11 Oct 2020


In England, they are called second-hand books; in America, where language goes for literal truth, they are called used books. Well, whether the books are used or second-hand, it’s always a pleasure to browse in an old bookshop and be happily surprised by what one discovers there. I’ve written before of some important, out-of-print books thus discovered, and of alighting upon books one had once resolved to read but then neglected to do so, and now, with the physical copy in one’s hand, being delighted to have the old memory awakened. Seeing recently that another well-known bookshop was closing down, the memory of spending many pleasurable hours in old bookshops over the past years produced a sentimental reverie in my mind.

One prominent image that sprang up from 20 years ago was going with my wife into an old bookshop in Rio de Janeiro, where she found a clean copy of an old Portuguese novel, A Jangada de Pedra [The Stone Raft], by the novelist José Saramago, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature that year. Picking it out and blowing away the dust that had accumulated on it, the first thing one saw was a handwritten dedication, presenting the book to probably a friend, signed “José Saramago”. He had dated it “Rio, ’86”. It was the year the book was first published in Lisbon, from which one conjectured that Saramago had been visiting Rio and had brought copies of his new novel to present to friends. This one clearly had not been read, nor had the bookseller any notion of its rare value.

That a book can acquire such value is an incidental benefit. As readers, we look to see how the book will advance our imaginative cognition of reality, not our bank account. By the sheer luck of living to an old age, some of the books that I bought 60 years ago — mostly volumes of poems by poets of the day, such as Robert Graves and Sylvia Plath — are now valuable first editions. And that, too, is an incidental, and an irrelevant, advantage to a serious reader, much though a book collector might salivate looking at them.

A bibliographic scholar I knew told me that he did not read the first editions he had collected, but just looked at them, suggesting that he was not as interested in the writer’s ideas as in the printer’s transference of the text on to the paper. His greatest thrill was to have an old first edition in his hands even if — sometimes especially if — the text was riddled with errors. Examining the printed pages, he determined which of the subsequent editions perpetuated the errors or had corrected them, and his scholarly analysis provided the editor of a new edition with an uncorrupted text to produce an authoritative version of an important book.

That sort of rapport between a writer and a bookseller has long vanished as have many of the shops, including the one I knew in Rio. The last time I walked past there, it had become a restaurant where people sat reading menus.

Though I valued his kind of investigative scholarship, I derived no pleasure from holding a rare edition in my hands; I preferred the text in my hands to be the latest authoritative edition. The collector was welcome to swoon over a Shakespeare First Folio. I was happier with the updated edition of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, for literary delight — which is a thrill in the imagination produced by how the author has created language in a style that captures an idea’s essential abstraction in a luminously brilliant image — is influenced by the text in one’s hand being the correct one.

Presumably, the same literary delight can be experienced when reading a text by accessing it on the website Project Gutenberg, on one’s desktop at home or on a tablet while sitting in a Boeing 777 at 40,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. But psychologically — at least for us of the older generation — reading on a screen is associated with haste, the text being rapidly scanned for its content with scarcely a pause for its style to be savoured, or for the mind to reflect on a depth of meaning suggested by a particular phrase.

No doubt, new cultural habits that have evolved — and by now become established following the computer revolution of the late 20th century — provide the younger generation with experiences which are their notion of literary delight and, for them, the older readers’ drooling over the touch of paper is mere sentimentality.

Some bookshops, such as Foyles in London and Strand in New York, have survived as national institutions. In the 1970s, an author entering Strand would be spotted by Burt Britton, who worked there. On greeting the writer, whose work he invariably knew, Britton would ask them to draw a portrait of their self in a drawing notebook that he always had with him. After several years, Britton had over 200 drawings, some of them highly amusing, with the authors making themselves into cartoon figures, and published them as a delightful book: Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves.

That sort of rapport between a writer and a bookseller, which in those years I also experienced in London, has long vanished, of course, as have many of the shops, including the one I knew in Rio. The last time I walked past there, it had become a restaurant where people sat reading menus.

For a writer, there is only one problem with second-hand bookshops, as I have discovered more than once. That is to find one of your own books there and, on looking at the title page, seeing written in your own hand, above your signature, “To my dear friend…etc.”, and, remembering the friend who had died not too long ago, realising that the heirs had all but thrown the book out. Even worse, the pristine condition of its pages clearly indicated that it had never been read, never been used, no second hand had ever opened it.

The columnist is a novelist, literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 11th, 2020