Thursday, May 30, 2024

39 Books: 2021

I lived in Brighton for 30 years. One of the many painful aspects of leaving in 2021 was losing the many second-hand bookshops, all within walking distance. Many have closed over the years, such as Sandpiper, a remaindered bookshop in Kensington Gardens. It had a backroom in which every book was £1 and was where I found as-new hardbacks of Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous and SY Agnon's Only Yesterday, as well as the slim paperback of Sarah Kofman's Rue Orderner, Rue Labat. There was even a volume from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, but it was only the index. There are also cheerless memories of books seen but not bought that would cheer me up now to see: Jean Améry's On Suicide in Tall Storeys on St James' Street, and, back in Sandpiper, a four-volume selection of Luther's writings. Sometimes the price was prohibitive: in one of my last visits to Snooper's Paradise, there were the four small hardbacks comprising Heidegger's Nietzsche priced at £25 each.

For nostalgic Brightonians, here's a 2015 article* on closed Brighton bookshops, including Colin Page's, a shop I wrote about in my End of Literature series.

The nearest second-hand bookshop to me now is several miles away across a stretch of water and with a turnover of stock that can be measured by geological epoch. This situation is what makes reading Nicholas Royle's White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector both a great pleasure and bitterly sad.

Royle travels the country in search of white-spined Picador paperbacks to add to his collection, which his Instagram account confirms is a long-standing and serious affliction. Like me, his eye must be trained like a bird of prey's to pick out particular spines among the mass-market paperbacks, coffee-table cookbooks and celebrity biographies. The vicarious thrill of anticipation is aroused on every page. On page two, he finds the Picador edition of Nomad by Mary Anne Fitzgerald that he thinks he doesn't have but says the pleasure he gets from finding it has no direct link to the book's contents, as he's unlikely to read it. For me there is always a direct link. In Bow Windows in Lewes, I found Charles Singleton's commentary on Dante's Purgatorio in the Bollingen Series only to discover that, like Royle with Nomad, I had one already. But I bought it to read. I don't search for various editions and have no urge to complete sets.

My pleasure and envy in reading White Spines may indicate the difference is an illusion. Mine is a collecting urge for the mind, perhaps even the soul, and concealed there, whereas Royle's is on display, described in nerdy detail according to cover design and industry formats as I might fuss over the singularity of one book or another. Both seek to shore against the incoming tide. A single book is on its own an example of collecting, of containing within defined limits a totality to which we have no access otherwise. To fill a white bookshelf with white spines facing out is only an extension of this, as is my folder of book lists. Walter Benjamin diagnosed the condition in 1938:

Since the days of Louis Philippe, the bourgeoisie has endeavored to compensate itself for the fact that private life leaves no traces in the big city. It seeks such compensation within its four walls – as if it were striving, as a matter of honor, to prevent the traces, if not of its days on earth then at least of its possessions and requisites of daily life, from disappearing forever.
            From 'The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire', Selected Writings, volume 4

For reasons Benjamin describes in The Storyteller, the novel appears as a cultural force as the presence of death retreats:

In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life – and this is the stuff that stories are made of – first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end – unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it — suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.

In one of the charity shops now the only source of book-browsing, I found the Picador edition of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and bought it because I thought it might be good to be immersed in medieval Europe and its theology. Instead, it was a bore. Nicholas happened to see a photo I posted of the four Picadors I own (five, actually, as I forgot Beckett's Mercier and Camier) and said he didn't have that particular edition. If you don't have it Nicholas, I'll be happy to send it on.

You can listen to Nicholas Royle discuss White Spines on the Rippling Pages podcast.


* It lives my head rent-free that this columnist also wrote that the BBC was "anti-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian". A closed shop of the mind.

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