Memoirs of a Bibliophile; Books, like Pets and Children, Can Hamper One's Movements, Writes Alf Wannenburgh

Cape Times (South Africa), January 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Memoirs of a Bibliophile; Books, like Pets and Children, Can Hamper One's Movements, Writes Alf Wannenburgh


My father blamed my compulsive book-buying on his having reprimanded me too sternly as a child for tearing a page in Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. When he visited me in later life he would shake his head at the crammed shelves and groan: "If only I'd shut up about that bloody encyclopaedia."

Although he read avidly and widely, he only bought dictionaries. For the rest there was the public library, which he used extensively all his life, as had my grandfather. My buying and hoarding books, he insisted, was a waste and an encumbrance.

He was right, as I realise now, after feverishly buying books for more than 50 years, although I also realise it's too late for me to stop now.

Books, like pets and children, desirable as they may be, hamper one's movements. Once, not wanting to be separated from my books, I shipped my library of then about 1 000 books from Cape Town to Windhoek, where it covered a wall until I shipped it back a year later.

For all my immoderate book-buying over the years, however, I doubt whether there has been any pecuniary advantage in it for the publishing industry, because almost every book I have was bought secondhand.

Like my father, I too used the Rondebosch public library in the beginning but, quite early on, I wanted to have my own copies of books, and so began an endless series of what grew into mini- libraries on subjects that interested me at different times.

These mini-libraries, still among my books today, document phases in my life: Russian and French literature, Marxism, South African fiction, the Beat generation, anarchism, existentialism, the counter culture, Zen Buddhism, the American novel, theatre ...

Even now I am starting new mini-libraries, and revisiting old ones, still adding more books that I vainly hope to live long enough to read. My first was launched when I was 16 with the purchase for 12 shillings and sixpence of the Modern Library Giant edition of Karl Marx's Capital. I bought it new at Foyles in Church Street, but thereafter I bought secondhand.

The young woman who introduced me to Marx also introduced me to the sellers of secondhand books in the region of upper Long Street, particularly Cranfords, the chief among them at that time.

Established by Rael Simanowitz in 1943, Cranfords, when I first became acquainted with it a decade later, was in Bloem Street, behind Hollywood Furnishers, which faced Long Street.

The shopfront of Cranfords then filled in the mouth of an alley that had been roofed over between the furniture shop and the building behind it, forming a passage, lined on either side with roughly made shelves of books, and opening into a series of rooms with similarly clad walls.

Mr Simanowitz would be at his desk in the first room, pricing the books coming in, turning each of them over and over in his hands, examining it through his thick horn-rimmed bi-focals before pencilling a figure inside the top corner of the front cover and placing it on its appointed shelf.

The first time I went there I was looking for a copy of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and came away with a copy of the first edition (1932), for three shillings and sixpence, and copies of Jack London's Iron Heel and Hewlett Johnson's Socialist Sixth of the World.

Mr Simanowitz had a gift for talking to his customers as if he shared their interests, and he would approach them almost apologising for the intrusion after they had browsed awhile, proffering a book he thought might interest them, at a reasonable price.

Of particular interest to me at that stage were the pink (hardback) and orange (paperback) jacketed remnants of Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club editions, then to be found in great profusion, for that was in the 50s, when the Special Branch was raiding our private bookshelves for banned books and titles that revealed a "tendency", and cautious old comrades were culling their libraries to suit the times. …

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