Thursday, 22 March 2018

Shelf Wear

I like to think of myself as resistant, constitutionally and by choice, to the constant barrage of temptations paraded before us by those trying to part us from our money and at the same time keep us politically, socially, and spiritually sedated, like crocodiles slumped on the sofa after a particularly heavy gnu-feast. My consumer footprint on this world has been relatively light, and I have also tried to be careful on what (and on whom) I have been stepping. Call me Mr. Fairtrade Nologo! Actually, don't.

But I do have a fatal weakness for books. Where another man's balance of mind might be disturbed by a pretty face, or a bottle of whisky, or even just the prospect of a large bag of chips, I find I cannot resist a good book. "Good", in my case, having a fairly broad definition, as I am an incorrigible book-chaser, turned on by anything in a dustjacket. Although I have never abused or disrespected a book in my entire life.

In a typical working- or lower-middle-class home in the 1950s, books were uncommon. Like, say, the possession of a dinner jacket or a set of golf-clubs, books were an accessory to the lifestyle on another planet. A recreational reader might borrow books from the library, but the idea of buying and accumulating your own "library" was as pretentious and as alien as, say, taking a taxi or drinking wine. The occasional book might come into the house at Christmas or on birthdays but, like jam-jars or cereal-boxes, a read book was a used-up thing, an empty vessel; to accumulate them went against the ethos of the clean, modern home. Books and dust were as strongly associated as crumbs and mice. Get 'em out of the house!

My parents were quite aspirational, however. They had bought into the idea that, post-1945, everything was now changing, and that any reasonable goal might be achievable, including inter-planetary travel between social classes. It might be too late for them, having left school at 14 in the 1930s, but things were looking good for their children. Also, although I was unaware that both my paternal grandparents had been bookbinders (in those days grandparents didn't have first names, let alone jobs), a certain respect for books was clearly latent in the family, even though neither of my parents was much of a reader [1]. So, to discover they had a son who instinctively loved books was like discovering he had a natural gift for playing football or the piano: who knew where it might lead, given the right encouragement? He might even become a teacher!

So I was encouraged to read, read, read, and allowed to keep all my "used" books, along with the birds' nests, skulls, insects, and other natural history detritus that I assembled in my bedroom. My maternal grandfather, who liked to haunt auction rooms, found me a bookcase and a glass-fronted cabinet for my personal museum and library. So, being in a position to read and re-read, and to compare and contrast, I began to construe the true nature of books as objects of manufacture and commerce, the way another child might study the minutiae and mechanics of cars or aircraft, parsing out the mysterious clues that, like the labels inside clothing or the small print on a cereal-box (which I also read and re-read), hinted at a larger, interconnected World of Books – a world of authors, publishers, designers, printers, typefaces [2], paper, bookshops, and libraries – of which every book was an avatar. That world, it was fairly obvious to me, was destined to be my world.

You may well have a similar tale to tell. "Bookish child from humble origins" is, after all, one of the foundation myths of our culture, even if, regrettably, it has become rather less of a cliché and more of a forlorn hope in recent decades. But, no matter by what route you arrived at your bookishness, this probably means you, like me, inhabit a semi-permanent book crisis, unless you have the good fortune to live alone in a ten-bedroom mansion.

A key reason for this is that books, unlike almost every other consumer product (except those books-by-other-means, records and CDs), have been designed to be kept and displayed, in a satisfyingly compact, robust, and aesthetically-pleasing form. They start out furnishing your mind, and end up furnishing your home. If books have been important to you, your bookshelves are a statement of that fact; as well as being a subtle display of your "cultural capital" they constitute your personal multi-volume Bildungsroman. To dispose of any but the most trivial of your books is, in effect, to decide that the part of your life they embody has also become disposable. Which happens: last year, I finally gave away some lit-crit books I had last used when a postgraduate student in 1977. It was an acknowledgement that I no longer cared that I might once coulda-bin a contender on the academic scene. But note that "some": to part with my Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes volumes would still be a step too far.

My real problem, however, is my collection of photo-books. I've got a lot of them; far too many, really. Hundreds, in fact, all accumulated since buying my first heady fix in 1985, Fay Godwin's Land, having suddenly found myself with the modest but real disposable income that went with a professional public-service career. After all, even expensive books are cheap, compared to, say, cars or guitars. Crikey, I could afford any book I fancied! But the simple cumulative, quantitative result of my acquisitiveness, 30 greedy years later, has been compounded by other factors. Put simply, too many of my photo-books are now worth too much to give away to a charity shop, but also worth far more than any bookseller would ever give me for them.

Now, I have been a long-term supporter of Oxfam, and we pay our monthly tithe to them by standing order, and will continue to do so, despite their recent troubles. We'll probably increase it, too, to compensate for all those fair-weather friends who have abandoned them. Whenever I have filled some boxes with our disposable paperbacks, I have taken them straight to the Oxfam Bookshop. Those books are used, empty vessels, like, um, jam-jars or cereal-boxes. Get 'em out of the house! But, every time I pick some of my less-loved photo-books off the shelves to make a bit of room, it turns out they are incredibly valuable, sought-after collector's items. My taste and judgement are just too good. I'm a freakin' connoisseur, and have been, it seems, from the get-go. And it just doesn't feel right, that such choice items should end up on some wobbly shelf in a charity shop, squeezed between Holiday Snaps the Hedgcoe Way! and Knit Yourself A Life, gradually acquiring "shelf wear", "bumped edges", "chipping and small tears to dustjacket", "loose hinges", and all the other imperfections that an honest bookseller must declare in their catalogue, to warn the slavering bibliophile that this particular book is pretty damned far from fine [3], and has been around the block a few too many times.

I suppose the obvious solution is to set up as an amateur online bookseller, trading through Abebooks or Ebay, but the prospect of cataloguing, listing, pricing, invoicing, and mailing out books – especially to the kind of whinging perfectionist who buys books at ludicrous collector's prices – is, frankly, rather too much like going back to work. So, I give up, for now. Let them all sit there, gathering a little dust, but acquiring no further "shelf wear", "bumped edges", etc. Besides, I do always enjoy the look on anyone's face, on entering our three-bed semi-detached Palace of Books, gradually subsiding under the accumulated weight of paper and ink into the soft alluvial deposits beneath a suburban Southampton street. Not least if they have to negotiate the book-bound passage to the downstairs loo. Hey, mind those dustjackets!

Hypocrite lecteur...

[NOTE: I am away from home for a few days. I may not get around to "moderating" any comments until Tuesday, but don't let that put you off.]

1. Not entirely true. My father was capable of enjoying a good book, but my mother disliked being in a room alone, and resented being "ignored" by someone reading in the same room (only later in life did I realise she was not a confident reader herself), and so watching TV together was the only permissible relaxation.

2. Penguin books usually identify the type used in a book on the back of its title-page: "Set in Monotype Garamond" or "Linotype Pilgrim", for example. I suppose this is not information that every 10-year old notices, much less finds as fascinating as I did. It was a revelation to me that my Penguin Gerald Durrell books, for example, ostensibly uniform, were all set in different typefaces, giving very different results in the density and readability of the words on the page. It's a shame more publishers don't share this information, especially now everyone is so much more "font aware".

3. Naive book-buyers often fail to understand the jargon of bookselling. If a book's condition is described as "good", as opposed to "fine" or "near fine", then it is probably in pretty poor shape. Not as bad as "fair", "poor", or the dreaded "reading copy only", but on its way...


amolitor said...

You know I had the idea that the typefaces were always indicated somewhere in the colophon, and felt myself quite the iconoclast for omitting that detail in my own books. Now I guess I will have to start putting it IN to be the rebel I visualize!

Chris Rusbridge said...

Lovely piece that especially resonates for me. My childhood home was full of books, my father being quite a collector of books on the Orient (as an army officer, he met my mother in India, where my elder brother was born, and my elder sister was born in Egypt during the war... I got a dreary London suburb that they were posted to temporarily!). After compulsory early retirement, he did all sorts of DIY things about the house, and then at age 70 bought a bookselling business called Orient Books from someone in East Anglia. I remember they brought the entire stock back home in the back of their estate car. Between them, my parents ran the business until selling it when he was 91, two years before hew died; the stock then was over 10,000 volumes! They used to go to Book Fairs a lot, and then later did it all via mail order with 4 lists a year (one list is catalogued in NLS!). I once asked him how he chose the titles for the list, wasn't it hard to give up his favourites? Typically, he had a pragmatic but rigid approach to this. He knew how many titles he wanted in his list, and he would divide that into the stock number to get a fraction, let's say 1 in 73 books. Then he would choose a random starting offset (<73), choose that book and then pick every 73rd book after that! He then went to extraordinary lengths to describe the books, and if there were any missing pages, maps or illustrations, he would go out of his way to source alternatives to send with the book, making clear what he'd done (no passing off!). All this was pre-internet, indeed pre-computer for them. All mail order, with a dedicated subscriber list. Anyway, that's all by way of background. I loved reading and loved books. But then...

My wife comes from a completely different background. She loves reading but believes books should come from (and be returned to) libraries. Books in the home are accumulators of dust. They go yellow and become unreadable (true). So, we have almost no books! I have some plastic bags full of poetry books that I care about far too much to actually dispose of, and we have far too many unused cookery books, but otherwise our home is a bibliophilic desert!

If you go the houses of my 3 siblings however, you will find books everywhere. Particularly in my elder sister's house, where they stack up to overflowing on top of double-loaded bookcases, or in piles in corners of the room. I don't think this is the reason she now lives alone (apart from the horses, dogs and livery people who constantly pop in and out.

Sorry, this contributes nothing much to your post beyond endorsement of a couple of the ideas in. But it rang such a bell in my mind I could not help but comment.

Anonymous said...

I remember that when I was a child, an institution called Bertelsmann Lesering (later called Club Bertelsmann) was quite popular in Germany. Established by the publishing group Bertelsmann, it was intended to bring books to the common public. It was a club which offered significantly discounted books to its members. The books had been published previously by other publishers, so Bertelsmann claimed them to be re-issues. As such, the German book resale price maintenance didn't apply to them, so Bertelsmann was able to undercut the fixed price. One had to become a club member for at least one year, and purchase at least four books per year. I think the club closed shop a couple of years ago, however. I believe my grandparents were members; though my mother, who was a book addict, preferred not to join.

By the way, do you own "We make the path by walking" by Paul Gaffney? At the time it was published, I pondered about purchasing it, but since we were a bit tight on cash back then, I didn't pull the trigger. Now it's about €300, and I could bite my own backside because of having been so tight-fisted.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


It's quite rare for a publisher to be upfront about typography, which is something of a dark art, and much less well understood in these electronic typesetting days. If you ever get a chance, it's worth having a go at using a compositor's stick to use a proper fount of type -- very instructive (especially when you drop it).

Chris Rusbridge,

I'm afraid "attitude to books" scores very highly in my assessment of potential partners...


I think there may have been similar arrangements here for children, but we certainly weren't signed up to any. No, I don't have the Gaffney -- I'm on a strict, self-imposed book-fast at the moment, and buying far fewer. But, yes, the initial-purchase-to-resale-profit ratio of photo-books is quite extreme: if they were an investment device ("increase your money TENFOLD in five years!!") people would be falling over themselves to buy them... Sadly, I suspect many buyers *are* seeing them as an investment device, which is distorting the market quite badly.


amolitor said...

Goodness, the compositor's stick certainly send to be a device for depositing lead type on to ones feet.

I was a TeX "power user" of sorts about 30 years ago and learned somewhat at second hand something of real typesetting by way of that program's superb manual. All other software for putting type on pages had infuriated me since. Computer people are utterly awful about learning the problem domain before jumping in and starting coding.