Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm

by Theodore Dalyrmple (Nov. 2008)






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.



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?





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


In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,

And loved them for the stubbornness that clings


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.



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.


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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