Reflections in a Second-hand Bookstore in the UK
Walking back to the bus stop from Colchester Castle Park, I stumbled on a second-hand bookstore. Bookstores in general pick my curiosity – this one claimed to sell “Rare and Secondhand” books. I had to take a peek.
Exchanging greetings with the person at the desk, a warm old lady who I believe is also manager and owner of the bookstore, I proceeded to browse through the store’s wares. Rare collections indeed! It had books of Dickens that I could not recognize. Works of Dante that I have not encountered on any other shelf before. The finest Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus and of course, Homer, and Roman epic-poetry of Virgil and Ovid. The plays of Beckett and Ibsen. A breathtaking assortment of the finest English poetry, be it those of the classical romantic tradition of Byron or those in the free verse styles a la Whitman. And yes, the entire works of Shakespeare. (Is not any good book collection incomplete without him?)
I was compelled to buy something.
The bookstore is of two floors, divided into sections according to subject. The collections on history and politics are decent, but can be expanded. I found some pretty interesting books there – ancient social and economic history specialist M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Greeks for two quid, R.H. Barrow’s The Romans for 1.50, JS Mill’s ‘Three Essays’ for 3… and I even bought Robert Service’s Lenin, only because the founder of the USSR was the only big guy in the Marxist-Leninist pantheon on whom I did not have a biography on and because it was being sold for the absurd price of 5 quid. The philosophy section didn’t have much to offer – the only book I found to my liking was Patrick Gardiner’s Kierkegaard, a concise work on the core aspects of the Danish intellectual’s philosophical thought.
The literature section is the star of the store, having an entire room unto itself. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was the smell. The distinct musty odour that one gets from old or aging books was dominant in the densely packed room. If a bibliophile’s love for old books included the smell they emit, this room was a wet dream. Books collected over 30 years, the manager told me. ‘How could they bear to part with it?’ I thought instinctively. Yes, I have always loathed even lending my books, even to close friends. It would have been a nightmare for me to be on the desk of such a shop and watch on as books such as these are taken away, lost to my touch forever.
When reading a good book, for me at least, physical touch is important – especially if it is a work of philosophy or literature. No greater pleasure than sitting down with an engrossing text that reflects on humankind, with a cup of fine tea, in a pleasant evening, in the company of fresh air, in solitude, in tranquillity. Holding the book, folding pages, leaving notes, scribbling in the margins, underlining, all of these gives the owner an intimacy with not just the content of the book, but its physicality as well. That sort of intimacy is needed when one reads literature or philosophy, which can of course never be experienced while reading a pdf file on a computer screen or on gadgets like kindle, no matter how much they try to make it appear ‘book like’. Those who understand the difference between making love and what Zizek calls “the usual masturbation with a living partner” will understand this difference as well and, I hope, will share my righteous indignation at a friend of mine who told me that he read Crime and Punishment on his laptop.
From the perspective of possessing books as a passion, I categorize book collectors of this age of late modernity in two camps – the faithful and the infidel. The former adhere to certain rules in the manner of receiving and reading a book while the latter are indifferent to the same. Note that these categories are fluid and at times the faithful, are persuaded by circumstances to step into the other camp, even if they do it unwillingly. Isn’t it the case that the pure has the greatest potential to be corrupted? Anyway, the friend of mine who read Dostoevsky on a laptop is, and I would like to believe that others agree, an infidel of a particular type. The uncaring disciple – that is, one who would love to the read the work of a great master but is not concerned about the medium through which the master’s message should reach him.
Similar to the uncaring disciple is the copier. The copier’s case is rather sad. He does not have the resources to get the original copy of the classic or the time to sit in a library to read. But he would not read a classic on a computer screen, because he loves the feel of paper. So, he goes for the next best thing to the original. A photocopy. Again, the difference between a photocopy and the original will not be evident to those but the faithful – the feel of the binding, the cover, and the smell of the original is always lost in a copy. To confess, I have also been guilty of this type of infidelity. I read Goethe’s Faust in photocopy.
The first book that caught my eye as I stepped into the literature section in the bookstore was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a brilliant tale of terrible vengeance of an individual who had been treated badly by people and circumstances. It was being sold for 3 pounds! Not far from Dumas was a hardbound early 20th Century copy of Upton Sinclair’s A World to Win. Being familiar with his more famous novel The Jungle and intrigued by the title of this book and its smell of an age that I have only read of in history books, I took it – for a fiver. Near it was the Victorian-age English novelist Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which was also published in the same period as the former. The novel came out in public posthumously because of the controversial anti-establishment tenor of the prose. Flipping through the pages I found something like a visiting card which contained only a message, but a message that was rather ironical considering the book it was in – “His majesty greatly loveth courageous souls. St. Teresa.”
Browsing the collection, I hopped on from one delightful author to another, from Chesterton to Flaubert, from Somerset Maugham to Solzhenitsyn, Sophocles to Ovid via Virgil, and so, purchasing their classic works for a pittance. And yes, as I reached the Shakespeare section, I took a copy of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter purely for the paper it was printed on. Shopping for books in a good store or browsing in the library is a pleasure in itself. Not only do you find other books in the area of your interest, you also stumble upon other interesting books that would elicit attraction in the bibliophile – the journey enlightens you as much as the destination. The faithful appreciates the art of book shopping/browsing. Even if he cannot buy all that interests him, he takes in the titles, authors, scrambles through the book, appreciates words and sentences, absorbs the essence; and the memory of the book, its feel, its touch, its soul is locked away in the head of the faithful, subject to recall at a later date.
Yes, there is a feeling of ‘fear and trembling’ that the faithful feel as they leave a library or a bookstore. The pain that the place you are leaving has a lot more than you can fully appreciate, the apprehension that you are missing out on many other hidden treasures, the pang of jealousy that your collection will always be incomplete without the dozens of books that you are leaving behind, the melancholic sensation of a desire unfulfilled. All bibliophiles undergo this feeling every time they step into a place that has a book collection larger than theirs. Umberto Eco, a bibliophile I admire, envy and hope to equal one day (his collection is of over 50000 books. If we were to allot a day in a person’s life for one book, Eco’s life span would be over 135 years!), opined in an interview on diacritics that to him, libraries were paradise but that he kept away from them as they drove him crazy if they ensnared him. Thus, the faithful book collector is always an unsafe browser. Every minute he is in a bookstore, he places great risk not just to his purse, but also to his senses. His eyes wander all over, his mouth goes dry while picking some work he adores but whose price he cannot afford, his heart pulsates being surrounded by objects of his desire, many of which he cannot possess. It can be said that no bibliophile ever leaves a library or a bookstore without a heavy heart, but he accepts this risk before stepping in.
So here’s the other infidel – the safe browser. He has a book in mind about which he has heard of from elsewhere and he is interested in getting that book alone. Years earlier, he would have had no option but to visit a bookstore and search for the object of his pursuit, but now, with the proliferation of online retailers, his purchase is but a few clicks away. What is wrong with this? Simply that you are not exposed to as many other books as you would be in a bookshop or library which, of course, is a risk as mentioned in the above paragraph. The safe browser does not appreciate the delight of that risk and is saved the tensions that the faithful endure. His options, however, are not vast. The best online retailer can at most give you a list of related books that you might be interested in. But only in a library or bookstore can you find non-related books that you would be interested in. The limited options provided online place you in a comfortable box which you will not cross. Pray, do tell me, how many sites are there that would take you from an autobiography of Sartre to the history of medieval South India? A little bookshop in New Delhi did that for me.
All bibliophiles, at some point of time in their lives, do run into a particular breed of philistines – I have been fortunate to have been visited by only one till now. I refer to the ones who drop by on a fine day, look at your book collection and ask you that insipid question “Have you read them all?” I found the apt reply to this question in the following lines
Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”
That was Walter Benjamin, another admirable bibliophile, citing a bibliophile he admired.
Of the books I purchased, I don’t think I’ll be reading any one fully any time soon. Should time permit, I might try to read The Theban Plays sometime next year. The rest are for much, much later. There is one I will never read fully, CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, an annoying liberal Christian interpretation of love. I’ll probably glimpse through a few pages to remind myself that such annoying opinions and such annoying people exist. I do possess other books, some extraordinarily mundane, in my collection which I will never read. For instance, books like The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui, who was supposedly Mao’s close friend and physician, and The Immortal Contributions of Chairman Mao by Bob Avakian, American Maoist and ‘Chairman’ of Revolutionary Communist Party, two extreme accounts on the same person.
I should state that neither do I have anything against extreme positions nor do I shun books with such positions as useless – I don’t think there is anything called a ‘useless book’. Even right/liberal/left propaganda pamphlets have something to be analyzed and even something as intentionally naive and childish as Harry Potter has implications to be read into. Just that the tediousness of certain texts gets to me, and if I will not read them fully, I might ruffle their pages on occasions to humour myself. Book collecting is a passion, but needn’t always be a serious one.
It requires fidelity though.