The Buntùs Cainte book - a bit of language learning nostalgia!

Brewing Up Nostalgia : Buntús Cainte

My love of old language books is no secret. I’ve been harping on about my single-handed attempt at recreating the language section of my local Waterstones, circa 1993, for ages. So it’s no surprise that I snapped up another old course when I spotted it in a bookshop this weekend.

The only thing is, it’s brand new.

Well, new is subjective. It’s actually a reprint of a decades-old Irish Language course, Buntús Cainte (Foundations of the Language). It’s been a well-selling title for years, not least for the language; people seem to love it for the nostalgia of the original programme as much as the content.

The title was originally a 1960s TV show on Irish state carrier RTÉ. Like other national broadcaster courses such as the Gaelic offerings from the BBC, Can Seo and Speaking Our Language, the show was supported by printed materials that you could pick up at your local bookshop. All of them had a warm, friendly approach to “language learning in your living room”, which is probably why they still stir up such nostalgia.

The book itself is still a great resource for learning basic Irish. It’s straightforward chalk ‘n’ talk if you like that kind of thing, with vocabulary and phrase lists and brief grammar examples. It comes with two CDs of audio materials – pretty indispensable if you’re new to Irish orthography. And at less than 10€, it’s all a bit of a bargain.

Fancy a Brew?

But the loveliest thing about it is that nostalgia it brews. The cover font, still in its groovy 1960s typeface and colour scheme, is a joy, as are the of-their-time stick cartoon illustrations throughout.

Buntús Cainte

It’s a reminder that good language learning materials aren’t a sum of their content alone. They’re about the feelings they inspire, the memories they connect you back to, the vibe you get from them. Clicking with a course is a holistic process. It’s no wonder that it’s still one of the best-selling Irish books.

In a similar vein, there was a heart-warming documentary on the making of Speaking Our Language recently, which has all the same feels. Worth checking out if you want to know how these institutions of educational TV work their way into our hearts.

In any case, it’s great to find an old gem of language learning. Even greater that it’s a fresh, new print that I don’t have to clean upI don’t have to clean up, for a change!

Two different copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, freshly arrived from eBay!

Luck of the eBay Draw

The stars aligned for me this week. Not one, but two 1990s copies of Teach Yourself Swedish arrived in my postbox. Used, super cheap, but both so pristine you’d think they’d never been removed from their original bookshop shelves. Winning the eBay language learning lottery!

Why two copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, you ask? Isn’t that just being greedy?

Well first, is there really such a thing as greed when it comes to books? Our love knows no bounds. (Note: it probably is possible to have too many books, but I’m not there yet.)

Secondly, they’re actually different books.

A Long Time Ago in a Language Learning Galaxy Far Away…

You see, Teach Yourself has been going for donkey’s years, and by the 80s and 90s, the company had accrued a whole back catalogue of vintage language learning titles. As I’ve said many a time before, older language learning material shouldn’t be written off – it’s solid, albeit usually more grammar-based learning, and often very inexpensive.

But clearly, things needed a refresh. So Teach Yourself set about recommissioning a lot of those old tomes with completely updated replacements. It started in the late 80s, with updated French, German, Italian and Spanish titles. At first, these appeared in the 80s blue style covers.

But, come the 90s, Teach Yourself went arty in glorious technicolour. The book covers positively exploded in shapes and colours. Many are things of beauty (at least to my geeky eye), and it’s one of the reasons I love collecting them.

The Double Life of TY Books

However, those books had a double life during the transition. Older courses saw reissues, but with the bright, shiny covers. One last hoorah before they were retired.

But then, their successors (or usurpers?) came along, in their shiny, new covers – sometimes the same ones as the old course! Teach Yourself Gaelic, for example, recycles the same wrap even as it transitions from the old Roderick MacKinnon course to the updated Boyd Robertson edition. You can only tell the newer edition from a big yellow New! box in the corner. (No, that text was never going to age well.)

This clearly isn’t the case with Teach Yourself Swedish. Both the R.J.McClean and Vera Croghan books have their own wonderful designs. But for all intents and purposes, they were both still new language books in the 90s.

It’s just one has a much older soul. And I love it all the more for it.

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

The eBay Bookseller Lottery

With the wonderful quality of these two titles from that crossover period of the early 90s, I clearly lucked out on the eBay wheel of fortune. Items from the eBay book giants are generally in great condition; some just require a bit more TLC than this pair.

Of course, you can’t tell the condition of books from eBay supersellers until they arrive. That’s part of the fun, of course. But it does lead to the occasional sigh of deflation, as one described as very good lands on your doormat in a rather more dishevelled state. That doesn’t happen too often, thankfully.

And it a couple of quid a pop, it’s a fun gamble!

A Capsule Language Learning Library?

Sometimes, it feels like I’m permanently on the road. With family, friends and work spread out across the country,  I travel a lot. Anything that makes that easier is a win in my book, so I’m all for minimalism and streamlining. Lately, I’ve been taken by the idea of the ultra-simple capsule wardrobeit worked for Einstein, Steve Jobs, and a host of others, after all – and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to pare down my togs to a few essentials that I can fit into a travel bag.

But if we can do that with our clothes and feel instantly lighter, why not try it with other things… like our language learning materials, for instance?

Now don’t you worry. I haven’t decided to donate all my language books to charitable causes just yet. But the idea strikes me as a decent one for the language learning traveller: deciding on a core set of books that provide the max learning learning on the go, but don’t weigh down your carry-on. (Obviously a couple for each language project, assuming you just focus on one per trip – I’m not talking polyglot minimalism here, just resource minimalism! )

In any case, it’s a fun exercise to try with your (probable, if you anything like me) heaps of books. As with a capsule wardrobe, it’s good to set a limit on the number of pieces. Because books are a bit heavier and (gulp – forgive me saying this – marginally less essential) than clothes, I think two (only two?!) is a good number to play the game. A good course book and a decent reference volume go pretty well together, I think.

Here are some of my attempts, limiting myself to two (really only two?!) books per language:

Gaelic

You can’t beat a Colloquial for in-depth language tuition. I find they always double as reference works too, so you have a double whammy right there. My other choice is quite a grammar-heavy look at Gaelic verbs, but with lots of side references to other aspects of the language too. Every time I dip into it, I come across something new. Solid.

German

Less of the learning material, more of the reference here, with German being my second language and strongest foreign language. Hammer’s Grammar is the definitive reference on all things Deutsch, and Wort für Wort has kept me in advanced conversation topics since I did my German A-level in the last century.

Greek

Who amongst us doesn’t love a good Routledge? I have a special soft spot for the Essential Grammar series, since they’re almost as comprehensive as the, ahem, Comprehensive series, but a bit less overwhelming. Twin that with a Teach Yourself (and you know I love me a Teach Yourself), and we’re ready for that trip to the islands.

Handy bonus: all of the Teach Yourself audio is available online in the TY library app, too. Or, if you have a Kindle, you can get the book and the audio in a single format.

Polish

Never one to shy away from being predictable, I paired up my Polish outfit to match my Greek one. Well, if it works…

Ready, steady… Capsule!

So there you go. Four of my essential Summer outfits.

Apart from the fun element of challenge to it, capsuling your books makes you think hard about what you already have. It  helps you to take stock of your materials. and decide what your core strategy is. And it keeps you ready to run and learn – whether that’s on holiday, or up the road for some study time in the library!

Which textbooks are your hero items? What would make your desert island cut? Let us know in the comments!

A wee book treat to myself: Colloquial Scottish Gaelic (Routledge)

A Book in the Hand (Is Worth Two in the Kindle Library)

Sometimes I forget how much I love to hold a real book in my hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of Kindle titles and other e-formats. Only the other week I was singing the praises of the Teach Yourself enhanced versions. A whole course – text and audio – in a single place (and it adds 0kg to my backpack weight). I still think they’re fantastic.

But sometimes you get a reminder of how satisfying old school is. I had one this week when I finally plumped for a long yearned-for hard copy of Colloquial Scottish Gaelic.

Why had I put it off for so long?

Well, there’s the price of the hard copy, for a start. £35 is a hefty commitment for a book. Especially so, considering that I had access to the electronic version for free through my university library. Not only that, but like many publishing platforms making audio content free, Routledge has put all the audio online. I could access all of the content already!

But for all that, I just wasn’t bothering to use the materials at all. Why? screams the spendthrift inside me.

Fast forward, my Amazon credit spent, and the book proudly on my shelf. I’m picking it up at every opportunity, having a quick nose here and there when I notice it, sitting down for half an hour’s mooch through the pages. I’m even listening to those audio materials and reading along, finally.

So what is so different?

It’s hard to put your finger on just what is so special about a real book. There’s the joy of the tangible ownership of it, perhaps. I made an investment in a thing – now I want to make the most of that thing. It’s almost like you can feel the weight of the knowledge you’ve paid for right in there.

And there’s nothing like using money (or vouchers) to feel the value of a physical object. I admit I get a bit of that as I curate a Kindle library. It’s lovely seeing the digital books line up neatly on those shelves.

But there’s  something simply cosy (or hyggelig, or gemütlich etc.) about holding a real book in your hands, isn’t there?

And sometimes it takes a wee treat to yourself to remind you of that.

Pop linguistics books

Pop Linguistics Books for Prep or Pleasure

I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).

That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.

Dying Words

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge. 

To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.

But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.

The Unfolding of Language

Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher - one of my top recommended linguistics books

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!

In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.

If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.

The First Word

Christine Kenneally

Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.

Books for Prep or Pleasure

So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!

None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Just for the sake of completion: my (now very battered) copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

 

A page from Hippocrene Greek Basic Course - joining the dots, I realised it's one of the resources available on Live Lingua

Joining the (Typewritten) Dots

Sometimes you don’t end up joining the dots until years after you see the clues.

I had a bookcase tidy-up and sort-out this week. In one dark and forlorn corner of my shelves, I came across this unusual little volume:

I bought it in the early noughties, during the second of my three flirtations with Modern Greek. I can even remember where I picked it up – the long-gone Borders bookshop in Birmingham. There’s some extra nostalgia thrown in right away.

The reason for the book’s particular strangeness is that the whole thing is written in typewriter script. Odd, for such an outwardly modern-bound book. In any case, I must have thought it was cool and quirky at the time, as it certainly didn’t put me off buying it. It made a change from the usual sans-serif sameness of most courses.

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Those unusual typewritten pages…

Clearly, that vintage Murder-She-Wrote vibe suggested it was a reprint of a much older book. I didn’t think too much of it, except to note that the publisher, Hippocrene, was based in the US, and had a lot of older re-issues of other fairly obscure works in its catalogue. (It still does, incidentally, and is still going strong!)

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Publisher clues…

Wind forward over a decade, and I’m into online language learning resource hunting in a big way. I happen across the vast repository of language courses at Live Lingua. Predictably, I’m like the cat that got the cream. They’re vintage resources, for sure, having served to train US military and volunteering personnel for decades. But they’re free, and they’re still solid.

And also… a little familiar?

Joining the Dots

It turns out that my Hippocrene title is one of those reprints too. In fact, it’s pretty much a straight facsimile of the first volume of the FSI Greek course available on Live Lingua.

The dots were joined.

And it’s a good connection to make. All of the original course audio is available at Live Lingua. Now, for the first time, I have the listening material to go with that Hippocrene book, albeit via a slightly unusual route!

The book is still available even today, and, although you can find the same course for free, I must admit that it’s nice to read the physical item in your hands. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, with its strange typewriter charm.

And now I feel I know it even better.

My Teach Yourself Dabbling Shelf

Mastering Beginnings : Dabbling Through the New Year

I set myself a task in 2021: to collect the full set of Teach Yourself language courses from the 1980s and 1990s. That task is nearly complete, with the missing languages now counting in the single figures. I’ve ended up with a really comprehensive language learning library including a bunch of languages I’ve never even thought of studying, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

So what now?

Well, it is the season for New Year’s Resolutions, so I had a crackpot idea. What about working through each of them in 2022, attempting to complete the first chapter in every one?

The Dabbling Library

You crazy fool! I hear you cry, what’s the gain in that? After all, a bunch of introductory chapters won’t result in a very strong working knowledge of any of them. A bit of a lot, but not a lot of much.

That all depends on your goals in language learning, though. Of course, I still have those core projects with the aim of high-level functional or conversation fluency, like Gaelic, Greek and Polish. And I have my maintenance projects to retain fluency in languages like German, Norwegian and Spanish.

But there’s a huge amount to be gained from casual dabbling, and my little TY cache promises to be fertile ground for that.

A Little Goes A Long Way

For one thing, I’ve learnt over the past year-and-a-bit of master study in linguistics that knowing about languages – regardless of your ability to speak them conversationally – is invaluable. Even a brief foray into how wildly disparate tongues work can give you a whole new perspective on how humans do this whole language business. Exploring beyond the Indo-European bubble, for example, helped me to dismantle some sticklers of limits to my linguistic thinking. Arming your mind with a thousand varied examples is great prep for linguistic research.

My single-chapter dabbling spree is a chance to fill in some telling gaps, too. Some of those languages on my TY shelf are close siblings to others I know well. Catalan, Portuguese, Italian… I’m expecting my Spanish to help prise the door open a little bit more than the very first pages. Just learning a few regular sound correspondences and cognate (mis)matches can provide a working knowledge beyond the concrete words and structures you learn from the page itself. That’s not to mention the bird’s eye view you get of particular language families, particularly on how close pairings differ.

And finally, there’s the caveat that building bridges with languages doesn’t require absolute fluency. Just a few words – a hello, a please, a thank you – is enough to make a human connection. Knowing just jó napot (good day) in Hungarian was ice-breaker enough to strike up conversation with restaurant staff in Birmingham. A smattering of 100 or so Hebrew words was ample for having a hybrid French-Hebrew conversation with Israelis in a bar in Paris. In short: don’t discount the value of even a tiny bit of knowledge.

Dabbling Down on Languages

So, wish me fun, enjoying this lot. I would ask for luck, but when language is the pleasure it is to all of us, we don’t need too much of that. Because that joy is the clincher, it’ll remain very low-key in terms of organised study, particularly since I’m ever-wary of goal exhaustion.

But please, feel free to join me on this journey mastering beginnings, if I’ve convinced you. Giving old books a new lease of life is an easy and really affordable way to start your own dabbling shelf!

A retro cassette tape. Image from freeimages.com

Retro Corner : De-Digitising Language Learning

Yes, it escalated. I’m not only seeking old Teach Yourself language books – I’m now hunting down the retro cassette packs too. How incorrigibly 1990s of me!

Now, this is not just a case of me giving into my obsessive-compulsive collector traits. My latest second-hand drive is all part of a general strategy to wean myself off 24/7 digital connectivity. Apps and social media are excellent language learning companions, but like many, I’m beginning to feel the digital fatigue.

Duolingo (bless their hearts!) didn’t help much by adding a new level of challenge recently – diamond tournaments – which, obviously I had to spend far too much time on. My Gaelic and Norwegian may have come on in leaps and bounds lately thanks to that little carrot-and-stick, but I can almost see a phone screen when I close my eyes now.

I’m being gamified to distraction.

Yes, it’s definitely time to rebalance the digital with some offline learning. And so I’ve sourced a few of these old Teach Yourself packs, a 30-year-old Walkman, and created a little retro language corner.

A retro 1980s handheld tape player from Sony

My gloriously retro Sony tape player

Language Learning, Fast and Slow

There’s something warm and fuzzy about popping a cassette in, and forward-winding to the spot you want. I’m about to sound like a right old codger, but it’s almost more satisfying finding your way around a resource, as opposed to doing a quick click, jump and gaining instant gratification online. This contrast is another case of language learning, fast and slow, where slow can bring along a heap of easy-to-overlook joy.

What’s more, it’s cheap and easy to recreate that retro learning hygge. I’ve spotted plenty of these old TY book and cassette packs going on eBay in my recent hunts. While CD-based packs are still a bit pricier (being a bit less obsolete), you can regularly pick the cassette versions up for a steal. If you have something to play them on, there are bargains to be had.

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Happy Learning

Of course, you can always go that little bit further. After all, creating a happy learning space is all about triggering warm memories and feelings associated with studying. To that end, I have my eye on a couple of old Coomber cassette players now, the exact same models that our teachers played Tricolore French cassettes on in the early 90s.

Nostalgia, combined with sheer geekdom, can be a great motivator in language learning.

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

A Christmas tree decoration up close. Image from freeimages.com

Christmas Favourites : Perennial Linguaphile Picks for 2021

I’ve done a few Christmas gifts for language lovers posts in the past. Perhaps that’s more out of wishful thinking than anything else… After all, who doesn’t like making their pleas to Santa public?

But looking back, it’s a case of plus ça change. The same book series, the same piles of lovely stationery. Linguaphiles never really change. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Many of those old gift ideas are still going strong on a solid five stars. And some have since expanded to include new languages and features.

So what’s in Language Santa’s sack this year?

Dream Books

My top picks for Chrimbo books hasn’t changed much. In the absence of any fantabulous new grammar series or language courses, the set-collector in me is still captivated by a couple of ranges.

ROUTLEDGE GRAMMARS

Because honestly, you can’t beat them, can you? Many have seen updated editions recently, and a couple of new languages have come out in the Essential Grammar range (cue shrieks of excitement): Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian, and West Greenlandic. Music to the ears of anyone looking for more ‘off the beaten track’ language resources.

And I can barely contain my excitement that finally we’re getting an Icelandic Essential Grammar from Routledge. It’s due out on 21st December, just in time for Christmas. Oh my, it’s like they knew

This year also saw the addition of Intermediate Persian and Intermediate Korean to the Grammar and Workbook titles, too. Thanks, Santa Routledge.

SHORT STORIES IN…

These were an exciting addition to the language learning market when they appeared. There have been short stories collections for learners before, of course. Penguin have a great couple of titles in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

But what’s nice about these is that they’re written with key structures and high frequency vocabulary in mind. They’re also available in lots more languages, including some underserved ones like Icelandic and Turkish. What’s more, they all match. So, if you’re studying multiple languages, you’re getting similar input in both, and one isn’t being neglected over the other because of a resources mismatch.

It’s great to see that two more titles are in the pipeline for 2022: Irish Beginners and Japanese Intermediate. For our 2022 wish list, could I ask the Short Stories Santa for a Gaelic, Greek and Polish too?

TEACH YOURSELF TUTORS

If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit of a TY fanboy. It’s a nostalgia thing – I love a bit of language learning vintage.

TY reinvigorated their range with the excellent Tutor series a couple of years back, and they’re still fresh and relevant. While there haven’t been any news ones added to the range yet (pretty please, Teach Yourself!), the fourteen titles there are already classics in polyglot circles, and again, represent a fair few languages without masses of material available for learners otherwise.

Verdict? Still solid stocking fillers (if you have quite large stockings).

Tech Toys

2020, was all about the VR. Most likely, the pandemic and rolling lockdowns had something to do with that. But VR has proven it’s not just a flash in the pan. Its user base is growing, and it’s still a fantastic immersion tool for language learning.

It wasn’t all rosy with tech, though. Two years previous, I was raving about a brilliant Chinese voice assistant crowdfunding for development on IndieGoGo. A friend of mine had even invested, and there was some really positive hype around it. Following it up to post this update, I was sad to learn that the project hit serious difficulties, leaving a lot of people disappointed. Still, with the language learning potential of general purpose voice assistants, competition was always going to stiff.

At least we still have VR. My tip for 2022? It’s still get an Oculus! Christmas is the best excuse.

Wear It With Pride

Finally, alternative items that weren’t on my radar over previous Christmas seasons include funky wearables. Maybe hiding behind this newfound sartorial daringness is the pandemic, and successive lockdowns where we all gradually felt less self-conscious about what we had on. But I really started to like more fab ‘n’ fun clothing over the past year, like these linguist t-shirts on Etsy. Amazon lists some fancy (and also quite bizarre ones) too.

I’m just sprucing up my wardrobe ready to step out at the 2022 round of polyglot events.

Books for restoring!

Restoring Books at Home

If you hadn’t noticed from my recent blogging fervour, restoring second hand language books is my latest hobby obsession. There’s something beautiful about rescuing discarded treasures from forgotten bookshelves, and making them useful again. Plus, they’re dead cheap. It’s a hobby that can easily become addictive thanks to the bargains to be had.

That said, if you want a smart, tidy bookshelf, some of those books will need a little tender loving care. When first faced with slightly grubby, neglected and bashed about titles, my first thought was: how on earth do you clean a book? I mean, plain old soap and water isn’t going to help matters here; nobody wants to read a damp Teach Yourself.

Thankfully, paper-friendly clean-up isn’t too hard at all, and you may well have many of the tools at home already. Here are some of the best methods I’ve found for brushing up my ever-increasing hoard of yesteryear’s language learning resources.

By way of disclaimer, I’m no expert – just a book lover who has Googled this stuff endlessly over the past couple of months! If you’ve come across different advice or have other book-restoring tips, please let me know in the comments.

That’s the Spirit!

My number one, can’t-do-without item for sprucing up tatty books is surgical spirit. It’s excellent for cleaning glossy-cover paperbacks for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s not caustic, like bleach-based or similar solutions
  2. It evaporates quickly, so doesn’t drench and damage pages
  3. It has strong antibacterial properties

For covers, I dampen a kitchen towel with some spirit and wipe outwards from the middle of the covers to the edges. Always be careful not to scuff or over-dampen the card edge. Done well, this can make glossy colour picture covers positively pop.

Teach Yourself Polish book cover

Teach Yourself Polish, 1993 – now with added shine

For book edges, you can apply some spiritual cleaning by switching to a dab technique. Moisten your cloth or towel, and simply pat the sides of the book down slightly, taking care not to rub too vigorously.

Boots do a 500ml bottle of surgical spirit for just over a fiver, and it lasts for ages.

Fighting Foxes

Foxing – those little brown spots on the sides of books – used to give me the heebie-jeebies. I assumed they were organic marks, like mould, which might spread to other books.

Fortunately, foxing is almost always completely harmless. It’s generally the result of reactions between paper chemicals and air, amongst other things, more or less akin to rust on metal. Granted, they’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, so you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to improve the appearance of foxed books.

I’ve had great results by gently filing away fox marks with a nail file (also a great remedy for yellowing book edges). Note that it does take some time and requires some care, being a destructive process, if only mildly so. For good measure, I dab the filed edge with a cloth slightly moistened with surgical spirit afterwards.

Book restoring - fox marks on an old book

Foxing – before filing

Book restoring : after filing fox marks away

Foxing – after filing

Getting Things Straight

Perhaps one of the most common types of damage you’ll come across is page creasing and dog ears. It’s tempting to go straight for these with you hands to try and uncurl them, but this can cause even more damage and breakage if the crease is old and worn in, or the paper is thin.

Instead, get yourself an egg-cup of warm water and a cotton bud. Dampen the bud slightly, and use it to tease out the dog-ear and roll it flat. It’s a much gentler way to get things straightened out.

If you’ve had to do a lot of de-creasing, you might also find it helpful to press your book back into shape. You can use boards (like flower-pressing boards, for example) and a vice for this, but it’s much simpler to leave it under a bigger, heavier book for a day or two.

Holding Your Nose

If there’s one rogue smell you notice most on a second hand book, it’s the dreaded smoky house. I’ve had a couple of books that quite obviously spent a lot of time around tobacco, and if that’s not your thing, it can be quite off-putting.

Luckily, you may well have the magic treatment in your kitchen cupboards already. Bicarbonate of soda or baking powder work an absolute treat on smelly items. Seal the book with a spoonful of powder in a freezer bag, and leave it for 2-4 weeks. It’s honestly astonishing how effectively it minimises odours.

Cover Up

After all that hard work making your old books beautiful, you want to keep them that way. And plastic book jackets are the way to go! They’re available at loads of places online, as well as major bookshops – I’ve been picking them up for around 60p each at Blackwells.

They come in a range of sizes to fit standard book dimensions. As you work with more and more books, you will become geekily acquainted with those measurements. Say “Teach Yourself” to me, and I’ll fire back 198 millimetres! like a shot. (Told you I was becoming obsessed.)

Plastic book covers

Plastic paperback covers

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat…

Unfortunately, there are bigger nasties than a bit of foxing and yellowing. Sadly, some books end up in much worse states than these techniques can remedy. But all is not lost, and a bit of Googling throws up all sorts of heavy-duty book rescue tips.

This post – pictures not for the squeamish! – shares a particularly impressive restoration story about a cache of roach-soiled tomes. And if you can stomach taking on truly filthy material as a restoration project, innovative cleaning techniques range from putting a book in the oven on a low heat to treat infestations, to using fancy UV-C sterilisation boxes. Thankfully, the big eBay book sellers don’t sell anything quite so unsettling, and I’ve never had to turn to these extreme techniques. I’ll think I’ll stick with standard scuffs, dust and dog ears, personally.

But it’s good to know that even the most unfortunate volumes can be saved!