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.