Nothing as Basic as the Love of Books, Unless It’s a Secondhand Bookshop

Theodore Dalrymple has written a lovely little essay for The English Review entitled “Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm.” He extols the virtues of secondhand bookshops, despite the grumblings of Orwell himself whose memories of working in secondhand bookshops left a lot to be desired. I disagree of course. Many long hours of mine have been spent in secondhand book stores. I remember a particular bookstore in Denver, Colorado that was not in the way of any significant traffic and never sported more than a couple of people (me included) at a time within the confines of its three rooms. But there was something about it that drew me there. Sitting on the floor in front of rows of books is one of my fondest memories; in bookstores and in the one library that I actually had the opportunity to work in. While working in that library, I think I checked out more books from the cart than I was instructed to put away. But that was the joy of working there. I came across any number of books that I would not have found otherwise.

I discovered the curiosity of “eavesdropping” on other peoples’ reading tastes. I found endless items tucked away inside books returned for shelving; bookmarks, love notes, pieces of homework paper, articles clipped and forgotten. I usually kept the bookmarks, but I’m sure I would have had a fairly decent eclectic assortment of other papers had I kept those; or at least the makings of a really juicy novel. Dalrymple writes of his love of collecting books with inscriptions by their previous owners. In some, the owners are known. In others, unknown, but telling:

In my copy of The Condemned Playground by the critic, Cyril Connolly, published in 1945, is a short inscription. It is in the cultivated hand that one very rarely sees nowadays: a comparison of inscriptions shows how coarse handwriting has become in the last half-century or so. My guess is that the inscription was written by a young woman, no more than thirty years old when she wrote it. Her words were few and to me of a great poignancy: To my beloved husband, Christmas 1945.

Why should these words have struck me as so poignant? Because I think that, though they are simple and could hardly be more direct, no one would use them to inscribe a book now. At any rate, I have not found so vulnerably tender an inscription in any book since. It is not so much that our use of language has changed, as that our feelings have changed. For all our resort to psychobabble and endless talk about ourselves, we are less inclined to lay ourselves open to others, even those closest to us. Power is more important to us than love.

He’s right on that front. No one would inscribe a book that way today. For the same reasons that no one wanders secondhand bookshops anymore, no one writes such lovely snippets anymore either.  People are not willing to peruse anything more than they absolutely have to and that includes the contents of their hearts.

LIke my finding scraps of paper inside returned library books, finding the detritus of human reading habits is also intertwined with my joy at wandering the shelves of secondhand bookstores today. Like Dalrymple says, these shops are fewer and fewer in number due to the internet and the reading publics lack of interest in dusty shelf perusal, but I still think that the finest way to spend leisure time is casually running my finger along the spines of used books on a shelf and picking one at random to leaf through. To me, that’s not time wasted.


12 thoughts on “Nothing as Basic as the Love of Books, Unless It’s a Secondhand Bookshop

  1. My good friend and I hit up the second-hand book stores as well. She’s addicted to it. 🙂 Me, I told her recently, I not going in until I’ve read the ones I’ve got on my shelf now. They are only .35 cents each, she protests. I’m not going in until I’ve read the ones I have on my shelf now. Okay she says. We move on.

    I find being in bookstores the same as being in the woods or in the garden or by the water. I’m lost and loving it.

  2. Zoe,

    That’s my problem, though. I’ve got numerous books at home that I haven’t read yet and I still must go to used book stores!! You never know what you might find. And you’re right, bookstores are the indoor equivalent of nature. 🙂

  3. There is much energy to be found in books and when the books are housed in one place, there is great energy to be found and experienced.

  4. I can’t imagine a debate between a bibliophile and a biblioclast which the bibliophile wouldn’t win; such are my prejudices.These prejudices would expect the bibliophile to be far more articulate, and the biblioclast to be confused between dumbing down and inclusivity.

    As for the secondhand bookshops, I should point out that I’m totally blind. Not gratuitously, but because this will prompt the reader to ask what a print illiterate cares about secondhand books. The answer is something which has prompted me to comment on here before, and that is enthusiasm, to which I’m addicted. slipstreaming the enthusiasm of another is enlivening and usually instructive. My whole experience of the visual world is inevitably as secondhand as those books. There’s nothing to be done about that. In which case, far better surely to grab what I can rather than moan about what I can’t have. And what better source than an enthusiast.

    The bibliophile isn’t normally someone who simply has a fetish for a particular kind of object. Books have content and, by keeping my ears open, that content might easily kindle enthusiasms of my own. So, if anyone needs a companion while trailing around a city investigating the obscurer corners of the literary fermament, count me in.


  5. Reg,

    Ah yes, riding the waves of another’s enthusiasm can provide hours of entertainment. The “literary firmament” does indeed hold mysteries well worth exploring and not just for the love of the contents. The book itself is a complete universe. The pages, the covers, the position on the bookshelf. Like galaxies, who’s to say that there isn’t life on any of these planets? Like the iconoclast who fears what power the image may hold for the viewer, the biblioclast fears what the reader may learn. We’ve seen enough of that in our societies haven’t we? Being open minded is far more valuable a trait, I would think.

  6. Mmm. I love books and second hand bookshops are my idea of heaven. I always buy way more books than I can read and I much prefer a pre-loved book to a new one. There is a sense of history to the book. I always think about the woman who had held the book before me. I wonder if the book had the same impact on her as it does on me. What she thought before the book and how she thought afterwards, whether it changed her life, built her up, made her stronger.

    I remember walking into The Women’s Library for the first time. Realising that I was surrounded by the words of women. The feeling was quite amazing, being absorbed by and absorbing all of that passion and history. Books saved my life, I guess that is why I think writing is such an important tool for women, not just as a form of communication, although that is important, but also as a way of healing, as a way of getting in touch with ourselves, as a way of making our thoughts, dreams and desires take shape. It is why Audre Lorde’s Poetry is not a luxury rings so true for me.

  7. Allecto,

    I love that term “pre-loved book.” That’s it to a T for me as well. Books have also saved my life and I am eternally grateful for that. You are so correct that writing is an important tool, especially for women, whose voice has been suppressed far more often than not. The medium is ideal and one which Helene Cixous has written much about. Her life and work is particularly apt. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a kind of manifesto for me. I’ll find Lorde’s poem and read it. That also sounds revolutionary.

    Thanks so much for your comment!

  8. MOI – Love this post! I too am an unabashed bibliophile, who has spent much time perusing my local booktrader’s shop (as fate would have it, we both go to the same church now! And she’s preparing to retire…and I have a feeling her book shop with her!) I like her shop because I can bring books to trade, and basically it feels like getting new books for nothing! (Of course, like several others here, I have found that bring old books to trade, for which I didn’t really have room on the shelf to begin with, certainly doesn’t get the new one’s sitting on my shelf at home to be read, read; nor does it help to “make space” only to fill it with new books!

    New books, used books, library books…your books…I’ll take ’em!

    And as for those lovely treasures found in someone else’s preloved book, I’m with you. I love find those little pieces of another person’s life sitting in my hand. It takes time to read a book, and that connection to that other life, when it enters your consciousness, is strong. After all, you’ve both spent hours holding that book in your hand.

  9. Eileen,

    Yes, a connection to another and another’s life! That’s it isn’t it? It’s like visiting another world to use Reg’s analogy of planets. I think that your term “An Unabashed Bibliophile” would make a great title for a blog don’t you? 🙂 Good to see you here!

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