Everything Old…

Happy 2020! I ushered in the New Year by freefalling into a web research wormhole while educating myself on the subjects of archeology, astronomy, and physics. There are some startling and occasionally frightening discoveries being made in all three fields — particularly astronomy — but today we are going to discuss a recent announcement concerning the significant archeological discovery in Egypt of an illustrated book.

Some of you under the age of twenty may be saying, “Big deal! My grandfather has a first edition of The Watchmen!” I’m talking about something a bit older than that. The book which was discovered is The Book of Two Ways, a work that was well known to historians and archaeologists in its previous editions prior to this latest discovery. It was written as a guide for a deceased individual as they make their journey through the Underworld, with the “two ways” of the title being the options of making the journey by land or by water. The advice presented in the work included spells that could be cast in order that the deceased might ultimately achieve immortality.

What makes this discovery significant is that this edition of The Book of Two Ways, which is estimated to be approximately 4000 years old,  is considered to be the earliest known illustrated copy of the work to date. The location where the book was discovered is particularly interesting, given that it was inscribed on a coffin (rather than being bound or in scroll form) at an Egyptian burial site housing the remains of a woman named Ankh. 

Let’s think about this discovery in modern terms. We have 1)  a coffin dual-purposed as a Kindle 2) containing the first graphic novel 3) which is a distant ancestor of the AAA Travel Guide. With regard to #3, maybe considering The Book of Two Days to be the very first Lonely Planet guide would be more appropriate. Calling it a collection of life hacks due to the spells it contains, however, might be a bridge too far. Still, it makes one wonder whether time truly is a flat circle.

I seriously doubt that the author(s) of the recently discovered edition of The Book of Two Ways considered for even a moment that a few thousand years down the road the discovery of their work would be considered a major archeological event. It goes to show you never can tell. It might be unlikely but the story that you are working on, as humble as it may seem to you now, might get similar treatment. Keep that in mind. As our mothers used to tell us, you only get one chance — if you get a chance at all — to make a first impression. 

The in-depth discussions of this discovery are for the most part buried behind paywalls, but I have ever so thoughtfully provided you with a link to a fairly interesting article here if you should care to read more about this. I also offer a tip of the fedora to Egyptologist Harco Willems, who directed the expedition which led to this discovery. If I had been at the helm I would have discovered nothing but camel spiders and left immediately. 

So…what is the oldest book that you own? Mine is a copy of The Eclectic First Reader by W.H. McGuffey. What is yours? Thanks for stopping by. 


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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

32 thoughts on “Everything Old…

  1. First! That is a tragedy, Eric. I hope that Dorothy Sayers didn’t autograph the volumes before shipping them off, thus compounding the loss! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Oldest book(s) in my house: Winnie the Pooh, House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Very Young, Now We Are Six. 1950 edition. Almost as old as I am.

    • Patricia, I’d say the ledger counts. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it had an entry stating “Received of A. and M. Lincoln…40 pennies”…Thanks!

  3. A coffin dual-purposed as a kindle. LOL!

    1876, Dan DeQuille’s, “The Big Bonanza”

    • Wow! That’s great, BK. I just looked him up and he was a contemporary and good friend of Mark Twain. That one is a keeper. Thanks for sharing.

  4. “Doris Force at Barry Manor” by Julie Duncan 1931. It was given to my mother in 1943 as a Christmas gift when she was 14. It’s traveled with me through 5-7 moves and I can’t say why, as I doubt I’ve read it since perhaps the 1970s. I got in off my bookshelf expecting it to be 1950s vintage, but perhaps I’ll have to make an effort to save the old book. I also have a 1954 Betty Crocker cookbook. Guess that’s where my love of mysteries came from. Thanks, Joe for reminding me of that!

  5. I am loving what our friends have on their bookshelves. Alec, the Doris Force book is quite an acquisition, being part of one of the series issued to share the popularity of the Nancy Drew books. It’s definitely worth keeping. Thanks!

  6. I have two Elson readers from the early 1920s that were my mother’s. I also have several Honey Bunches and Nancy Drews from the ’30s. My favorite is Last of the Mohicans printed in 1946. It has the original dust jacket plus beautiful illustrations by NC Wyeth.

    • Gosharootie! Reading party at Laurie’s house! Those are some terrific volumes, Laurie. particularly the Elsons and the Cooper edition. Mark me as officially jealous. Thanks!

  7. My list includes: “The Outline of History” by H.G. Wells, printed in 1923, copyright 1920; “The Dwelling-Place of Light” by Winston Churchill, 1917; “Fables of Infidelity and Facts of Faith” by Rev. Robert Patterson, D.D., 1875; “The Holy Bible” by, well, God, 1908.

    I have another old, falling-apart Bible that I can’t find the print date for, but it’s signed in my maternal great-grandmother’s hand. So, I’m guessing late 19th or early 20th century.

    I treasure these books.

    • Just found another one hiding on my shelf: “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas `A. Kempis. Alas, no copyright or print date, but signed and dated by the owner. It was gifted to him in 1942.

      I found most of these editions when cleaning out my mom’s house and garage after she passed away in 2016. In spite of the circumstances, I was like a cheeky girl in a dark chocolate factory.

      Incidentally, she passed away in June of that year. My first book was published in the fall of the same year. She gave me my love of literature, but she wasn’t here to share in the fruits of her labors. Thinking of that, it makes me sad, but my faith informs me she was rooting for me as I bled on the pages. And that she has her own signed copies, somehow, where now she dwells. 🙂

      • Deb, I was salivating as I read your list. Each and every volume is a winner. Thanks for sharing it, as well as your personal stories about what an inspiration your mom was to you and your examination of what she left behind. Bittersweet but inspiring.

  8. In college, I bought a two-volume history of American History. The writing was difficult for a 20th Century student to understand, I didn’t know the author–couldn’t find out anything about him–and the book was old enough that it contained nothing about World War I.

    Alas, over the years and over the moves, I have lost the two volumes. In my old age, I have learned that works of histories have agenda. I’d love to have those books now so I could try to understand what the author was trying to tell his readers. It would be interesting to see what a writer had to say who knew nothing of penicillin, barely knew anything of machine guns, and who possibly might have had relatives who engaged in war with my relatives, might have to say.

    It’s always sobering to me to understand that Americans didn’t always understand what a modern baseball glove was, couldn’t just pop into a joint for a quick hamburger and a Pepsi, or turn on radio to listen while the Yankees beat the Bums, or have a x-ray to diagnose a broken bone.

    In an outtake from the movie set in 1812, the age of Napoleon, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, the HMS Surprise is stranded at night for lack of wind. Some in the crew are terrified by the frightening sounds coming from–they didn’t know where, and they didn’t know what. I’m amazed that men of the sea didn’t understand about whales.

    So it’s interesting to me that an Egyptian team, in creating a coffin for a woman name Ankh, wrote a guide for getting to the afterlife. Add a character named Kirk who tells another character named Spock who has pointed ears, and who knows what might have happened when Kirk, might say, “Go to warp, Mr. Spock”?

    Happy New Year, Mr. Hartlaub.

  9. Thank you, and Happy New Year to you as well, Jim. Re: the loss of those books…ouch. I’ve had a couple of instances where books that I lent to someone which were never returned found their way back to me, one of them being a volume that I found in a used bookstore in another city and state, with my name and phone number (before area codes were in popular use) written by thirteen year old me. That’s a story for another time, maybe. I hope you have similar luck. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Until recently, I had the family BIBLE which is around 150 years old. My brother who carries on the family name and has kids now has it. In my own personal collection, I have a number of first-edition, signed novels by NC writers Manly Wade Wellman (1953) and Inglis Fletcher (1942). Wellman’s horror/folklore short stories were the inspiration for some TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, and he won major awards in mystery and science fiction. Fletcther’s historical “Carolina” series included BASTARD OF THE CAROLINAS (also a movie).

    For those interested in new science discoveries, I suggest syfy.com which has news articles on everything from astronomy to dinosaurs. Right now is the golden age of dinosaurs as new ones are announced almost weekly. My personal favorite recent article is about a group of scientist who have observed that dogs align their bodies to magnetic North/South when they poop. After a brief confab with the family who have owned dogs their whole lives, we disagree. My own experience is that dogs point their nose into the wind.


    • Marilynn, Manly Wade Wellman was one of my favorites when I was first discovering the horror genre. Those autographed books would have pride of place in my house.

      Thanks for noting syfy.com as a source for news on science discoveries. I’ve been using astronomy magazines, among others. The news comes in by the hour, it seems due to all of the telescopes mounted on satellites. It’s rewriting everything that we thought we knew. Tough to keep up with…

      I don’t know if dogs align themselves with the magnetic poles, but I can guarantee you that they will throw up on the most expensive rug in the house.

  11. W. Windelband, History of Philosophy, 1926.

    Gerhart Hauptmann, Die Weber, 1930–with Hauptmann’s Silesian dialect and a modern German version on facing pages. From my mother’s college days.

    Eugene O’Neill, Nine Plays, 1932 (Modern Library Edition).

    Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1940. My father to my mother, 1941.

    Johanna Spyri, Heidi, Illustrated Junior Library, 1945. To my wife from her aunt.

    Chernev and Harkness, An Invitation to Chess: A Picture Guide to the Royal Game, 1945. My father acquired this and put his name in it in 1947.

    Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1949 (50th anniversay edition).

    Holy Bible, American Standard Version, (c)1929. No indication of when this was printed. I received it at 6th grade “graduation” in 1955.

    Somewhere, I think, there’s still a New Testament Greek textbook from the ’30s that was still in use not too many years ago. (NT Greek hasn’t changed much recently.) I kept it around in the fond hope that I might study it one day. Murder mysteries won out.

    Unfortunately, nothing from the 19th c.

    • What a great collection, Eric! Thanks for sharing. BTW, if you check your copy of An Invitation to Chess you might find my great-great-uncle Carl Hartlaub mentioned.

  12. The oldest books in my possession are Tolsttoy’s War and Peace–a thick volume that includes a separate booklet with all the characters’ names–and a 2-volume set of The Prince of India by Lew Wallace. Both were given to me by my favorite aunt when I was a teenager. So how old are they? Well. I’ll soon be celebrating my 81st birthday. You do the math.
    These are true treasures.
    BTW, I’ve actually red W&P twice. Couldn’t do it again, though. Print is too small.

    • Thank you, Peg! That War and Peace volume sounds particularly impressive. As For Lew Wallace, he had quite a varied career as a soldier and politician as well as an author. He is perhaps best known as the author of the novel Ben-Hur, which was adapted for silent film in 1925 and remade as one of the greatest films of the twentieth century in 1959. A third attempt was made in 2016 and is, alas, all but forgotten, and deservedly so. Thanks for the reminder.

  13. Good morning, Joe.

    My mother passed in 2013, my father in 2015. I inherited some of their old books. The oldest one is a theological book, A FOUNDATION AND PLAIN INSTRUCTION, by Menno Simon, first published in German in 1565, printed in English in 1869.

    I wish I could show you a picture I have of an elderly historian holding a leather and wood bound Bible brought to America by one of my ancestors in 1750, published in Germany in 1749. That book is supposed to end up in a museum in northern Ohio.

    Have a great weekend!

  14. Good afternoon, Steve! Your copy of A Foundation and Plain Instruction sounds particularly intriguing. Amazing. I’d love to see the photo of that Bible as well. Maybe once the Bible is glass-cased in that museum a road trip might be in order. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Not many as exotic or aged as some above, but I do have a batch of Pop’s pre-war and WWII kids photo books of aircraft and sea power (no wonder he became a Naval Aviator), a matched slip-case pair of Mark Twain’s _Huckleberry Finn_ and _Tom Sawyer_, printed in 1936 (and illustrated by Norman Rockwell), a similarly slip-cased _Treasure Island_ (1941), and an undated, but probably mid-30’s (based on the illustrations), copy of _Billy Whiskers’ Treasure Hunt_ (said Billy being a goat…)

    I could go on (and on… as I’m wont to do…), but obviously books have always been treasures in my family, and, as you can see, some more treasured than others…

    • George, I am OFFICIALLY jealous of that Mark Twain slipcase set with the Norman Rockwell art. Another “gosharootie” is in order. Those other volumes sound special as well. I’m happy I asked and am glad that you responded. Thanks!

  16. The oldest book in our house is “The Return of Tarzan”, 1915.

    Deb Gorman and I share some reading interests. I also have H.G. Wells’s “The Outline of History,” though mine is the 1940 copyright. And I own a much later version of “The Imitation of Christ.”

  17. Kay, I bow to you. That copy of The Return of Tarzan is probably a first edition of the book publication (it was published in magazine form in 1913; things took longer back then). It seems to be readily available on ebay but still, to have that in your home without having to buy it is terrific. Thanks for sharing.

    • My husband’s old bachelor uncle had Tarzan books and somehow we ended up with this one after he passed away. Uncle Jimmy was born in the early part of the twentieth century and owned a lot of Tarzan books, possibly all first editions. We’re not sure what happened to the others, but it’s nice to have this lovely reminder of a good man.

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