Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In praise of second hand book sellers

Real magic. (Second hand books)

Let us praise and give thanks to the second hand book seller, custodians of  dusty magic, and forgive him or her for driving me to financial ruin, since that’s nobody’s fault but mine. And forgive the grumpy ones who mumble when I leave without buying anything, and be understanding of the ones who find it difficult to part with any of their books,  and maybe even forgive that really irritating one who will remain nameless but who doesn’t bother to open his shop.

But let us praise  those who can produce the book I need,  who wrap it so carefully, (unlike Amazon.co.uk)  and mail it from Glasgow or Calcutta, Singapore or Solihull, let us give thanks for the absurdity of Bookfinder.com which allows me to browse for books I need in countries I will never visit  and let us not forget the miracle of the international postal service, which is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, and which whisks my book across the globe to the laughing man who delivers it: “Another book? Do you eat them? “

And let us praise that endless mystery: the second hand book. Let us not pause too long on the smell and feel of them for fear of sensual distraction,  but consider the faded, the scribbled in, or the pristine  (pages uncut for a century),  books with missing plates, books badly paginated, books unpaginated, books read to destruction and skillfully or badly rebuilt,  and of course the unexpected ‘signed by the author’ “To Bill”.   The grammar textbook printed in Calcutta  in 1901. The book of Tennyson’s poems presented to Mabel on her twenty first, with love from Fred, who hopes she’ll like it and to see her soon, Bradley’s Lectures on Poetry given as a prize to the Dux of mathematics at the Glasgow Grammar school  in 1916/7. 

So reading Tennyson, In Memoriam ironically,  I wonder about Fred and Mabel. Why was he writing from South Africa? Did they ever meet? Did they read Tennyson to one another?  And what might that have led to?  Did the bright young maths student ever read his prize: did he die on the western front within the year.  Sad letters someone left inside a book saying Dad had died: the shopping list that makes me wonder what was being cooked that night; the scribbled love poem on the flyleaf;  the explosive “nonsense”  with three exclamations marks and “news to me” in the margins of a biography.  The strange calculation which reaches no conclusions.

Books pass through lives, are lived with, sometimes loved,  sometimes tokens of love or remembrance,  valued beyond their price or content, until they come to rest here, temporarily. They will eventually move on.  

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