Robert Fisk: Seduced by the power of historic books

I prowl through parchment pages in search of the city I live in today

There is nothing to match the smell of old books. "Musty" is the cliché that comes to mind but there is something more attractive, more refined about the perfume of ancient volumes. It's the same kind of smell you find in Anglo-Saxon churches, the smell of wood pulp, of trees.

That we should still use the great forests of the world to disseminate our wisdom in the age of the internet is somehow appropriate, our love of books linking us to the prehistorical age of dinosaurs and pterodactyls, when the planet really was green.

I don't care if the books are "foxed" – if pages are brown-stained by the damp of ages – and that's just as well because Beirut is a dirty city, and in my seafront apartment, a mixture of exhaust fumes, industrial grime and the damp of the Mediterranean "foxes" even my newest books within a year. I once thought of moving them to Europe, then realised that their deterioration was part of their story, that they would always wear their history of Lebanon on their covers.

That's one reason why I love the old second-hand bookshop that Habib Aboujaudeh runs on Bliss Street. It's seen hard times – just like 75-year-old Habib. During the civil war, thieves stole thousands of pounds' worth of books from his store in west Beirut. "I lived in Ashrafieh in the east and my books were being sold on the streets of Hamra," he tells me. "I don't know why they took them. They can't have made much money." In Khayat's Bookshop – Habib inherited the name of previous owners – the smell of wood mixes with the odour of old stones. The store was once stables for the horses of the American University of Beirut, which still stands across the road, an academy founded by a 19th-century Quaker called Bliss.

Unlike Lebanon, Habib's shop is a cocktail of religions and literary style. There are Bibles and treatises on Islamic jurisprudence, tawdry romances from the 1950s, science lectures and the works of Ayatollah Khomeini and children's books and postcards of pre-war Beirut in which large American cars motor past 1930s hotels. Here you can find Alistair MacLean's Guns of Navarone in French, and Albert Vulliez's account of Churchill's destruction of the Vichy French fleet in Mers el-Kébir on 3 July 1940. "A hateful decision," Churchill called it in his own history of the Second World War (also in Habib's shop), "the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned."

Several shelves contain paperback volumes of mathematics conference lectures. It would probably need a mathematician to understand them, but the visitor may browse through Homotopy Invariant Algebraic Structures on Topological Spaces by Boardman and Voigt (1973) or the minutes of the Romanian-Finnish Seminar on Complex Analysis (Bucharest, 1976) or even Commutative Harmonic Analysis (Marseilles, 1974), which just might be the ancestor of a more modern paper on Geometric Properties of Musical Rhythms. Alas, my favourite title of a mathematics paper – Deflating the Pentagon, which must have caused missing heartbeats in the US Department of Homeland Security – is nowhere to be found in Habib's shop.

But he does walk over to me with a massive volume, printed in 1890 and entitled Architectural Studies in Italy, number 49 out of only 150 copies, authored by William J Anderson, president of the Glasgow Architectural Association. "The Photo-Mechanical-Process and the printing are by Messrs McLure and Macdonald & Co Glasgow," the reader is solemnly informed, and by God, they knew how to print. Not in the glossiest of architectural volumes have I seen such fine and detailed drawings. "How much do you think it's worth?" Habib asks me quietly. I express my total ignorance. "Sometimes I sell a book and I regret selling it," he says mysteriously. "The person who loves a book – I sometimes sell it to him at half price. If I don't like him, I don't sell it to him for any price."

Habib sells me Ordeal in Algeria for £28. But written by Richard Brace, an American professor, and his writer wife Jane, two years before France's frightful colonial war came to an end in 1962, it's a snip for the wisdom it dispenses. It's amazing how much the Bruces got right. They emphasised the shamefulness of torture – utilised by the French with the same scientific enthusiasm as the Americans have shown in "waterboarding" their own Muslim victims.

And here is the author's prescient conclusion, in which readers may care to substitute America for France and think of another, even bloodier conflict: "Freedom from fear is the only environment in which people, particularly one lacking in breadth of political maturity, can express an honest voice. And how can this be obtained if one enemy ... refuses to negotiate with the other? How, on the other hand, can the rebels lay down their arms? One solution seems as impossible to the philosophy of the partisans as the other. And France will not recognise the international voice, the world sentiment rising against her ..."

Habib hopes, I think, that I will part with many more pounds for a far older and more precious tome which he hands to me. A View of the Levant: Particularly of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt & Greece by Charles Perry (dedicated to "the Right Honourable Earl of Sandwich, etc, etc"), was printed in 1743 for "T Woodward between the Temple Gates in Fleet Street and C Davis, near Middle Row in Holborn".

I prowl through its parchment pages for the city in which I live today. And of course, I find it. "Bayrut (which in the Time of the Romans was not wanting, but rather abundant in magnificent Buildings, as appears from the great Quantity of Granite Pillars, which lie dispersed up and down) is delightfully situated by the Sea-side, at the South Point of a spacious Bay; and 'tis encompass'd to the Landward with delightful Gardens which extend Three or Four Miles from the Bank of it; which are intersperss'd with most delightful Avenues... and pleasant Rivulets of Water in different Directions."

I am still considering a bid on this memory of a safer, greener Middle East. There is today only one garden left in Beirut and the "most delightful Avenues" are now canyons of traffic. True, the Roman ruins can still be seen downtown and my own flat is indeed "delightfully situated by the Sea-side". But I bet that books never "foxed" in those days.

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