Saturday, 6 May 2017

Book Abuse


Il bibliotecario
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566

Books, it is often said, are special. Certainly, unlike any number of other, more essential purchases, books do not attract VAT in Britain. It's interesting, though, isn't it, that it seems to be the container that is regarded as special, rather than the contents? Buy the exact same text as an e-book or an audiobook, and you immediately have the taxman's attention. It's as if potatoes sold loose in paper bags were VAT-free, but potatoes pre-packed in plastic were not (hmmm, now there's a thought...). There seems still to be a slightly romantic view that books are somehow, in and of themselves, improving, and their purchase is therefore not to be discouraged by funding schools and hospitals. Naturally, you won't hear any objection from me; I'm improving all the time.

Something of the same view lies behind the idea of a free public library: surely one of the most enlightened and enlightening ideas anybody ever had. Such an institution is the very embodiment of Enlightenment with a capital E, itself probably the best package of ideas humanity has come up with so far. Things get more complicated, however, when enlighteners need to make a living from their enlightening, and even more so when giant corporations seek to enrich themselves by making their published labours universally available. Here's an interesting, if muddled, recent article on the story behind Google's failed land-grab with Google Books. But the ins and outs and pros and cons of copyright law is one of those quasi-theological subjects best left to lawyers. You think you know what "fair use" is? Step away from the photocopier, sir.

Those of us who work professionally with books, like doctors with patients or bus-conductors with passengers, can rapidly acquire an immunity to their charm. They become mere units in various quantitative scenarios, components with an average price, size, shelf occupancy, repair-to-replacement cost, and – these days – a need to justify their acquisition and retention beyond being vaguely good for you. Their qualitative aspects are either irrelevant – a pretty book is not necessarily a good book  – or can only be judged indirectly and relatively – a good book is not necessarily a book in demand. If tutors put bad books on reading lists or the public only wants to read bonkbusters and diet books then, regrettably, that makes them good books. A library or bookshop containing only what the management personally consider the "best" books, ideally in their most lovely editions, is a fantasy. Although I wouldn't have minded working there.

It does have be said, with great sadness, that the idea of any library or bookshop is rapidly becoming a fantasy. The reasons why are complex – it's not just Amazon, Google, and the Web (a.k.a. Amazoogle), though that is certainly a factor* – but I don't want to go into that here. But I do regret the disappearance of proper independent bookshops from most towns, and above all I mourn the disappearance of the sort of cavernous emporium of wonders that is a proper second-hand bookshop. Business rates, risibly low profit margins, and a general lack of public interest have driven both from our high streets, but especially the latter. Even Thornton's in Oxford closed its doors in 2002, the very type specimen of a bookshop, mixing new and used stock in chaotic, multi-storey profusion, and where I once spent many happy hours picking over the shelves and piles and boxes for treasure, like a rubbish-tip scavenger.

They do survive, though, often in unexpected places, like rare birds hiding in plain sight on some suburban street or industrial estate. One such is Aardvark Books, a two-storey barn full of second-hand and remaindered books, tucked away in Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire. Aardvark has one of those eye-attracting signs you glimpse at the roadside, pointing down a side-street as you pass through a village on the way to somewhere else and think, "I must stop and give that a look sometime". We finally did last year, and both came away with an armful of books, a rare experience these days. I enter most bookshops, new or second-hand, with the expectation – hope, even, as I already have far too many books – of coming away empty-handed. This year, Aardvark was firmly on the rainy-day itinerary, and yet again two more armfuls of books got added to our book-heavy household.

One item in particular gave me real pleasure. A large, slim hardback book compiled by Robert Gittings, and published by Heinemann in 1970: The Odes of Keats & Their Earliest Known Manuscripts in Facsimile. This book offers a total immersion in those remarkable poems. As well as manuscript facsimiles, which are always instructive, especially in draft ("Season of mists and mellow yellowness NO!! fitful rootlessness? Ridiculous!"), you get transcriptions of the manuscripts, a truly enlightening introduction by Gittings, beautifully typeset texts of the 1820 edition of the poems, plus notes. Frankly, equipped with these 80 pages you could ace top marks in any exam on Keats. Before reading the introduction, I had no real idea of the circumstances of their composition, the importance of the spell of exceptionally good weather in April/May 1819, or of the significance of a change in the occupiers of a recently-built semi-detached house on Hampstead Heath where Keats was wont to hang out. I had also never really considered their structural similarities, or the conceptual links between the ideas explored in each. Even for eight pounds it was a bargain, a pleasure to handle and to read (what a shame no-one prints poetry in 18-point type any more), and a reminder of why books are – or at least can be – special.

Although I must admit I was disappointed to find an ink inscription on the flyleaf, as well as the usual bookshop's pencilled pricing and associated squiggles. People who like their books seem to fall into two camps on this matter. On one side, there are those (like me) who virtually never inscribe their books, whether it is a gift or a personal purchase, and will pay considerably more for a "fine, unmarked" used copy; on the other are those who love to leave their mark on a text, ranging from disfiguring dedications in ham-fisted biro ("For Sally at Xmas '63, with love from Auntie Jane XXXX") to beautifully-produced personal bookplates, sought after by collectors in their own right. Inscriptions can have importance, of course: from a rare-book collector's point-of-view, provenance is all, and an exciting inscription can trump anything, including condition. A tatty copy of Arthur Golding's 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, with sellotaped repairs and pages missing, but clumsily inscribed "From Yr. lovinge father Will Shaksper, To my sonne Hamnet this twelfe nighte anno domini 1595, XXXX" would be quite a find. So long as it's not in ham-fisted biro. With the inevitable result that faking just such inscriptions has been quite an industry, at least in the past, when collectors and libraries were more gullible and lacked forensic techniques of authentication**.

Obviously, a book belongs to its purchaser, who is free to do whatever they like or need to do with it***. We're not talking about library books here, though: inscribers and annotators of library books are criminals, on whom the full weight of the law should descend. If it pleases you to take your personal copy of the latest Lee Child onto the beach, where it can absorb sunscreen, ice cream, salt water, and sand, and to mark your place by folding down page corners or even with the legendary slice of bacon (no, really), that is your right. But, should you do the same with a Lee Child borrowed from your library (or worse, with an irreplaceable academic text) then you should expect a visit from Scotland Yard's specialist Library Retribution & Recovery Squad. But I like to think that most people realise that at least one way in which a book differs from, say, a biscuit or a banana, is that its usefulness does not cease when its current owner has consumed it. A book, like a house or a car, has an afterlife, and you might say (as with those adverts for preposterously costly watches) that you are merely looking after it for its subsequent, temporary owners.

However, I have to confess that in my time I, too, have been a book abuser. Once, in fact, I was a compulsive marginal annotator. I blame William Blake for this, whose copious and scathing annotations to Joshua Reynolds' Works are a window into his mind, and thus often quoted and reproduced, even regarded as part of his own "works". You could be forgiven, for a few adolescent years, anyway, for seeing this as permission to follow suit. However, when I had a book clear-out recently I was humbled to see the extent, ugliness and pointlessness of my own underlinings and their accompanying youthful marginalia, more often than not just "AMAZING!" or even "FAR OUT!!", but at their worst just impossibly juvenile and cringe-worthy statements of the bleedin' obvious. So much so that I couldn't bring myself to put those books back into circulation; I had obliterated their further usefulness by the imposition of my idiotic commentary. It made me wish that we had a fireplace, or perhaps an industrial shredder...

Of course, I'm only too happy to sign and inscribe any of my own books, a generous selection of which may be found here. Tell me what you want, and where you live, and I'll order a copy and scribble away, provided you refund me the cost of purchase and postage. Although I'll leave it you to find and underline the good bits.


"To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit  General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess."

* When I met up with an old friend recently at the V&A's Lockwood Kipling exhibition, she was excited to see that Kiplings's publisher had been Thacker Spink, founded by her grandfather in Calcutta. "I've often wondered what they published," she mused, "I wonder how I could find out?" "Have you tried Abebooks?" I asked. "What is Abebooks?" she replied. Oh, baby, let me turn you on...

** I may have mentioned this before, but a founding text of modern historical bibliography is "An Enquiry Into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets" by John Carter and Graham Pollard (1934), which exposed the forgeries of bibliophile Thomas J. Wise, who had the brilliant idea of seeding his bibliographies with fake rarities, which he then proceeded to have manufactured and then sell at top dollar. That is, until Carter and Pollard spotted anomalies in the typefaces and papers used... "The game is afoot, Watson!"

*** Here follows an anecdote which the sensitive may find distressing, and not wish to read. You have been warned. So, whenever I hear assertions of the sort, "It's mine, I can do whatever I like with it", I am reminded of a schoolfriend who, visiting another boy, witnessed him destroying pet mice by various acts of cruelty – drowning, burning, and worse – which he found upsetting. "Oh, don't worry," said the other boy, "They only cost half a crown"...

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