Before I bluffed my way into the world of secondhand bookselling, I naively assumed that the older a book was, the more valuable it might be.
How wrong I was. With a few notable exceptions, it's the 20th-century books that make any real money.
I suppose it's all to do with memory. Long-forgotten titles, that have slipped out of our collective cultural consciousness, can be very hard to sell and I've even had to throw some 18th-century books away.
Admittedly the books were very dull and in terrible condition. They couldn't even have graced the shelves of a provincial faux Ye Olde hotel, but it still really went against the grain to bin them as they'd been built to last.
As I tossed the books to their doom I thought of their long histories, from their auspicious debuts in the libraries of gentlemen like the one above, to their sad demise - 250 years later - in a skip on a drab industrial estate in Sussex, with Heart FM playing in the background.
From Haydn to Rihanna. It was just too awful to contemplate.
I'd kept the books for as long as possible, until my desk was surrounded by teetering piles. After a fruitless search for new owners, I realised that I was in danger of looking like one of those people who bottle their own urine because they won't throw anything away. In the end, the books had to go.
Yesterday I found another 18th-century book that will probably also be impossible to sell:
Perhaps it's even the book in Gainsborough's portrait, although I think it's highly unlikely that David Garrick would have owned a copy of this:
It sounds terribly dull, but in fact it's a box of delights, giving the reader a fascinating glimpse of late 18th-century society:
Over 6lb of opium? Nancy Reagan would be spinning in her grave (but apparently she's still alive).
In the same chapter, the author makes a few little jokes to allieviate the tedium of the subject matter, creating characters like Roger Retail, Thomas Teapot, Lady Strawberry and Ben Bibant. But my favourite part of the book is a section called 'Rules of Practice', which lists the sorts of things a gentleperson might buy:
15 pistols, 16 cwt. of cheese, 22 tons of hay, 81 firkins of soap, 33 yards of flannel, 120 doz. candles, 54 acr. land, 56 pipes of wine, 63 gall. of oil, 99 bushels of malt, 70 barrels of ale, 144 reams of paper, 100 stones of wool, 110 sheep, 18 cwt. of tobacco, 66 gall of rum and 48 acr. of pasture ground.
Oh for the days when a gentleman could casually buy 54 acres of land! But I'm not sure about selling 15 pistols to an alcoholic drug addict. It would never happen today.
Other chapters concern vulgar fractions, promiscuous questions and evolution - maths was never this exciting when I was at school, but at least it was less complicated. I know that the media keep telling us that young people are getting progessively cleverer, but I'd like to see today's generation of hugging, halter-top-wearing GCSE students tackle this:
In fact, whenever I find a very old textbook, I feel humbled by its complexity. If I was transported back to a 1788 classroom, I'd be the one in the corner wearing a dunce's hat.
Were people cleverer then? No, of course not. Was the standard higher because the most stupid people were excluded from the education system? As the descendant of generations of barely literate Kentish peasants I'd naturally disagree, but I suspect that Messrs Cameron and Osborne might nod their heads in approbation.
I can't say that I have any great yearning to go back to the 18th century, but the prospect of wearing a wig and tricorn hat would appeal greatly. I would also enjoy throwing my silk gloves onto a shop counter and saying "Sir, I demand satisfaction!"