I have some difficulties in understanding the meaning of this excerpt from The Book of Lost Things:

David was aware of a change in the room as soon as he began to fill the empty spaces on the shelves, the newer books looking and sounding uneasy beside these other works from the past. Their appearance was intimidating, and they spoke to David in dusty, rumbling tones. The older books were bound in calfskin and leather, and some of them contained knowledge that had long been forgotten, or that was found to be incorrect as science and the process of discovery uncovered new truths. The books that held this old knowledge had never come to terms with this relegation of their worth. They were now lower than stories, for stories were intended, at some level, to be made up and untrue, but these other books had been born for greater things. Men and women had worked hard on their creation, filling them with the sum total of all that they knew and all that they believed about the world. That they were misguided, and the assumptions they made were now largely worthless, was almost impossible for the books to bear.

I understand that the author plays with the idea of talking books with personalities. However, I wonder, is there a hierarchy made between fiction and non-fiction here? Is it ironic when it is said "these other books had been born for greater things"? I don't really understand the point of mentioning these old books.

1 Answer 1


Calfskin and leather, which the older books are bound in, are expensive. They're durable and (especially calfskin) soft; both are valued for bookbinding. That the old books were bound in calfskin and leather indicates that, at the time of binding, they were considered important, worth preserving for the future.

Now, what's in the books is not valued as it once was. In the better case, this knowledge was simply not considered important enough even to remember - forgotten even by historians. In the worst case, the books are filled with wrong information. Not intentional lies, but worse than useless anyways. The old book themselves don't like to admit this.

The narrator rebukes the old books' ideas. It is not simply that what they hold is false; fiction books are full of false words, and yet many enjoy reading them. It is worse because the books insist in their correctness and value as truth. (Hierarchy: truth meant as truth & fiction meant as fiction > fiction that was meant as truth)

It is a bit ironic to say "these other books had been born for greater things", because we know that even if they were meant to be useful repositories of knowledge, they no longer fulfil that role. They had been born for greater things, but that’s not what they were destined for.

The new books are described as "uneasy" besides the old books. The oldness, the out-of-date-ness of the old books is emphasized (they are "from the past"). The new books represent things that people care about now. They specifically go in the "empty spaces" on the shelves - indicating that there were empty spaces in the first place! The old books couldn't cover everything; they are incomplete or wrong. And they don't like being reminded of that. So new books filling the spots that the old books didn't reach, is an affront in their minds.

As David tries to put the new books in, the old books' rage becomes palpable, and they speak in "dusty" (they haven't been used/touched in a while since they're worse than useless) tones, trying to warn him away from intruding on their territory.

The new books are useful. The old books once were, but are no longer, though they insist they are are good as new. There's a possibility this reflects a wider theme/character arc, but I haven't read any of this work but the given passage so I wouldn't know.

Rather experimental form of answer for me; I'm attempting to thoroughly explain the implications of the passage, since there's not a single sentence to analyze.

  • 1
    Good close reading. One thing I’ll add, having read the book, is that this scene foreshadows two connected themes that will run throughout: 1) stories “conversing” with each other, which plays out in the plot as the main character progressing through episodes of “fractured” fairy tales, and 2) an old, resentful, malevolent spirit perverting and corrupting the young.
    – Kevin Troy
    Jun 26, 2021 at 4:51

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