How they did it before the Internet
I’m not an active collector of vintage books, although you couldn’t tell it by looking around my office, where more than a thousand volumes of history, science, religion, politics, fiction, film and architecture strain the bookcases. The budget doesn’t allow me to own as many rare and unusual books as I would like, but sometimes I come across an affordable “must-have” through sheer luck. This past month brought just such a book into my collection.
My wife and I were staying at our favorite bed and breakfast inn near Landrum, South Carolina, which is a haven for antiques shoppers where many stores bulge at the walls with legitimately lived-in furniture, home decorations and other attic filler. At one shop I was drawn like a silverfish to the scattered cardboard boxes of hardback books and magazines. I can smell an old book from a distance of 20 feet, so a good-sized pile of old paper entices me like an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.
Sifting through the usual metric ton of Reader’s Digest condensed novels and Childcraft volumes, I spotted what looked at first like a very old copy of the Bible. I almost passed over the fat book with its black leather soft cover until I noticed the thick spine had gold foil lettering that would look out of place on a pew. It turned out to be a 1947 edition of (take a deep breath if you are reading this aloud) Audel’s New Automobile Guide for Mechanics, Operators, and Servicemen with Questions & Answers and Illustrations on the Theory, Construction, and Servicing of Motor Vehicles Including Diesels.
This 1,600-page record of the early postwar automotive world cost me only four dollars (plus the six I spent on a 1902 first-edition copy of Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon). I couldn’t wait to get it out of the store before diving into Audels’ thin pages – I sat right down in a leather club chair that would look awesome in my office.
The Audel’s guide was in amazingly good condition for a 60-year-old book whose purpose was to aid repair of any car built prior to World War II. There was not so much as a smudge or fingerprint on any of its delicate, lightly browning pages. No scribbled notes in the thin margins of the densely packed layout. This copy never saw any shop time, and probably spent its long life relaxing in a private library where it received regular dustings – the literary equivalent of a trailer queen.
The author, Frank D. Graham, was a mechanical engineer with dozens of books to his credit, including an eight-volume encyclopedia for engineers and mechanics. Graham wrote about everything from steam and diesel engines to airplanes and the principles of house wiring. According to information I found on the Internet, he built two yachts powered by steam just to prove his theories about compressed water vapor as a propulsion system.
In the 1947 automobile guide I was fortunate to find, the range of information runs from mind-numbingly detailed (ever need to know the valve tappet clearances on a ’40 Bantam?) to broader topics (how does a hydro-pneumatic gas gauge work?).
In short, it is the best four dollars I’ve ever spent for entertainment. Every morning since I discovered it, the fat book has sat on my breakfast table while I eat my heart-healthy oatmeal, transporting me to a point in history I never before enjoyed in such detail.