From My Grandmother’s Basement: The Oldest Books I Own

When my dad’s mother died in 1995, the family decided to sell her house. Which involved cleaning out all her stuff–including the basement. And though I was only 9 years old, the thing I remember about the clean-out process were the books.

Stacks of them. In the basement.

My grandparents, uncles and father are readers. Big readers. Coupling that with my grandmother’s inability to throw anything away, the books resembled an episode of Hoarders.

But I was allowed to choose a few. I still have them. And then some of those scads of books came to live with my parents and I and as I grew and had new interests, I was able to find a book fitting it. How perfect for a budding writer.

The first is the oldest book I own. It’s called Girls Who Became Famous by Sarah K. Bolton. First published in 1886. It’s biographical sketches of women, including Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and George Eliot with stern Victorian sketches of the young women. The inscription reads With Compliments From Anna M. Way. June 6th, 1887. The book is literally falling apart and the pages are yellowed, but most of the binding is still intact. I never open it for fear of it breaking.
Inscription, Girls Who Became Famous

Although who Anna Way was and what connection she has to my family remains a mystery. I’m not sure who Anna Way would have given the book to or if an ancestor maybe picked the book up at a sale or something.

Then there’s this paperback copy of A Night To Remember, which I devoured when I was 12 and obsessed with Titanic. The passenger lists in the back of the book were fascinating to me. When I decided to write my own “novel” about the Titanic–not, miraculously, based on the movie Titanic–I consulted A Night To Remember for details.

Then there is this book, a novel called Joy In the Morning, by Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I think I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was 10 or so. The two books are very different, but I enjoyed the story. Joy in the Morning is autobiographical. Betty Smith, a Brooklynite, married a man who studied law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The book mirrors that experience, as Carl and Annie get through their first year as a married couple–with Carl studying, and Annie allowed to sit on some of the college classes, including playwriting. As you can see, the book is in pretty delicate shape now, as it was when I read it, and the pages are yellow–and so is the cover. Fun fact: the back cover has black and white photos of the actors who played the leads in the movie version. I haven’t been able to track the movie version down.

So what are the oldest books you own? Where did you get them? Do they have inscriptions inside?

5 thoughts on “From My Grandmother’s Basement: The Oldest Books I Own

  1. This is why I love printed books. Age just adds to the value of it. Regrettably the oldest book I currently have dates back to 2011 (I know, hold your envy, please). One day I will have a house and a bookshelf I won't have to worry about moving it the next time we change cities. . . then I will start to have older books.


  2. The bulk of grandma's books are in storage right now. But the ones I wanted, I kept, mostly. I don't think I ever read Girls Who Became Famous all the way through, but I just like looking at it and feeling the leather cover.


  3. Printed books are incredible. Not only do they the printed story but each physical book itself has a story to share. As an immigrant child, I don't many old books here with me although I love thumbing through them when I'm back in the old country. The oldest book I have is from the Housing Works book fair a few years ago. It's a book about Greek heroes. The spine just spoke to me. When I thumbed through it, the illustrations still had impressions from the inked plates (which was completely unreal) and some small printing errors from that age. At this point, my friends understand there is no present that will bring more joy than a book with a birthday/holiday message (sometimes multi-page essays) tucked away behind the cover.


  4. Old books definitely have character to them, don't they? I'm enjoying my Kindle, but it's nothing compared to having a book that is 127 years old.How old is your Greek heroes book? And to think, you're the one who found it, out of everybody else! I've been re-reading Gone With the Wind recently. The last ten pages are coming off the binding and I lost the dust jacket ages ago, but there's an inscription in there from my aunt and uncle on my 11th birthday. So if I ever again forget how old I was when I read that book for the first time…


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