Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English. On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.
One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone). This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).
But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects. The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.
The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book. Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field. It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well. It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.
That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book. That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating. Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.
Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water. Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text. And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop. Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.
It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay. If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege. You can check it out here.