My dad used to haunt auction rooms when we were kids. We were not well off by any means, and my parents eked out their income quite amazingly by buying most things second-hand. Dad’s office was in the same area as several auction rooms (though the gunsmith on the corner interested ME more than the auction rooms). He was – is – a largely self-educated man of questing mind, and hugely enjoyed the promise offered by job lots of ‘stuff’. So he made a virtue of doing something he really loved doing anyway. As well as necessaries like bunk beds, he would often bring home boxes of treasures for us kids to trawl through. I particularly remember an incomplete clockwork Hornby train set (coveted now by collectors), old scooters, a tin pedal car, roller skates, a modular lounge suite with the most fabulous ottoman, that my mum was convinced came from some Kalgoorlie brothel … and books. Boxes and boxes of old books.
So we were lucky enough to enjoy an immensely eclectic ( and sometimes hilariously inappropriate) reading experience from our earliest years because of Dad. Old annuals, children’s books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, improving novels frequently bearing bookplates indicating they were Sunday School prizes evidently too valuable to open and hence in pristine condition, English boarding school stories, as well as obscure old romances and some rather racy novels whose content I didn’t quite understand, but sure remembered!
I read them repeatedly and loved them all. Chiefly of English origin, but also some intriguing American inclusions that had a fascinating aura of ‘difference’ about them. From them I learned that ‘bangs’ meant a fringe of hair over the forehead, and ‘barettes’ were hair clips. Margery Sharp, Rose Franken, Anne Hepple, Jean Webster, Bess Streeter Aldrich, among others, all came to me through those boxes of books. It was hugely educational. Just reading them introduced a parochial girl from the antipodes to the vast array of lives and experiences different from my own in the world. You didn’t have to understand everything to be captivated by it all. And some of those authors could really write, and are still a delight to read.
My youngest sister brought tears to my eyes a couple of birthdays ago when she gave me “The Everyday Fairy Book” by Anna Alice Chapin, one of my favourite reads that had been lost through the years. I still remembered many of the stories word for word.
Even in our present world of instant paperless communication, we should never underestimate the enduring power or utility of old books. One of my sisters earned her PhD a few years ago on the back of the old books my dad bought for us, exploring various tropes in early 20th Century children’s annuals. Go sis – and thanks, Dad.