Books from the past can be modern education.

“I found them waiting in old bookstores all across America. They sat on dusty shelves and called down to me. 'Psst,' they said. 'Up here! We've got a lot to tell you, kid.'” ~ Dan Holohan

Dan Holohan introduced me to the Dead Men. Dead Men are people who have passed from this life having left something lasting and wonderful in their shadow. Dan looks at a beautiful steam system and imagines what the Dead Man who installed it was thinking. He considers - as the Dead Man considered - the approach, the problems, the regrets, the fatigue and the pride. Some of the Dead Men were compelled to write down what they had learned, created and invented. Dan is building an amazing collection of these writings. Check out The Library at

Dan got me hooked on old, dusty books. Books written by Dead Men and Women. He turned me into a collector.

Now, I am not a pack rat. I throw things away. I love sending items to the Salvation Army and the recycling bins. I will pass along anything that hasn't been looked for or used within the last few weeks. I even put my wedding dress in a garage sale. Books, though ... oh, books are different. I can't throw a book away - even a bad book. I like bookshelves heavy with words and thoughts and printed pages. I feel smarter with every book I add to my collection - even the ones I haven't read.

I love buying books. How easy is it to scratch that itch at or Barnes & Noble? However, more and more, I am looking for dusty, old books - the kind you find on the very top and bottom shelves in secondhand stores. My favorites are old textbooks and primers. Basic knowledge. Reading, writing, 'rithmetic. How to build a staircase or use a slide rule. Classic speeches by tested leaders. While you can find great, old books on the Internet, it's the smell that drives me to the store. The smell of old books is right up there with campfire coffee and freshly bathed babies.

Can you conjure up that smell? A hint of mold, but in a good way. Cool, like a cellar. A good compost smell. Wonderful, isn't it? I am going to share some wisdom from some of my favorite old books. Picture the bookstores in which I found these gems: warped floors, wobbly, book-packed shelves and wobblier bookstore owners, who love the books as much as I do. Breathe deep.

"The Marvels and Mysteries of Science"

This 1943-copyright book is a beauty, with a heavy green leather cover deeply embossed with a picture of a microscope. The title appears in rich gold paint, in bold "modern" lettering. Six Ph.D.-awarded scientists collaborated on this book: Clyde Fisher, Ph.D.; John H. Gerould, Ph. D.; James P. Poole, Ph. D.; John A. Timm, Ph. D.; Terence T. Quirke, Ph. D.; Clark Wissler, Ph. D. I don't know if these guys are dead. If not, they must be pretty old. But, oh, the youthful enthusiasm of this book! These guys LOVE science and they are trying to get us to love it, too. The subtitle of the book is, "An outline of scientific knowledge in astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, anthropology written in popular style."

The pictures remind me of the Ed Wood movie, "Plan 9 from Outer Space." The content is amazing. In the chapter "Water In All Its Forms," you'll learn why and how glaciers flow. Figure 15 is an amazing photograph of snowflakes. And there is a nonconclusive paragraph about the Abominable Snowman. Do you know how a telescope works? There is a beautiful, clear illustration in the chapter on "Light." (They just don't illustrate like they used to!) In the chapter called "The Nature of Matter and Energy," it is chilling to follow the study of magnetic forces to the inevitable conclusion ... absent from the book.

This book barely qualifies as an old book. The content was considered cutting-edge in 1943. Now it looks like ancient history. It is easy to forget how new our scientific knowledge is, and how carelessly we wield it.

"Outdoor Sports the Year Round"

Popular Mechanics magazine published this book, a compilation of articles, in 1930. Readers will learn how to:
  • Make roller skates.
  • Skin a deer and cure the hide. (It will also tell you how to kill the deer first, which helps.)
  • Make a blowgun.
  • Craft a boomerang, and throw it so that it comes back to you.
  • Create an iceless "refrigerator" for camping.
  • Use the corner of an envelope for a makeshift golf tee.
  • Build a small, working pile driver. For driving piles.
This book is fascinating. If I couldn't buy a fishing pole or snow skis or a water-powered Ferris wheel, I would do without. It would never dawn on me that you could make this stuff. This is one of the reasons I love plumbers, my husband particularly. This kind of activity dawns on Hot Rod. And this book offers easy-to-follow instructions and wonderful illustrations.

"The Efficient Secretary" by Ellen Lane Spencer

This prim and proper book gives practical suggestions to stenographers and others wishing to become secretaries. Ms. Spencer holds her profession in the highest esteem. As I paged through this book, written in 1916, I found tips and procedures that would help any small shop "straighten up and fly right."

There is a chapter titled "The Importance of Proper Dress and Food." Would your CSR be well-served to read it? Do you know how to file information so that you can find it and make sense of it later? Ms. Spencer does. And her sound advice is still spot on. There are some chapters you might skip, for instance, "How to Maintain the Mimeograph Machine." Her pointers for writing a business letter are terrific. And her guidelines for proper correspondence apply nicely to faxes and e-mails.

"The World's Great Letters"

M. Lincoln Schuster of the publishing house Simon and Schuster published this book of letters in 1941, undoubtedly a labor of love by a man who loves good writing. The letters' authors are long Dead Men and Women. What seems to have died with them is deep understanding of the beauty and power of language. This book includes personal letters from:
  • Alexander the Great to Darius III, announcing his intent to conquer his army and put an end to Darius' expansion plans.

  • Leonardo Da Vinci to the Duke of Milan, requesting employment.

  • Thomas Jefferson to his friend William Fleming, as he was preparing to write the Declaration of Independence.

  • Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton, challenging him to meet on the field of honor.

  • Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett, and back again.

  • Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Lydia Bizby, on the loss of her five sons in the Civil War.

  • Blaise Pascal to his brother-in-law Florin Perier, requesting help with a physics experiment.
Sure, you could find this information on the Internet. But you would miss the feel of the book in your hands. You would miss the smell. Here's hoping you find you way into a musty bookstore and start your own book-collecting adventure.