My favorite way to read a classic novel is in a used, hardbound, battered edition that’s been read and handled by many readers, its pages soft from wear, yellowed, dog-eared and smudged; its dust jacket nicked and bruised; and its edges bumped and dented. And of course, there’s that sweet, musty old book smell transporting me into library stacks and used bookstores. You can buy the scent now in soy candles, but I don’t think that works without the experience of the old book you can flip through and touch. It’s just not the same.
I recently finished John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I picked up an old, handled library copy at a used book fair. Library-cancelled stamps abound on the end papers, and the checkout card pocket is ripped off. Someone’s name is written in sloppy script at the top of the first page. The interior pages smell musty and feel soft to the touch, worn from longtime turning. The textures gave me the feeling I had in my hand a book that was read by many, starting in 1964 when it was first published in the United States. Richard Burton starred in the 1965 movie that followed. He played the protagonist Alec Leamas, a long-standing, experienced British spy who’s recalled from his post in Berlin after he loses one more agent, killed by the East Germans, at the Berlin Wall.
Leamas believes this is the end of his career with British Intelligence, that it’s time to come in from the cold; however, he’s given one more assignment to dupe the East Germans into thinking he’s a defector, in order to drive them toward thinking the mastermind and head of their own spy agency is a double agent.
I’m of the same opinion as author Graham Greene whose back-of-the-book blurb on my copy says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1964 agreed, adding: “Whether The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf.”
How much more fun it is to have read this 1960’s best-seller in its original form than in a new paperback. I also intend to read an old copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came: no dust jacket on this book, the binding cracked, the pages yellowed and bookishly fragrant. Tucked inside is a map of Malabar Farm State Park, Bromfield’s famous Ohio home, and someone’s typed list of books written by Bromfield. This classic novel became a movie with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in 1939. A remake came out in 1955 with Richard Burton and Lana Turner.
And then there’s a copy I have of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, a 1935 copy inscribed by my grandmother Margaret to her husband, my grandfather William H. Rose, on August 5, 1935: no dust jacket, frayed and faded binding cloth, and pages that feel smooth as silk. Isn’t this what old books are all about? They remind us they once sat in other libraries and in other hands, providing a literary sense of eternal time. PBS aired Galsworthy’s story on Masterpiece Theater.