Guest Post: Ellen Byron

Please welcome back Ellen Byron, author of the Cajun Country Mysteries. Take it away, Ellen!

image002I’m a regular at our monthly Friends of the Library sale, a fundraiser that sells “pre-owned” books donated by generous library patrons. It began when I developed a hobby of collecting vintage cookbooks. Not that I’m any kind of gourmet chef, I just love the history of how people ate and cooked. I’ve unearthed some wonderful gems at this sale. Once I found a 1928 cookbook produced by Photoplay, a long-gone fan magazine, which highlighted favorite recipes of silent and newly talking stars (or the studio publicists shilling for them).

Cookbooks aren’t the only type of book I gravitate towards. I’m always on the hunt for travel tomes and of course, mysteries. But no matter what the genre, I’m always captivated by the most simple, mundane thing – paper.

What I love is how much the texture of a book’s paper reveals about its history. Occasionally I find some with crisp new pages. These are obviously a recent buy, donated by a reader itching to move from one current bestseller to another. Then there are the books with pages that are yellowed and brittle around the edges. Usually these are older paperbacks, which I read with care, fearing the pages will disintegrate as I turn them. And then there are the magical finds of seventy or eighty years ago, like the 1928 cookbook. The paper is thin, with a delicate texture that doesn’t seem to exist in the current printing world. Many of the recipes in my vintage collection still sport drips and stains from their use in some previous owner’s kitchen, and faded pencil or pen notations. If I run my hand over the ink notes, I can tell whether they’ve been written with a ballpoint or fountain pen.

The paper texture of each book is a journey back in time. Sometimes it’s a short trip to a few months ago; other times it returns you to the days where lard was a popular ingredient and leftovers were stored in an icebox (the precursor to a refrigerators, for you youngin’s.) And then there are the books where the paper is new but the subject old, like with an updated volume of Sherlock Holmes stories I bought at the most recent sale.
I’m hoping that ten years from now, I’ll find copies of my mysteries at the Friends of the Library sale. But the books’ paper won’t be faded and brittle. It will be shiny and new because they’re the latest issue of a book that has never gone out of print. The characters in Eugene O’Neill’s would call this a pipe dream. But I’ll paraphrase the great American playwright and call it a paper dream.

I wonder what the paper from the original 1946 edition of his play would feel like?


Ellen Byron’s novel, Plantation Shudders: A Cajun Country Mystery, was a Library Journal Debut Mystery of the Month, and nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards.  Book two in the series, Body on the Bayou, was recently released to enthusiastic reviews. TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, and many network pilots; she’s written over 200 national magazine articles; her published plays include the award-winning Graceland.


9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ellen Byron”

  1. Oh, Ellen, a kindred spirit–how fabulous. I have a 1915 cookbook that introduces a “new” food, macaroni. It cautions that the noodle might be hard to find, but that it is worth the search. It too is covered in hand annotations in a number of handwritings and speckled with spots. I’ve never made anything from it, but I love looking through it. another particular gem is a book titled On A Note of Triumph. It’s inscribed V-E-Day 5/8/45 Dora Rolnitzky 1929 Elmhurst Detroit 6, Mich. The paper is clearly war quality, it’s a frail book I treat carefully. Other, older books, have paper with an almost linen like quality that look fresh and strong.


  2. Exactly why I will always prefer hard copies! I love the stories their paper tells. I inherited my German grandmother’s homemade cookbook, which she put together in the early 1900’s, and since her husband was a carpenter, it included recipes for furniture polish!


  3. Wow, I love this post, Ellen!! Now I want to go dig through my bookshelves and flip through the pages of my well-worn and appreciated books 🙂


  4. Ellen, welcome back! I have two really old books (of negligible value) that belonged to my great grandmother: History of Ireland by William Dolby (1845). Heavy yellow paper, now spotted.Someone wrote “The more you read of this, the less you know” and dated it Adams, January 11, 1840 (a mystery since that predates the publication.) And Picturesque Ireland by John Savage (1884), who was a Fenian sent to America to raise money which he did through lectures and book sales. The binding is falling off but the paper is in good shape. My great grandmother wrote “The history of Ireland is told in its ruins” in the latter book. My great grandfather wrote his name on the first page and dated it July 12, 1884. Both books
    displayed in a place of honor in the home office. I love their smell. I love that my ancestors caressed these pages.


  5. Thank you all so much for having me again! I love writing for you. And thanks for buying the book, Keenan! Super congrats on the Malice Anthology. BTW, I didn’t even mention the 1946 American edition of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” that my mother found among her books. Written by “Acton Bell” – the pseudonym for Anne Bronte!


  6. Okay… I admit it. I love the image a stain on a cookbook can create for me. I make notes in my own. “11/16/98 George loved this but would like me to use larger shrimp.”

    Terrific post.


  7. Welcome, Ellen! I love old books, too, mostly the paper and the bindings. I was fortunate enough to do a summer semester at Cambridge University when I was in college–oh, the libraries in Cambridge! The smells, the feel of the space, the age of the books. Lovely. Lovely! I have a few antique books; they don’t have any real monetary value, but I love how they’re bound, the gilding on the pages, the size (they’re tiny books), the paper itself feels different.


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