Why do we treasure old books?

The Martyrs Mirror is revered by Amish and other Anabaptists.  It’s a 1,000+ page book recounting the stories of Christian martyrs.  In addition to Biblical-era martyrs, it includes tales of the many early Anabaptists persecuted in Europe.

martyrs mirror maria van monjou
Martyr Maria van Monjou being prepared for drowning

The Martyrs Mirror is in the news because a very old (1748) German-language edition is up for sale at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society auction (I’ve linked to the story on the Amish America Facebook page).

While visiting the Big Valley Amish settlement in Februrary I paid a visit to Hedda Durnbaugh, wife of the late Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh.

Hedda is the archivist at Juniata College in Huntingdon, just down the road from Big Valley.  After a delicious lunch Hedda led me up the road to the college, perched on a hill overlooking the town.  We descended into the basement, where Hedda extracted a 17th-century Dutch-language Martyrs Mirror from within the college’s iron-doored vault.  This edition (1685) is the first to feature copperplate etchings by Dutch engraver Jan Luiken.

Opening a book that old you feel the history practically seeping off of the pages.  It’s the type of book that you can imagine blowing the dust off of and cracking open the creaking cover not really knowing what you’ll find within.

This is the most famous of Luiken’s Martyrs Mirror images:

martyrs mirror dirk willems
Dirk Willems and his pursuer

It depicts the remarkable story of martyr Dirk Willems.  You can read more here: Dirk Willems and the Martyrs Mirror.

Messiah College professor David Weaver-Zercher has devoted much time lately to the Martyrs Mirror.  A recent lecture he gave at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College examined how modern-day Old Orders read and think about the book.

The Martyrs Mirror is commonly found on Amish bookshelves.  The book is a reminder of the suffering of their forbears.  For many Amish it is second in importance after the Bible.

Amish, for that matter, have a general appreciation for old books.  Books are not just conduits of information.  They are artifacts.  Books may be passed down through families, given as gifts, and treasured as keepsake memorials.

An inscription inside a front cover can bring back a flood of memory.  Stories within shape character and identity.  Handwritten notes recall insights long-forgotten.

In an era of Kindle and disposable media, old books seem to take on that much more value by comparison.

What are your old book stories?  Which tome do you treasure most?

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    1. kristin jager

      Why do we treasure old books

      I agree, as with the Amish , people have an appreciation of old books–simply the Bible, the classics etc. Passing on these treasures from generation to generation is passing down a legacy, our values, our beliefs.
      Erik, I really enjoyed the information your provided. I have heard briefly about this book–“Martyrs Mirror,” but, I am totally unfamiliar with it. Do most Amish families have this treasured book in their home?
      I also noticed that the illustration from this book depicts human forms…with faces. Knowing how the Amish feel about graven images, doesn’t this pose a problem for them? This inquiring mind would like to know:-) LOL Thanks so much Erik. I always look foward to your posts. Blessings, Kristin

    2. Alice Aber

      Old books,,,,


      What an interesting story. I had never given much thought about the old books I have hung onto for what seems like a life time but you are right. I too have a few that I would never part with.

      My father’s family bible. Dad gave it to me when I was just a little girl. It has been through two floods and survived a house fire. The pages are loose from the binder and worn and torn in several places yet I won’t part with it.

      It is now wrapped up in acid free paper and stored in a safe place. In its pages are many hand written notes that share a family’s history.

      I have a cook book that has seen better days. It was my grandmother’s on my mom’s side. Then handed down to my mom and eventually to me. Inside its pages are many hand written recipes from both my mom and my grandmother. I still use the cook book today from time to time but when not in use it too is stored in a safe place. I never knew my grandparents but somehow, this book makes me feel a bit like I did know grandma. I can visualize cooking right next to her in the kitchen at their homestead. It brings warm feelings.

      There are a few other books that hold similar feelings welled up within their pages. I think holding onto old books can be a sentimental or emotional thing. And sometimes, there is just something we don’t want to forget.

      Thanks Erik, this was an awesome artical that sent me on a trip down memory lane. 🙂

      Blessings, Alice

    3. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      Interesting story Erik, I’ve heard of this book mentioned many times either reading a book on Amish culture, or in reading some scribe’s letters in the Budget. I looked it up before posting this comment. I went to a newspaper site in Pennsylvania that gave me a little information, so i learned something today that i didn’t have a clear picture of thanks to Amish America reminding me of it.The auction will be today starting at 6pm in Lancaster county, there will be over 450 books that will be sold including the “Martys Mirror”. The book was published orig in Ephrata Pa,It was the largest book published in the colonies up to that time . It sounds like the auction will be old school, so no internet bidding will be done like so many auctions today. I wonder who will be buying this famous and cherished book, but something tells me they will either be Mennonite or Amish since it hold such a prized value to them. Good day folks. Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish community.

    4. BethR

      Good question, Kristin, about the faces. Great post, Erik, and I work at a library so I know what treasures books are and can be. Sometimes when someone donates a bag or box of books, we can’t wait to see what’s in there – especially the old things. I wish I had more time to go to yard sales and such because I bet a lot of old book treasures can be found at places like that.

    5. Daniel Endy

      Any way of getting an MP3 of that lecture?

    6. Martyrs Mirror in Amish homes; graven images

      Hi Kristin, a lot of Amish do have them in their homes. I was fairly often asked if I sold it when I sold books in Amish communities.

      The idea of graven images is not really what it is sometimes made out to be. In fact it’s not really an issue in this sense, and not really in the photography sense either. Most if not all Amish don’t have a problem with viewing photos and images of humans (which they would in the newspaper, illustrated books, children’s books, etc, and of course providing they are decent). And when it comes to personal photos, Amish generally avoid them for reasons of humility not really because of a Biblical admonition against graven images.

    7. Alice, wonderful story. Love to hear about people’s books and the stories behind them. But to be honest even though I asked the question I actually feel a bit deprived on this end as no particular volume comes to mind for me. Of course I have some important books, but nothing with a good story behind it.

    8. Richard, I can bet that book will be in demand. I am really curious what the winning bidder will give for it. As the article said these are pretty rare to have come up on the block.

      Beth working at the library must be a good gig if you like books. I have always wondered when and why libraries “withdraw” books. In fact I was just looking at a book I own today by Amish bishop/farmer David Kline, and noticed it had been withdrawn at some point from a library, don’t know which, looks like it was last checked out in 1994.

      Dan, I have not seen anything about David Weaver-Zercher’s lecture out there…the Young Center I am sure recorded it but I don’t know if they would have it available.

    9. Loretta

      Erik, this is a bit off subject, but I have a question. I’ve read all the posts from the past several days about the little blue box beside peoples name who doesn’t have a picture. I am missing something! What is it? Honestly, when I first saw it, it seemed to me to be a capital G, laying on its side–written in toothpaste as it was squeezed from the tube. What am I missing. Not trying to be critical in any way, just trying to understand.

    10. sideways G by people's names

      Hi Loretta, good question.

      This is a default symbol that the blog displays if you don’t have what’s called a “gravatar”.

      A gravatar is a little image that is basically your visual identity and will appear whenever you leave a comment on gravatar-enabled sites like this one. If you want to get one here is where you go: http://en.gravatar.com/

      I like it b/c it personalizes things a bit more. But as I said the blue sideways G is just a default, previously I had a grey silhouette.

      When I changed the blog theme and logo a few days ago this was the default setting with the new theme. I need to figure out how to change back to the grey silhouette b/c I think I like that one better 🙂

    11. Loretta

      Honestly, I like the gray one better, also. I figured that if you liked this one better, I’d just roll with the flow.

      I somehow got myself unsubscribed accidently, now I’ve got to figure out how to get back on. I’ll learn to read directions better, I guess!


    12. Al in Ky.

      Comment on Why do we treasure old books?

      I have tried to read The Martyr’s Mirror several times, but find
      it hard to read. Yet, I can sit for quite awhile and look at the
      etchings in the book which are very interesting. I find it fascinating that Amish parents read The Martyr’s Mirror to
      their children. I wonder if they add some commentary and
      explanation to make it easier for their children to understand.

      When I visited Holmes County last year, I bought a copy of a book
      called Light From the Stakes — Selections from Martyr’s Mirror.
      It was published by Amish Brotherhood Publications of Baltic, Ohio.
      For me, this is easier to read, and easier to handle — The
      Martyr’s Mirror is so heavy! But, it only has one of the etchings,
      which I think are so interesting.

      A small book that many of my Mennonite friends have in their
      homes is Coals of Fire (copyright 1954). This is a book of
      seventeen true stories about returning love for hate,good for evil,and the stories span several hundred years. I have read this
      book several times and enjoy re-reading it. This book is only
      57 years old, but I find that many Mennonites treasure it just the
      same. I’m not sure if many Amish people have this book in their homes.

      I hope we keep alive the tradition of treasuring old books — for
      in a way they are “old friends”. I can’t imagine ever saying this
      in the same way of my computer or a TV set!

    13. Lindsay

      I’m descended from generations of dirt farmers, so unfortunately I don’t have any books that have been passed down in my family…at least ones that have survived. However my dad has a book at home that was published in the 1830’s…the cover is leather with an ship in a storm embossed on the cover. I don’t really remember what the book was about, but I always thought it was fascinating.

    14. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      I looked online today to see who, and how much the Martyrs Mirror was able to sell for. Ive found no information as yet, if it was sold at all?. I was wondering if anyone else knew on Amish America?. Richard from Lebanons Amish community.

    15. Where to buy Martyrs Mirror

      Hi Richard, you can definitely get a Martyrs Mirror, for instance next time you are in Lancaster drop by Gordonville Book Shop, they should have some (though you probably have an Amish place that sells books in Lebanon Co, don’t you?)…as for price, gosh, I want to say it’d probably be in the $30-40 range depending where you get it. It’s a chunky big book.

    16. Reading Martyrs Mirror to children

      Lindsay, long live the dirt farmer!

      Al, thanks for sharing about your book. As for Amish parents explaining the Martyrs Mirror to children, I’d imagine that would be the case. Amish parents that bought my Bible story books would typically translate them into PA Dutch for their younger children especially.

      Loretta I am still working on getting the little grey mystery man back up. I miss the guy too. This blue-white G is kind of ugly.

      There is something in the comments code of this new blog theme which I don’t understand, so probably will need to get some help. May take a little while so hope you can put up with Mr G a bit longer!

    17. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      Good morning Erik. I was really talking about the orig books that were up for auction last night in Lancaster. Those im sure sold for big bucks. Im not sure though if they were on reserve or not?. Richard

    18. Ah, I see! Sorry I misread your original post. I have not seen anything either. I am curious, if you do find out. I really have no idea how much one might go for. But I think it’s safe to say fairly big buckos 🙂

    19. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      Great now we are on the same page Erik,lol. Since its kind of a lazy weekend, i thought id ask you if you had ever heard of this recipe called “meatballs and sauerkraut”.Since im part polish myself, my grandmother used to make it for my family, as my mother did. From my understanding its really more of a Hungarian dish, which my grandmother was part of. Im a mixed bag of german, Irish and pretty much everything else. I was also wondering if thier is a english newspaper in poland thats online?. Well have a good weekend everyone, it looks to be a nice warm day on sunday here in the Lancaster area, and i plan on taking full advantage of it taking my digital camera out as well. Richard from Lebanons Amish community.

    20. Richard, I don’t know that one, unless we call it something else. But now that you mention it, I think it’s lunch time!

      As for English language Polish newspapers, try the Warsaw Voice or Krakow Post. I believe both of those have sites. Enjoy the sunny day!

    21. Marcus Yoder

      I saw a martyrs mirror from 1837 on ebay for $400,and one from 1837 that had tape on the binding for $200. Some newer ones for $40. Marcus Yoder

    22. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      Thanks for that info Marcus, im still watching to see if those books were sold on fri in Lancaster, and for how much. Richard from Lebanons Amish community.

    23. Slightly-handled-Order-man

      Martyrs’ size, Amish Authors, a dictionary

      Could some one tell me, was Martyrs’ Mirror a large volume in terms of size? I know some family bibles were big things, does, because of reasonably modern printing technology, the book become smaller, the number of martyrs probably doesn’t get reduced, but maybe the size of the book might, does it?

      I know there are noted Amish publications and publishers, but are there noted Amish authors, I don’t necessarily mean people who were born Amish and left, but people who take up the faith but write books anyway.

      In my house the weightiest volume is a mid-1950s dictionary that has served me well, and actually trumps modern dictionaries which include silly modern words. The 1950s one we have includes small maps and illustrations and brief biographies. To a certain extent, I learned to draw by copying some of the little illustrations.

      Our dictionary opens up and looks like how I imagine a big thick old style bible.

    24. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      A good sunday morning to all….Im sure Slightly if the Martyrs Mirror were published in a new form today, it would most likely be condensed from its present form. I used to work for a few newspapers in the printing dept, and pretty much every newspaper has shrunk in size by about 1 inch total. Some letter -type has maybe been reduced to allow for a little more items to be placed on a page. Although falling advertising from businesses has made that one easier to do. All these changes are done to save some money, newspapers are trying to look for ways in cutting cost under every rock now. And its not the same business that i knew when i had started. I’m still keeping an eye out to see how much these books brought in at auction. Richard from Lebanon county’s Amish community.

    25. Dr._K

      Treasure old books

      Hi Erik,
      I also thought I was alone in my treasuring of old books. Finding a hair, a feather, or a small flower brings me back to the original owner, who may have wearily wiped his or her head with the back of their hand, then closed the book. Mementos remind me that the findings were as treasured as the book. I am now conducting therapy with clients diagnosed with dementia; reading old books for them on their bookshelves brings back tears and great memories.

      I believe many years ago I found an old new testament bible that I paid about $150 for. I gave it to my brother, who absolutely treasured it. I have an old thick cookbook from my mother, which as one reader stated, reminds me that when I use it, I have her in my kitchen. There is an old page torn from a Reader’s Digest, written by Erma Bombeck, that reminds me of my father, who is no longer here. I have it stored in a safe place too.

      While I was completing research, I secured an old Philippine book from a library. I wrote the original library, exhorting them to never, ever send it through the mail on loan again. It was dated from 1896. In a similar story, while many of my peers sought out on-line links and services for research, I TOOK the opportunity to go to UCLA and other libraries, to peruse the shelves for volumes of interest. I will take a book or periodical any day over on-line formats. And I was nearly a record holder for securing books at our library during my research years. I recall having ‘borrowed’ over 500 volumes for such purposes. Those were the days…

      As an aside, from a professional standpoint, I have a keen interest in old tests (psychological). I have just secured for free over $10,000 in tests – old personality tests, intelligence tests, achievement tests, and affect/mood tests. This is what my field is grounded on, and I can well imagine their creation was for the benefit of what we have now. Looking at these items reminds me of peering down a dank, dark cellar. You don’t know what’s down there, but you will find out.

      Thank you Erik for today’s thought provoking piece.

    26. Richard (www.Amishstorys.com)

      A very thoughtful post Dr_K, and it makes one think alittle. It made me think. Richard from Penn

    27. Jessica

      It wasn’t too long ago that I bought an English copy of the Martyrs Mirror. I found it online actually, at a Christian website. It was quite pricey though, when you figure in the shipping. Amish publisher Pathway Books also has a small book that tells a bit of the history of the Mirror and how to use it in devotional reading. The book is not easy reading, partly because of the language but mostly because of the subject matter. Especially for those of us with an Anabaptist background, but also for anyone really, these old stories of persecution and martyrdom can be hard to bear.

    28. Meaningful books

      And Dr. K, thank you as well for your moving comment. At the risk of stating the obvious, books can be so much more than words on a page. They absorb life around them and store it to be found in future in poignant moments like some of the ones you describe. I much enjoyed your description of books meaningful both for you and your patients.

    29. Martyrs Mirror illustrations

      Marcus thanks for sharing on some Martyrs Mirror prices. I guess we will have to wait on the grapevine to learn how much the 1748 German edition went for at the Lancaster auction.

      Jessica you make a good point on the heaviness of the material. For me Luiken’s illustrations are quite evocative and in some sense allows one to experience perhaps but a tiny smidgen of what these many martyrs went through. The test of faith, the questions, what must have been for some dreadful anticipation yet in the end not wavering in their Christian conviction. It’s quite inspiring when you ponder these tales which is what must give the book so much weight in Amish households.

      I have posted just 2 of the Luiken engravings here, but you can view all of the illustrations online (there are 104 of them). This is a good site for that: http://www.bethelks.edu/mla/holdings/scans/martyrsmirror/

    30. Martyrs Mirror size

      Shom on the actual size of the Martyrs Mirror of course with so many pages it is going to be a large tome. The 1685 edition I viewed at Juniata College was quite a big book. One other thing that impresses me about old books is the thickness and sturdiness of the covers. Obviously these were created to last a long time, which a number have.

      On reducing the size for modern editions I’d think Richard might be correct here in terms of typeface but I haven’t done any comparison. If you did get ahold of one it’s still probably going to be one of the largest books on your shelf.

    31. Amish authors

      Shom there are definitely some Amish authors, I was actually just working on a piece on this for a new book of mine. There are those that write everything from historical accounts to books on nature and farming and even a spot of fiction.

      If you’re Amish it’s probably not going to be your primary career, but I think those that do write see it as a hobby and hopefully something contributing value to the community (ie historical documentation). You also have a diverse and growing number of Amish-produced periodicals.

    32. 1950s dictionary

      Shom on your last point, I do like your description of the 1950s dictionary. Sounds like one of these multipurpose doorstopper volumes.

      But in seriousness I was just reading an article on how the meaning of words such as presently, disinterested, etc. have been changing over time, and the way we use them now is different than one or two generations ago.

      So you wonder when the dictionary definition gets officially re-written since language is a fluid thing (slowly-changing, but fluid nonetheless). Your mention of the 1950 dictionary made me wonder how definitions in that volume would compare to those of a current-day dictionary–not just in meaning but in the wording used.

      Another interesting book on the topic is The Meaning of Everything, about the epic creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (a seven-decade process). Now that is a story.

    33. Martyrs Mirror auction price

      Looks like the 1748 Martyrs Mirror went for $4,800 according to an article that came out last night. I linked to the piece in Lancaster Online from the Amish America Facebook page.

    34. Al in Ky.

      In the April 25 issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review it reported
      just as you said, Erik, that the 1748 Martyrs Mirror sold for
      $4,800. The article also stated that a 1751 Ausbund sold for $900.
      It said, “Ausbund is the oldest Christian song book in continuous
      use, still used by Amish communities today.” There were over
      100 book collectors, Mennonites and Amish at the auction.

    35. Keith B. Johnston

      Why do we treasure old books?

      People can check the results of the Lancaster Historical Society’s auctions by going to their website (and you can bid online). Martyr’s Mirror is still in print by Herald Press (the Mennonite publishing house) and the German translation is still being printed by Pathway Publishers (Amish publishing house). You can order directly online from the former and from their catalog for the latter, who also sell the English translation for a good price. As regards Amish authors, David Kline and Linda Byler are two of the best.