Magazine article The Spectator

Disposing of an Unwanted Book

Magazine article The Spectator

Disposing of an Unwanted Book

Article excerpt

One of life's minor pleasures is the photospread furnished with such unflagging consistency each week by Hello magazine, inviting you into the houses of film and television stars, sporting personalities or the sort of people who spend a lot of time practising the art of arriving at a film premiere. The couple (over whom the notorious `curse of Hello' hereafter hovers by virtue of their consent to this domestic intrusion) is seen lying, entwined with respectable amorousness, on furniture which looks as if it had arrived that morning from Tottenham Court Road. A variety of non-specific, burglar-unfriendly decorative objects in metal and glass fills up the background. A dog lies on the shag pile at its owners' feet, which, as though in compliance with some ritual requirement, are always bare. And there are no books, not even for use as space fillers or to contribute an air of gravitas and permanence to the marital mise-en-scene.

The reflex here is a nostril-wrinkling distaste, of the kind nowadays defined as snobbish or elitist, but there are times when I envy this bookless innocence, a prelapsarian state of grace untainted by the presence of the word. Not, you understand, because of what books contain or express, but for the simple fact that, once acquired, they become damnably difficult to shift. `The art of losing isn't hard to master' begins one of Elizabeth Bishop's most deftly crafted poems. Oh but it is, darling, the very devil to a business where binding and printed pages are concerned.

There they stand in the hall, reproachful queues of displaced persons waiting to be moved on to the next clearing station, the mounting ziggurats of review copies and those `give us a puff, guvnor' exemplars dropped on you pre-emptively by publishers nervous of a total blanking from literary editors. Beside them lie the decommissioned Christmas presents, mercifully unsigned, the duds and deluders which promised so much and delivered nothing, or the sleepers, those titles bought in a fit of extravagance while creaming off the stock at antiquarian fairs, only to lie parked on the shelves unread for ten years.

Where to off-load? I am suspicious, for a start, of the various charity shops, in which the quality of the books you give is inversely proportionate to the likelihood of them ever appearing for sale, among the rails of corduroy jackets and crimplene skirts, the plastic butter dishes, Jacobean cake stands, ebony elephants or aprons crocheted by nuns in Guatemala. As for the secondhand market, this is fast declining. Dealers prefer, apparently, to lob titles at each other across the internet in a virtual reality game. Oh for the days of Thomas J. Gaston in Chichester's Rents behind Lincoln's Inn, where a cross old cove with a moustache, like a retired sergeant-major, used to bark `Outrageous!' at the unfortunate hack trying to cut a deal on review copies more than two months past publication date.

A dumpster, as Americans call it, or a dustbin simply aren't options. The notion of a book disappearing for ever into the jagged maw of a refuse lorry seems, to this author at any rate, too much like tempting fate where one's own oeuvre is concerned. Some books, besides, are surprisingly, almost sinisterly reluctant to cut loose. In this respect I'm reminded of a tour once made with some friends through eastern Turkey. To beguile long bus journeys and taxi rides in quest of Armenian churches, Byzantine frescoes or Hittite ruins, we had stocked up with novels, mostly of the nourishing l9th-century sort. …

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