlas is a good starting point. But the main reason I’ve kept this book is not just its maps and descriptions of places (it has a large section called “Places of Interest in the United States” with pictures and descriptions of various sites in the USA) but because it has railroads on most of the maps, rather than the roads found on maps today. On the maps of the US and Canada, the railroads are identified. Since I’ve been fascinated by railroads for a long time, and have done some model railroading, I’ve kept this atlas largely because of those railroads.
The second is a picture book called Wild Animals Of The World. It has portraits of most of the wild animals we’re familiar with, either from seeing them in zoos or in the wild, and even some we’re not familiar with. The portraits were painted by Mary Baker, and the text was written by William Bridges of (at the time) the New York Zoological Park. It also has an introduction by Roy Chapman Andrews. Each animal is represented on one page with its portrait at the top and text below. From my point of view, what’s interesting about the book is its timelessness. The portraits are exceedingly well done and accurate, and the information in the text has held up all these years. I go back to it now and then, partly to refresh my memory about certain animals, and partly to look up new ones.
Both books have held up reasonably well over the years, though the atlas is worse for wear. The spine has fallen off, and the two covers are entirely separate pieces (I know, I should have it rebound), but I still use it. But what is most interesting about these two books is the fact that I’ve kept them for so long. And that reveals the vital importance of books: if you give a book as a present, you never know how long it’ll last. The oddest book may be the one most cherished by its owner. Books are the repository of all knowledge, and you don’t need a battery to turn them on. Neither is great book, in the manner of, say, a Dickens novel or a compilation of Longfellow poetry. They’re just regular books that happened to appeal to someone well beyond what might reasonably be expected. I doubt that my grandfather had any idea I’d keep these books this long (61 years and counting).
Give books for Christmas (or for any other reason).