Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One careful owner...

Last year Chas Newkey-Burden wrote an amusing article in the Guardian called 'Why I hate second-hand books':

For me, as a literary experience, they are akin to sloppy seconds, a salad bar in a staff canteen at the end of a hot weekday, or a recently-vacated cubicle in a public toilet. Let's be clear: I don't merely have a mild preference for buying brand-new. No, I'm digestively squeamish about used books. It's all those stains, thumbprints and creases that get me so queasy. I'm far from a gentle reader and by the time I've taken in the first few chapters of any brand-new tome, it will often be creased and coffee-stained beyond recognition. But they will be my creases and my stains, and that's what matters.

I've lost count of the amount of times that I've been confronted by the dried-up bogey of the previous owner, smeared across one of the pages. Nice. Most of these mucus moments occurred while I was reading books I'd borrowed from the library.

I completely agree about the library books. I also used to wonder why so many books contained dried snot, but I was surprised that Chas Newkey-Burden didn't mention the other curse of library books: pubic hairs. I never cease to be amazed at the ability of pubic hairs to appear in the most improbable places and in the case of library books, I wonder if there are lots of naked readers.

I suppose they could be the beard hairs of sage bibliophiles, but I know a pube when I see one.

However, I think there is a big difference between library books and second-hand ones. Library books have been pawed by a variety of people. Second-hand books have usually had one careful owner. I have never discovered any unsavoury bodily products in a second-hand book, but I have been pleasantly surprised in other ways.

Yesterday I went to Tunbridge Wells and discovered the wonderful Hall's Second-hand Bookshop where I bought this book:


Later, flicking through the pages, I discovered an unusual bookmark: a 1940s London Underground ticket:


I immediately felt connected to the original reader, for whom this was contemporary fiction. The ticket was an added bonus, as was this bookmark, which I posted in the summer:


A Google search on Gay Foam yields very different results these days.

But it's not just unexpected bookmarks that make second-hand books such a joy. During the last month I have bought several books that turned out to be signed copies, including this paperback:


When I paid two quid for this at a charity shop, I had no idea that I was getting a signed copy. Thank you, Cancer Research.

Yesterday's trip to Tunbridge Wells also yielded the following results:


Ever heard of this author? I hadn't, but when I read a recommendation that compared this trilogy to Patricia Highsmith, I had to buy it.

I hadn't heard of this novel either:


I'd heard of the poem Babi Yar by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, because it was the inspiration for Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, but this was new to me. Apparently it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

I can understand Chas Newkey-Burden's objections to the used book. I used to be the Howard Hughes of books and would often reject brand new books if they weren't absolutely perfect. But the message is more important than the medium. I stopped being precious about my books when I had children and life became too chaotic to be anal about the condition of my possessions.

These days I'm not that bothered if a book looks as if it's been around the block a few times. What matters is the text (although I still draw the line at public hair and snot).

Ms Baroque has quite rightly taken me to task on the issue of royalties and that is something that needs to be addressed, but after enduring two years of Waterstone's bland 3 for 2 promotions, the random selection offered by second-hand and charity shops is a liberation.

16 comments:

Scriptor Senex said...

I quite simply could not live without second-hand books. Apart from the expense of new books there are just so many brilliant works that are no longer in print.

JRSM said...

For what it's worth, I'm awarding you the Premios Dardos: see http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com/2009/01/non-covery-aside.html for more.

depesando said...

Least year I found a signed hardback copy of Thomasina by Paul Gallico in the Oxfam in Hastings, the one by Morrissons. I had already bought a pile of books that day, and having already read it years ago - and for some reason being in a very kind hearted mood (edit: stupid), rather than snap it up for 99p, I took it to the counter and pointed out that it really needed marking up to about £30.

The woman behind the counter was very 'sniffy' with me and turned round to another assistant and said "I told you that bitch was no good, head in the clouds as usual - it's all going to Hell in a handcart here"

I think I'm going going over to the dark sine - last time I commit an act of random kindness in an Oxfam.

Chas Newkey-Burden said...

Haha! I should have mentioned pubic hairs!

Steerforth said...

I agree with Scriptor Senex - there are too many good books that are no longer in print.

JRSM - I'm very honoured! Thank you.

Depesando - Another excellent anecdote (I'm still telling people the Adam Chance story).

Chas - you were quite right about the clientele of libraries. I briefly worked in a reference library and became an expert on the variety of bodily smells. Even in the middle of winter, we always had the windows wide open.

Lisa Guidarini said...

I work in a library, so I can grab the brand new books before anyone else has checked them out. I've also been a reviewer, so I can request lots of free copies of new books. But for older books I'm very happy to buy secondhand. Once, in a book published in the Victorian era, I found a Valentine apparently give to a husband by a wife, used as a bookmark. It's lovely. Another time I found, in a set of Joseph Conrad's books from the 1920s, a hand-drawn pencil drawing of a woman and man dressed in period garb. I don't always get so lucky, but I have also found some signed copies tucked amongst books at used book sales.

But gross things in library books? Those tend to abound. Why, I don't know.

depesando said...

I have to confess that a few years ago I was dragged into a quiz by a neighbour in Brighton who was an author - he was connected to a writers society and they had their annual quiz type event in Waterstones, upstairs and afterhours, one winters evening.

The whole event was a nightmare - I had no idea that writers could be so anal, petty, humourless and competetive ( well, it was Brighton). there was a nasty row at one point over an obscure question regarding Jane Austen, and one woman who claimed to be a world authority began screaming and shouting and demanded a copy of the book in question be brought forth (she turned out to be wrong).

Myself and a girl we knew had been brought in just to make up the numbers, we didn't win - by a long shot, and later I discovered that she had been up to mischief all night to relieve the tedium. The tables had been arranged on the first floor amongst the shelves - and she had spent the evening slipping tiny obscene hand written notes inside copies of obscure military history books (that's where our table had been 'hidden'). I often wonder about the reactions when they were eventually found.

I probably should have kept that to myself....but it was a few years ago...and it was a VERY dull evening.

JRSM said...

There's a blog somewhere I've lost track of, but I remember the author detailed a number of his pranks with second-hand books. He'd cut up old 1970s holiday snaps and write things on the back like 'I killed them hid the bodies in the valley' and stick them in books before selling them.

The Dotterel said...

I always use receipts as bookmarks, which means when you revisit a much-read volume you get a blast from your own past (and a shock about inflation) but also that when you need to search for a receipt for some reason, like returning faulty goods, it takes days as you reaquaint yourself with forgotten books. What a wonderful waste of time!

John Self said...

My favourite discovery in a second hand book was a postcard which contained the following message.

"“My Dearest Irené - This is hopefully the last night I won’t be here with you. I miss you dreadfully - but I can eat sweets in bed - (if I want). Wish you were here or I was there. Love you always, Margaret xxx. PS Sorry, I’ve borrowed the hairdryer. :)”

John Self said...

Oh I meant to say, it was in a copy of Baudolino by Umberto Eco. No, Irené, I couldn't finish it either.

Lucy Fishwife said...

I use those free postcards as bookmarks. Nice and sturdy and I don't care if I lose them. My mother (the librarian) found a fiver in a book once - it's a college library, but since it's in Oxford you can imagine they barely notice the loss of a fiver. She also found a rasher of bacon...

The Poet Laura-eate said...

As one who spent 7 years volunteering on Saturday mornings in Oxfam Bookshop, I could not agree more Steerforth.

Plus plenty of people (with the best will in the world) are redundant, retired, unemployed or disabled and struggle to afford new titles even on a 3-4-2 basis.

And some of us are just too discerning to want to half the time, given many of the new titles!

Must say, any time a donation came in which was too manky for re-sale (most of the time as it had been in someone's damp garage for 10 years and had started to stink/pulp itself rather than being smeared in bodily excretions), it got shredded and given to an animal shelter for kitty litter.

But those moments where you find the famous signature, a poignant letter or postcard or even bus ticket from long ago are special indeed and were a source of riches we volunteers enjoyed swapping stories of. Some finds indeed led to impressive sales at auction raising money for Oxfam. Though Oxfam Bookshops are a threat to secondhand bookshop in turn being as they do not pay for any of their books and rely wholly on donations - a fact I was often painfully aware of as another commercial secondhand bookshop bit the dust locally, despite our handing out leaflets of all the secondhand bookshops in Oxford including ours.

JRSM said...

Off the topic again, but it may be of use to you with the ongoing Zola readings--just came across the complete "A Zola dictionary; the characters of the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola; with a biographical and criticial introduction, synopses of the plots, bibliographical note, map, genealogy, etc" at the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/zoladictionarych00pattuoft

Hope it's of use!

praymont said...

I like those old, WWII-era Penguins that have commercials for cigarettes, toothpaste, etc.

I buy lots of used books, but it gets pretty risky if you buy on-line. More than once I've really scrubbed my hands after looking through a newly arrived book.

Steerforth said...

Thanks JRSM - after a gap of nearly a year, I'll need a refresher course on the Rougon Macquat family tree.

Praymont - I agree about buying online. Books that are supposed to be in 'v.good' condition have arrived with pages falling out and curious stains that are rather offputting.

One book stank of stale cigarettes to the point where I had to keep it sealed in a bag (although I later discovered that putting smelly books in a box of scrunched-up newspapers works wonders).