10 Life Lessons from Old Books

Old Book StackBook Historian Extracts Modern Advice from Ancient Sources

Got issues? Whether you worry about how to leave parties, need to get rid of bedbugs, or simply want tips on impressing super-excellent ladies, a book historian has dusted down a library of ageless wisdom.

Bedbugs. Awkward conversations. Embarrassment on the dancefloor. No matter what problem you’re facing, the Past has already faced it. More importantly, the Past has already written about it. Medieval scribes sat in their scriptoria and copied recipes for shampoo and techniques for practical jokes involving raw meat. Renaissance printers dedicated their revolutionary moveable type to the dissemination of chat-up lines and friendly advice about armpit stench. Every century weighed in on the elusive hangover cure.

As a book historian, I’ve spent many hours examining the advice that past centuries found worthy of committing to paper, from dancing handbooks to etiquette manuals to recipe collections. I find these old books oddly uplifting: whatever your goal, they promise, you don’t need privilege, wealth, talent, or long years of practice. All you need is the book and its quirky technique, and maybe some goose grease.

In fact, I thought it was time for the lip balm of 1579 and the budget fashion advice of 1280 to return to circulation, so I’ve compiled my favorite advice from yesteryear in a new book, Ask the Past. Here is a selection of tips from old books to help you achieve your dreams – provided that your dreams are oddly specific and your definition of success is somewhat flexible.

1. How to Tell if Someone Is or Is Not Dead, c. 1380

A good starting point for most interactions:

“Moreover, if there is any doubt as to whether a person is or is not dead, apply lightly roasted onion to his nostrils, and if he be alive, he will immediately scratch his nose.”

2. How to Recover From a Dance Mishap, 1538

Inspirational advice from the Past: it’s not whether you fall on your face, but how you finish the dance that matters.

“When you fall, pick yourself up quickly, and go back to finishing the dance energetically without complaining at all: pa-trim pa-tro-lo! And if you don’t get up, you will not be able to fall any further: there is nowhere to fall for one who is lying on the floor.”



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