Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Books as objects

Imagine a teenage girl without much money who has run out of things to read, browsing the shelves of the sort of charity shop where they sell paperbacks cheaply (not Oxfam).  She spots a book called The Deptford Trilogy and likes the cover, or the blurb, or the fact that it's a lot of book for not much money.  She buys it, reads it, and starts a life-long appreciation for Robertson Davies, an author who is underappreciated in the UK, and this brings her great pleasure.

It's a nice story.  So why, when I spotted The Deptford Trilogy in a box of books I was taking to a charity shop for my brother and sister-in-law, did I pounce on it so avidly and remove it?  I have my own copy.  This is not sensible behaviour.  I'm a big fan of Davies so I ought to want other people to get the chance to read his work.  A book for sale in a cheap charity shop is almost a better way of promoting things than giving them out for free, because the small cost involved gives the buyer an investment in reading the thing.  I could have helped some more poor kid marooned in Tiverton to discover one of the best writers of the twentieth century.  There are some books which I even find myself compulsively buying whenever I see them in secondhand bookshops or charity shops.  I find it almost impossible to pass by a copy of G. V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, for example.  But I would love nothing more than to meet someone who had read that and enjoyed it like I did, and when I remove a copy from circulation I make that less and less likely.  I remember how great it was when I first met Ray Page, emeritus Bosworth and Toller Professor of Anglo-Saxon, to find that we had read many of the same obscure things, like The Wallet of Kai Lung.  But I don't think I know anyone else who is a fan of G. V. Desani.  Maybe I should dig out my spare copies and start distributing them.

I found Robertson Davies by accident as a sixth-former because I had a book token to spend and the shop was just about to close.  I grabbed The Deptford Trilogy because at the time the word Deptford meant only one thing to me, the mysterious and sordid death of Christopher Marlowe.  I had a big literary crush on Marlowe and was writing a long essay about him for my A-level English.  Although I think The Cornish Trilogy is marginally better, I love The Deptford Trilogy because I found it so randomly, and because when I first read it I had no idea who the Bollandists were.  The narrator Dunstan Ramsay is very proud of publishing with the Bollandists despite not being a Catholic priest.  And six or seven years later, I too published something in Analecta Bollandiana, even though I am so far from being a Catholic priest that I am actually a Protestant woman.  Hurray!


  1. I like the idea of setting books free to find new readers; I occasionally toy with the idea of 'bookcrossing', but fail to take action because I can't spare any of the books I love. Maybe you could leave your duplicate copy somewhere to intrigue someone else? The romantic in me pictures their blog post in years to come, beginning 'I was a bored teenager passing time at the bus-stop when I came across a book called The Deptford Trilogy...'

  2. That would be very excellent. The problem is that it would have to get into the right hands and I'm not sure I trust enough to fate to do that for me. Maybe I should have the boldness to take the risk. I've never done book-crossing properly because I worry that discarding the books makes them look like rubbish. I've discarded a few books I did think were rubbish either on trains or at airports but that's a different thing. Maybe I need to find someone who's going off on a gap year round the world. I never did it myself, but I understand from my brother and sister-in-law that books get passed around and read avidly because no one has the room to carry more than one at a time.