22 November 2008

Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm

by Theodore Dalyrmple (Nov. 2008 New English Review)

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.
. . . 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.

. . .
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
national history…
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. . . .

My copy of Why Was I Killed, by Rex Warner, printed in 1946, three years after the first edition, contains the following inscription, in a cultivated hand:
Bought at Portmadoc and read while on holiday at Portmerion 10.x.1947
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. 19.x.1977
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.

To visit a quality bookshop in:
Takapuna, Auckland - Bookmark
Sydney - Glee Books
Onehunga, Auckland - Hard To Find
Denver, CO - Capitol Hill Books
LongBeach, CA - Acres of Books
And while City Lights Books in San Francisco is not secondhand books, it's still worth a wander.
Look for Browser's on Victoria St. in Hamilton, NZ
Christchurch - Smith's Books
Wellington - Arty Bees

Other goldmines not to be missed is your local Goodwill, Salvation Army or Hospice Shop.

Where's your favourite secondhand bookshop?


Quote Collector said...

The "Used Book Store" at the Public Library is a Must Visit.

My local Library has a list of my prefered authors on file. I receive a call when one arrives.

Debbie said...

Was the city in England Hay-On-Wye? (I'm sure that is not spelled correctly!)

Anonymous said...

Jill please try to mail me, I am Lucias Mathew your former student from Chiredzi Christian Secondary my e-mail address is luciasmathew@yahoo.co.uk I am now in Stellenbosch, Cape Town, South Africa

Jill said...

In Orwell's Bookshop Memories he describes it as "Our shop stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town, and we were frequented by all types from baronets to bus-conductors."

Is that in the area you were thinking, Deb? Thanks for identifying yourself for sure. Thought so, but never know who the lurkers are who surprise me by commenting or getting in touch. :-)