(This article appeared in Atticus Review on 20th March 2014.)
She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain.
Louisa M. Alcott
Perfumes. High fashion. Brands. Megastores. Malls. Shopping. Chocolates.
Everyone had told me everything about England save…books! The lack of ‘been there, done that’ holiday pictures featuring books proves yet again, they have lost their equity value and are no longer considered status enhancing.
Why, pray? First hand and hard bound copies are as relatively expensive here as back home, specially when compared to the food prices. Where a filling snack can be had for under £1, a week’s salad supply for 49p, a sumptuous pizza for £4.50, the same for a tub of Haagen-Dazs, a family meal delivered for £6, the most expensive coffee bar will charge £2.50 for a small cappuccino, a book rated between £12-30 does seem a luxury.
Except, I’ve always taken advantage of discount vouchers and store sales and Christmas is a wonderful time to shop. Windows display alluring and eluding percentages in large font, I bypass those of apparels to queue at the books’.
But the real steals are to be got at the charity shops.
My man, with his delight for and considerable skills at DIY, had promised to fashion me a book cupboard (word that he made good.) I can figure he is shaken by the drawer I’ve managed to heavy in two months. At this rate, I caught him muttering reiteration of the to-do list, there’ll be utter confusion soon.
It is not unknown for my acquisitions to overflow from tables, bed edges, shelves. I’m despicably careless and things have already begun to hide within the pile of my little possessions. One week the CD cover couldn’t be found, next week the CD; mum’s gift had to be redone as it was untraceable when the time came to pack.
The only furniture I’ve bought in my life, out of desperation, was a book case. I chose the biggest size then watched, in sheer glee/dismay as it filled, far too rapidly. No more discounts please, dear book retailers, offer storage deals.
One thing I’ll sorely miss after dying is reading. I am convinced heaven’s gate opens in a dog’s heart and between the pages.
Without lifting my fat bum from the coverlet I can get transported to many worlds, ages, minds. Those that have been bitten know what I’m saying, those that haven’t won’t ever know.
The first time I’d walked into Yorkshire Children’s Centre, it was to ask whether they’d want to pick up the perfectly usable though no longer of use to us pieces of furniture. The counter was engaged and there was a wicker basket of miniature goblets near. We admired them as we waited. Soon, my husband and I, in silent collusion, began to choose similar looking ones and gathered two sets. It was after they were paid for and enquiries made, that my attention turned to the shelves of books opposite. As the clichéd saying, there has been no looking back but several going back-s since.
Where else can one get a hard bound David Attenborough’s The Trials of Life and an Encyclopaedia of Needlecraft for as little as £1 each?
Ah, Amazon, but I’m coming to that.
Three Saturdays ago, trying to locate a sweater seen through a closed door, I...ahem, I mean my husband...ended up with an armful of books from Street Lane (now that’s truly ingenious, I mean the name, not my particular proclivity.)
Past boyfriends have been through this, there isn’t a date I’ve not led into a book shop, several dates abandoned for it, too. I own the ignominy of carrying into the swank Someplace Else lounge on über Park Street a bulging plastic bag from Oxford Bookstores next door.
As I age, the eclectic array of interests have made keeping track impossible. That register of collectibles, my sister’s excellent practical suggestion, hasn’t materialised due to laziness. Leaning more towards nonfiction than before continues to make a fine mess of my bank balance. Sometimes I worry if book buying isn’t the same manifestation of over-consumption our century is plagued by. Past mid-life, I want to travel light for the journey. The rain forests that are felled to feed my passion don’t leave me rest.
Growing older, the charm of child-like pleasures isn’t easy or undiluted. I worry constantly the undone chores, the frosty deadlines, the prospect of failing exams, yet pull that storybook any way. Notes from a Small Island and Call the Midwife, in quick succession made my Italian homework entirely forgettable and forgotten. Till their last pages at least.
Amazon brings through my letter slot well preserved academic fortes from libraries afar, no longer in circulation.
(But why, I keep asking plaintively, why would anyone want to give such finely kept specimens away? Why do none want to read them anymore?)
For I read my books again and again, through the years. Chance recollections send me scampering to find them. Timely access to references makes it imperative that I purchase and stock my own library. Like old friends, and new, like my non-human companions, or wrinkle-cheeked gap-toothed grandparents, I cannot imagine turning books out.
‘Fair’, ‘Fantastic’ or ‘(Very) Good Condition’, the listings promise; ‘Small Signs’, ‘Light Amount of’ or ‘Shelf’ wear, they confess. ‘Ex-library, with usual stamps and markings’ – they come from the University of Edinburgh, Middlesbrough, Scarborough and Glouchestershire with whiffs of scholarship in their musty pages. One came at a princely sum of 2p, plus post and packaging.
If I were to resort to the amusing Indian habit to constantly convert currencies, at today’s exchange rate, that’s Rs 2, which I can’t imagine paying for any reference book in the College Street old book market in Calcutta, even after fierce haggling. Saddened, I remembered my father, who walked the city to friends’ houses in college life, to read their text books, because he couldn’t afford to buy his own. Or the bus fare. If there is an afterlife, may he be born in England, where study materials are so cheaply accessible.
I've always had a huge soft corner for used books, not merely for parsimony. They keep the rainforest intact, for one. I love to linger over the gift inscriptions, the pride of possession named in wobbly child’s hand, those faded tales of yore and longing cover pages bear. Bringing an old one home feels like bringing an old dog home, fuzzy and warm and patiently waiting to be embraced again.