For years, I harbored a secret ambition of being an archaeologist—not because of Indiana Jones, oddly enough, but because of other movies and books that featured archaeologists doing the grunt work, the laborious, painstaking tasks of digging and dusting and cataloguing—and most of all, discovering. And although I eventually abandoned that career path, I still appreciate learning about fragments of poems found in sarcophagi, or even simply hunting through books and discovering how people 150 years ago curated information.
I realize this is all fairly common. Plenty of people love old books, and they love them more than I do. The only old books I’ve acquired have been inherited from grandparents. But I do try to flip through them on occasion.
I don’t remember why I was flipping through some old poetry books at the time. I was probably looking for wisdom or something to nourish my soul. My copy of Longfellow contains all of his poems, but the cover (a weird puffy patterned leather thing) was loose; the front cover has since fallen off. The Browning volume was a slim leather-bound book; it was more fascinating in that it turned out to not be any of his full poems, but rather aphorisms collected into a book of 365 daily quotes. It was disappointing; I have a distinct lack of familiarity with Browning, and was looking forward to reading. But it also made me wonder what a future archaeologist would think if that book was the only collection of his writings that survived a cataclysmic event?
And then: Which of the modern books on my shelves would withstand the test of time? Which of them even should?
Originally written August 15, 2010
Two books of poems, in soft leather bound—
To such frail binding, time has been unkind,
But paper still reflects the poet’s mind;
In ink on yellowed paper, words resound.
Their wisdom fadeth not these hundred years
Though few seem to hear more than echoes dim:
Anthologized, subjective “best works” trimmed,
Then cut to proverbs for impatient ears.
And not ten feet away, a hundred books
Of modern binding, modern legacy
How many will survive long after me?
Will some descendent, with a spirit shook
Discover—and with pleasure, or with scorn—
Those tales, enshrined in covers cracked and worn?