In Praise of a Dying Trade

by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2013)

My love of money is so far unrequited, perhaps because I do not love it quite enough, which is to say to the exclusion of all other possible objects of adoration and devotion. Likewise I remain firm in my admiration of those who do not work exclusively or even principally for money; and among the latter must surely be English provincial sellers of second-hand books

Theirs is indeed a dying trade, and entering their shops – now, alas, fewer and fewer – one cannot help but wonder whether it ever truly lived. As long as I can remember, which is now quite a long time, they have been cold with a kind of irredeemable cold, an absence of warmth upon which no paraffin heater, no pre-war single bar electric heater (of the kind favoured by booksellers), no clement weather, can make the slightest impression. When you take a book from a shelf of one of these bookshops you get a puff of cold air in the face, as well as of dust, as if you had opened a mediaeval tomb complete with a curse against grave-robbers. One associates dust with dry heat, but this, at least where English provincial second-hand bookshops is concerned, is a mistake. They contrive to be cold, dusty and damp at the same time.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that in so materialistic an age as our own people can be found who not only spend, but want to spend, and cannot conceive of not spending, their working lives in such conditions, and all for little monetary reward. True, they are more or less protected by their avocation from the seamier and more violent side of modern society; burglars and armed robbers in even the worst areas for crime do not think to break into second-hand bookshops; and the comings and going of governments do not trouble them. Not for them, either, the shadow-boxing of modern party politics, in which one political mountebank sets himself up as the last bastion against the depredations of another, in truth not very dissimilar, mountebank. Rather they concern themselves with the eternal verities of light foxing, cocking, small tears to dust jackets, and the like. The worst that can happen to them is a gentle slide into insolvency as rents rise (all such shops are now found in the unlikeliest places because they can survive only where rents are low) and readers decline – both in number and in discrimination. For my money (of which, incidentally, they have taken a lot down the ages) they are the unsung heroes of our culture.

Their lives are precarious. For example, the other day I went into one such bookshop in the North of England, run by a husband and wife team, and bought for a sum that nowadays no one – no bourgeois that is – would hesitate to lay out for lunch, a slimmish volume published in 1857, that was in almost pristine condition. The lady was almost pathetically grateful: she said that by my single purchase I had paid half her rent for the day. I felt as if I had almost done a good deed.

The book was Uncle Sam and His Country: Or Sketches of America in 1854-55-56 by Alfred Pairpoint. I knew nothing of either the book or its author (that is one of the delights of browsing in a real rather than in a merely virtual bookshop), and was able to discover nothing about him on the internet, other than that I bought the book for a very good price. One of the reasons that Alfred Pairpoint is not a household name even in the households of the literati is that he was not a very good writer who, moreover, displayed no propensity to interesting thoughts; but there are few books that are totally without instruction when read in the right spirit. And Pairpoint’s book is interesting not so much for what it contains as for what it does not contain.

To slavery he devotes not more than six pages of his 346. There is, it is true, a chapter devoted to ‘Nigger anecdotes,’ but only two and a half pages long. Its general tone can be gauged by the following:

The American negroes generally are extremely simple-minded, but very witty and amusing, apparently happy all day long, gleesome as kittens, especially when off to a fight or a fire…

When the author visits a tobacco plantation in Virginia, he expends more pages on the care and cultivation of the plants than on the condition of the slaves, though he pronounces himself against slavery on grounds of principle. But the whole question is of no greater interest to him than the lunatic asylum of the town of Taunton, for example, or of the sewing-clubs established by the rich to assist the poor: the Peculiar Institution is for him just one among many. There is nothing to suggest an awareness of the cataclysm that was only four years off when the book was published.

There is surely an instructive lesson here. Alfred Pairpoint, to judge by his book, was an average man except, perhaps, in his determination to see his words, very ordinary as they were, between covers. His thoughts and feelings and prejudices were those of an ordinary man, neither particularly clever nor particularly stupid, neither outstandingly observant or penetrating, nor outstandingly blind or lacking in penetration. In this respect, he resembles most of us: and he had absolutely no conception or inkling that the most destructive war since the Napoleonic era was about to break out. Such blindness to the future seems to be the permanent condition of Mankind: and those few who, like Sir Isaac Newton, have seen a little further than others (perhaps as much by luck as by judgment, for where millions guess the future some must be right), are rarely attended to or their correct prognostications taken as the basis of action. Our ignorance of the future is not only our permanent burden but also the glory of our lives, for it makes our engagement with the world permanently necessary. If we knew everything our lives as conscious beings would be intolerable.

The very ordinariness of Alfred Pairpoint and his thoughts makes his conclusions about slavery all the more poignant. He has two pages of nineteen on the slavery question in his last chapter, where he writes:

 Example, there is no doubt, goes further than precept in such a question; - and it would be as well, if those who look so piteously on slavery, and conjure up, like Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe and others, such harrowing scenes to enlist the sympathies of their country, would themselves show a little charity towards their sable brethren, and not exclude them, like lepers, from society. The places of amusement… the tables at hotels, the public conveyances, nay, even the houses of prayer, frequented by the white American, are shut against the negroes; - nay, so inveterate is the prejudice against them, that white children will shun little curly-headed niggers in the street, as if the very sight of them were pollution, and as for sitting down in the same school-room with them, the idea would be preposterous. Thus, in fact, the coloured population in Northern Cities, though free, are as much under a bane, as if they were labouring in the cotton-plantations of Louisiana; and, until the Abolitionists set about reforming themselves in this particular, they are only injuring the cause and the race that they are professing to serve. If the black people are to be set free, let them be treated as brethren with the same rights, capacities, and responsibilities as the white population; - to advocate abolition on any lower principle than this, is a delusion and a fraud, - an insult to the common-sense of the whole civilized world.

And here, a propos of nothing except perhaps the present economic crisis, I cannot forebear from quoting the words of Daniel Webster that Alfred Pairpoint quotes on the subject of money:

Of all the contrivances for cheating the labouring classes of mankind, none has been more effectual than that which deludes them with paper-money, - the most effectual invention that could possibly have been devised for fertilizing the rich man’s field by the sweat of the poor man’s brow; and light, on the nation at large, would be the oppression of despotic tyranny and excessive taxation by comparison with those of a fraudulent currency and depreciated paper.

Let us now leave Pairpoint and progress to a nearby town whose second-hand bookshop made the first I have described seem palatial by comparison. The aged owner sat at his untidy desk awaiting customers, not very hopefully it seemed to me. He sat in front of the shelves that bore his more valuable stock which he allowed me to look over, judging that I was not a likely thief. You may judge of the scale of his commercial operations when I tell you that I bought a first edition of Aldous Huxley’s novel Antic Hay for $15, a price for which he all but apologised; and I also bought, for $1.50, a first (and as far as I know only) edition of the co-operative effort of Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, who by then had returned to his pre-Great War surname of Hueffer, anti-German feeling having subsided somewhat, published in the year of Conrad’s death, 1924, and titled The Nature of a Crime.

It was written many years before publication, and both authors claim in the preface not to remember how it came about.

The story (which Stefan Zweig would have written better) consists of pre-suicide letters of a man to the great love of his life, a woman who, however, has married someone else, called Robert. The author of the suicide letters is a financier whose defalcations are about to be exposed. Hitherto greatly respected as an enormously rich man of great financial acumen, the source of his fortune is embezzlement of funds from a trust of which he is a trustee. He is reprieved at the last moment from the need to commit suicide when the beneficiary of the trust withdraws his demand for accounts and unwittingly gives him the chance to make good the losses.

It is difficult to tell which pages or paragraphs are by which author, and it would hardly be worth the effort to establish it. What most interested me as a doctor in the story, however, is the fact, rather abruptly introduced, that Robert, the husband of the narrator’s love, is addicted to chloral hydrate, a hypnotic and sedative still in use, albeit steeply declining, when I started my career.

The passage by which I was impressed was that in which the narrator claims to be in the process of curing Robert of his addiction. This passage shows that Conrad or Hueffer (or both) had a better instinctive grasp of the nature of addiction, including its pharmacology, than most addiction doctors.

I told you… that Robert is almost cured. I would not have told you this for the sake of arrogating to myself the position of a saviour. But I imagine you would like the cure to go on and, in the case of some accident after my death, it might go all to pieces once more. Quite simply then: I have been doing two things. In the first place I have persuaded your chemists to reduce very gradually the strength of chloral, so that the bottles contain nearly half water. And Robert perceives no difference. Now of course it is very important that he shall not know of the trick that is being played so beneficently on him – so that, in case he should go away or for one reason or another, change his chemists, it must be carefully seen to that instead of pure chloral he obtains an exactly diluted mixture. In this way he may be brought gradually to drinking almost pure water.

However, the authors are aware that merely stopping the drug is not enough:

But that alone would hardly be satisfactory: a comparatively involuntary cure is of little value in comparison with an effort of the will. You may, conceivably, expel nature with a fork, but nothing but a passion will expel a passion. The only point to be proved is whether there exists in your husband any other passion for the sake of which he might abandon his passion for the clearness of vision which he always says his chloral gives him.

In this comparatively short passage, the authors have demonstrated that they understand two things about addiction that doctors so often neglect, even if they sometimes pay lip service to them: first that the physical aspect of addiction is frequently trifling, second that it is a man’s outlook on life that plays the determining role in his ‘recovery’ from his addiction. And neglect of these two things leads researchers in the futile alchemical quest for the philosopher’s stone of addiction, the treatment that, without any desire or effort on the part of the addicted person, will ‘cure’ him as antibiotics cure infections.

I will continue to haunt provincial second-hand booksellers in England as long as they continue to exist.      


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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