(Note to the unsuspecting reader: This week’s post contains even more pretension and floaty prose than other instalments of our weekly serialised adventure. You thought it wasn’t possible! But, WE PROVED YOU WRONG….)
I love books. I love everything about books, not just their contents. I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s my dime so I’ll continue.
If I’m honest, I think that to really love books (books, mind, not the contents), you have to love second hand books. New books are fine, obviously. They’re great. There’s a kind of clean, still expectancy from all of them when you are wandering round Waterstones in Picadilly, or wherever else you stock up on your three-for-twos, and the arrival of a pre-ordered book, pinned down cleansided and fresh against the inside of an Amazon box, would in any sane world (which would of course be run by Wodehouse or Jerome) be celebrated by law with the opening of a bottle of champagne, but new books….well, inescapably, they’re just…new, aren’t they? And a new book, like winning the league with Chelsea, is just somehow, fundamentally, missing the point.
To put it another way, new books are like Catherine Deneauve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Old books, on the other hand, are like Catherine Deneauve in The Hunger. Which is a simile I’ll leave there, rather than embarass us all any further.
I love old books. This we have established. I love the shape of them, or the fat, fanned out or sort-of-casually-bundled non-shape of them. The various formats of them, how they’ve changed down the years. The higgedly-piggeldy variety of shapes and colours that sit on my bookshelves and refuse to be uniform. Their trends in production and marketing: now square, now high-gloss, now fashionably uncoated and roughcut. The different prices marking the eras (75p for a copy of Ragtime?! PRP?!). Cover-design memes metastatising across whole genres. The traditional endpapers with ads for books forgotten like mildly forlorn but strangely exotic lonely hearts ads :
The experiences of a first generation American who worked as a waiter in New York (1s 6d). ‘An artist in both line and words.’ – The Observer
a tradition now sadly replaced with the crisp New Labour-era bourgeois pretension of the Note on Font (we’ll see how long that lasts. In a year or two, no-one’ll give a toss what the font is, as long as the bloody thing goes well with sautéed rat). The late 70-‘s/early 80’s ones with covers that all seemed to be modelled on the opening credits of Tales of the Unexpected.
I love the idea of them, and others who loved the idea of them. All of them are there, every time you rummage through a stack. Whenever I see an old Penguin (and when I see one I usually try to buy it) I get one of these quick flashes: Allen Lane, overseeing a production line of books uniform and beautiful and full of life like anti-bullets, smoking a cigarette that came from a pack that costs as much as each of the orange-striped copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (or New Zealand Verse, or The Odyssey, or What Hitler Wants) before him.
Second Hand books are packed with the histories not just of the characters, but the people who made them; tweedy commissioning editors in the Garrick in the 60’s, unionised typesetters, suit-wearing graphic designers and the GI Bill-educate Angry Young Writers tucked in those end pages.
And of course the people who read them before you. The people who dogear the pages and leave blood orange thumb prints halfway through, who use train tickets to Croydon as bookmarks, occasionally have a fetish for underlining words and, and of course here’s the holy grail, aren’t the type of freaks who write their names in EVERY BOOK THEY OWN (why? why would you do that? No, seriously, why?), but are the type of people who write comments like “C – I can’t say how sorry I am. J.” in the inside cover of Bel Canto.
What I also love, perhaps as much as the things themselves, freighted with big heavy meta-textual significance as I’ve just made them sound, is the buying process. If there was a God (and again, in any sensible world this would likely be either Wodehouse or Jerome), second hand bookshops would be his places on earth: sitting on side-streets or in ridiculously out of the way places just breathing time and knowledge and silent accidentally recorded events in and out, in and out.
They are usually run by blokes with a liking for Radio 4 and a disliking for being interrupted by anything as trivial as customers; books seem to arrive there by accident, and certainly without the help of anyone who would actually want to come in and hand some over (with one notable exception). In the best cases the opening hours are designed specifically to minimise the chances of anyone actually being able to enter the establishment
They are the opposite of shops, utterly random, utterly unreliable, stocked with items that have – by definition – proved unworthy of purchase. You go into them expecting to come out with something you never actually wanted. Something like Resentment, by Gary Indiana, or The Knowledge of Angels by Jill Patton Walsh, or your third copy of The Big Money (but this is a square, blue, illustrated 1961 bargain edition, so it’s excusable). They don’t sell products, they sell ragged, square, dirty bits of accidental time. They make no sense at all, really, and when The Big Man comes back, they may well be the only reliable proof that we haven’t been pissing around quite horribly for the past 2000 years. I’d very much like to own one myself, but I suspect they’re actually handed over rather than sold or established. Probably by dying men at fogbound railway stations at midnight, the key pressed between the pages of a worn copy of The Kraken Awakes.