by Theodore Dalyrmple (Nov. 2008)
In 1936, George Orwell published a little essay entitled Bookshop Memories. In it, he recalled his time as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop, a time that was happy only when viewed through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia. Irony might be defined as disgust recalled in tranquillity, and Orwell’s essay is nothing if not full of irony. He was glad to have had the experience, no doubt, but more glad that it was over.
Not much has changed in the three quarters of a century that have elapsed since Orwell’s experience as a bookseller. Second-hand bookshops the world over still tend to be inadequately heated places, Orwell says because the owners fear condensation in the windows, but also because profits are small and heating bills would be large. There is a peculiar chill, quite unlike any other, to be experienced between the stacks of second-hand bookshops.
Orwell says that the tops of books in such bookshops are the place ‘where every bluebottle prefers to die,’ and this preference, being biological in origin, has not changed in the meantime. The dust of old books, and ‘the sweet smell of decaying paper’, still have a peculiarly choking quality that catch one in the back of the throat. And second-hand bookshops are still one of the few indoor public places where a person may loiter for hours without being suspected of any serious ulterior motive.
Orwell did not have a high regard for the customers, who struck him as awkward and mainly suffering from psychological problems. As a long-time habitué of second-hand bookshops, I should say that this is a fairly typical attitude of booksellers to buyers, whom they regard largely with contempt. This contempt arises not only from the character of book-buyers, but from their tastes. I knew a bookseller, a communist of the Enver Hoxha faction, who was constantly frustrated and irritated that the elderly black ladies of the area in which he had his shop were always asking for Bibles rather than for revolutionary literature that he thought that they, as the most downtrodden of the downtrodden, ought to have been reading. Another bookshop owner of my acquaintance so hated his customers that he would sometimes play Schoenberg very loudly to clear the shop of them. It was a very effective technique.
Not everything has remained the same since Orwell’s day, however. He says that anyone ought to be able to make a go of a second-hand bookshop, but this is no longer the case. Such bookshops are declining fast in number – recently I was in a coastal town in England that a decade ago had ten of them, and now the last of them was about to close in a week’s time.
Two developments have led to the decline of the second-hand bookshop. The first, of course, is the internet. The internet is both wonderful and terrible. For instance, it enables patients to learn a lot about their own diseases, and if they are discriminating, sometimes even to save their own lives. But medical information, or opinion, on the internet has probably already killed far more people than it has saved: the fact that Thabo Mbeki, the recently deposed President of South Africa, found a site on the internet while browsing that convinced him that AIDS was not caused by a virus, and that therefore treatment of HIV with drugs was harmful, resulted in untold premature loss of life that it will take many years for the internet to balance by lives it has saved.
With regard to books, the internet is a wonderful instrument for finding a book that you particularly need or want: if, for example (and for some obscure reason), you are searching for the 1490 edition of Pietro D’Abano’s Tractatus de Venenis, then you can find it on a site that claims to list 110,000,000 books. Suffice it to say that you could spend several lifetimes scouring the bookshops of the world in the old-fashioned way without finding it.
But the pleasure of second-hand bookshops is not only in finding what you want: it is in leafing through many volumes and alighting upon something that you never knew existed, that fascinates you and therefore widens your horizons in a completely unanticipated way, helping you to make the most unexpected connections.
According to the owner of a bookshop that I have now been patronising for forty years (and who seemed to me to be of the older generation when I first met him, but now seems, mysteriously, to be precisely the same age as I), browsing in the fashion and for the purpose that I have just described is a thing of the past. Young people do not do it any more, as they still did when he started his life in the trade. Instead, they have a purely instrumental or utilitarian attitude to bookshops: they come in, ask whether he has such and such a title, and if he does not they leave at once, usually with visible disgruntlement: for what is the point of a bookshop that does not have the very title that they want here and now?
There are other pleasures of the imagination that those who do not browse forgo. When first I bought books from second-hand bookshops I eschewed those with inscriptions, and to this day there are buyers who regard any mark on a book as a defect. (Orwell tells us that working in a bookshop taught him how few really bookish people there were, and how ‘first edition snobs’ are much more common than lovers of literature. I suppose that first edition snobs are to literature what hi-fi addicts are to music.) But I have changed my mind over the years, and now even prefer books to be inscribed in some way.
I like copies of books inscribed by the author, particularly when dedicated with a message, and association copies: that is to say, copies that are inscribed by a known personage who has some intellectual or other connection with the book’s contents. My rationalist friends find this taste of mine odd and surprising: after all, the value of a book, they tell me, is overwhelmingly in its content, and secondarily (perhaps) in its aesthetic appeal as a physical artefact. There is no rational reason why a book should be more valuable, interesting or beautiful merely because it has the name of a well-known, or at any rate traceable, person inscribed in it, any more than there is rational reason to suppose that by eating the flesh of a slain enemy you absorb some of his power.
This may be so in some abstract philosophical sense, but generations of bibliophiles have not believed it. To take one minor example from my own small and insignificant collection: a third edition of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (when it was still published anonymously in 1823) that was once owned by Edgell Rickword.
Rickword (1898 – 1982) was a littérateur who wrote books about Rimbaud and Gillray, and was an influential critic in his time who turned communist in the 1930s. He served in the First World War, during which he lost an eye, was highly decorated and became a war-poet of the second rank. Some of his lines were memorable and moving:
I knew a man, he was my chum,
but he grew blacker every day,
and would not brush the flies away,
nor blanch however fierce the hum
of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne –
In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak…
I am not at all in sympathy with Rickword’s later political beliefs, to put it mildly; but a man who had suffered as he had suffered, and yet had gone on to a long and varied literary career, and who wrote the lines I have quoted, could hardly be contemptible. Therefore to treasure the treasured possessions of such a man is to do honour to the human spirit.
Books, even without association with anyone known, have an almost sacred quality in any case: it is necessary only to imagine someone ripping the pages out of a cheap and trashy airport novel one by one to prove to oneself that this is so. If we saw someone doing it, we should be shudder, and think him a barbarian, no matter the nature of the book. The horror aroused by book burnings is independent of the quality of the books actually burnt.
One of my treasured books is a little classic of which I should never even have heard had I not browsed in so many bookshops. It is William Blades’ The Enemies of Books, first published in 1880. The frontispiece is an engraving of John Bagford, described as ‘shoemaker and biblioclast,’ and another of the delightful pictures is of a furtive charwoman feeding pages of a Caxton Bible to feed a fire. The enemies of books are ranged in chapters in a great chain of being: first come inanimate forces such as fire and water, rising to the lower animals such as bookworms and other vermin, and finally rising to the pinnacle of biblioclasm, that is to say the conscious book-destroyers, the bookbinders and book collectors. (John Bagford tore out the first pages of hundreds of rare volumes and bound them into a single folio volume, which is now in the British Library.)
Now William Blades was a civilised man who loved books and knew that one never really owned books: one was their trustee. He was a printer who waxed eloquent on the subject:
Looked at rightly, the possession of any old book is a sacred trust,
which a conscientious owner or guardian would as soon think of
ignoring as a parent would of neglecting his child. An old book,
whatever its subject or internal merits, is truly a portion of the
One might add, ‘And not of the national history alone, but of all mankind’s history.’ As Blades puts it, ‘I do not envy any man that absence of sentiment which makes some people careless of the memorials of their ancestors…’
Inscriptions in books, even by the unknown, have the effect of reminding us that we are necessarily part of something bigger, and altogether grander, than ourselves. Inscriptions are, of course, intimations of mortality, for they are mostly by people who are dead but who wrote them with all the same disregard of death with which we pursue of own present moments. But they also give rise to other thoughts and feelings.
In my copy of The Condemned Playground by the critic, Cyril Connolly, published in 1945, is a short inscription. It is in the cultivated hand that one very rarely sees nowadays: a comparison of inscriptions shows how coarse handwriting has become in the last half-century or so. My guess is that the inscription was written by a young woman, no more than thirty years old when she wrote it. Her words were few and to me of a great poignancy: To my beloved husband, Christmas 1945.
Why should these words have struck me as so poignant? Because I think that, though they are simple and could hardly be more direct, no one would use them to inscribe a book now. At any rate, I have not found so vulnerably tender an inscription in any book since. It is not so much that our use of language has changed, as that our feelings have changed. For all our resort to psychobabble and endless talk about ourselves, we are less inclined to lay ourselves open to others, even those closest to us. Power is more important to us than love.
I recently found another poignant inscription in a novel by Rex Warner, entitled Why Was I Killed? Warner was a classicist and novelist most famous for his dystopian fantasy, The Aerodrome. My copy of Why Was I Killed, printed in 1946, three years after the first edition, contains the following inscription, also in a cultivated hand:
Bought at Portmadoc and read while on holiday at Portmerion
Below it is another inscription, in a completely unchanged hand, dated thirty years and nine days later:
The last book read by Barbara during the illness which ended in
her death. She liked the book enormously.
I read the book in October 2007, thirty years later still. For the last twelve months or so, I have taken to inscribing all the books I read, in a bid no doubt to outlast my own death.
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