Saturday, December 10, 2011

`Buying Groceries Instead of Buying Dreams'

A quick pass through the campus “bookstore” where I purchased two hooded sweatshirts as Christmas presents, was, as always, dispiriting. The book department consists of six shelves of publications by faculty and staff. Some are heavily technical, and I’m not qualified to judge their worth. The one title I’ve actually read was written by a friend but I can recommend it without bias. (In conversation, the author has described the Fugitive poet Donald Davidson, who figures in her Vanderbilt chapter, as “a stone-cold racist.”) The rest, having bypassed remaindering, await pulping.

Just that morning I had read the excerpts from Bohemia in London posted by Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti. I had never read Arthur Ransome but was intrigued enough to get the book from the library. It’s the first American edition, published in 1907 by Dodd, Mead & Company. I found the passage in “The Bookshops of Bohemia” where Mike left off, and resumed reading:

“There is something more real about this style of buying books than about the dull mercenary method of a new emporium. It is good, granted, to look about the shelves of a new bookshop, to see your successful friends and the authors you admire outglittering each other in smart, gold-lettered, brilliant-coloured bindings; to pick up pretty little editions of your favourite books—what pretty ones there are nowadays, but how sad it is to see a staid old folio author compelled to trip in a duodecimo--; all that is pleasant enough, but to spend money there is a sham and a fraud; it is like buying groceries instead of buying dreams.”

For book lovers and dedicated readers, Ransome’s chapter is a respite from the looming loss of literacy. With approval he quotes Lamb on reading. He describes Charing Cross Road as “the only street whose character is wholly bookish,” and writes:

“By these shops alone are there always a crowd of true bookmen. There are the clerks who bolt their lunches to be able to spend half an hour in glancing over books. There are reviewers selling newspaper copies. There are book-collectors watching for the one chance in ten thousand that brings a prize into the four-penny stall. There are book-lovers looking for the more frequent chance that brings them a good book at a little price, or lets them read it without buying it.”

1 comment:

Andrew MacGillivray said...

Reading without buying reminded me of the habitually impecunious Leigh Hunt, a self-confessed 'haunter of bookstalls from my boyhood upwards', who writes feelingly on the subject in his short-lived periodical 'London Journal' (Nov. 11th, 1834). He remembers 'reading a whole book standing at a stall' and goes on to offer a synopsis of its contents. In his essay 'Old books and bookshops: the beneficence of book-stalls' (1837) he's more expansive: "We still find ourselves halting at the humblest book-stall, as we used to do when fresh from school. In vain have we got cold feet at it, shivering, wind-beaten sides, and black-fingered gloves. The dusty old siren still delays us, charming with immortal beauty inside her homely attire, and singing songs of old poets. We still find ourselves diving into the sixpenny or threepenny box in spite of eternal disappointment, and running over whole windows of books, which we saw but three days before, for the twentieth time, and of which we could repeat by heart a good third of the titles. Nothing disconcerts us but absolute dirt, or an ill-tempered looking woman. We have ourselves precisely the same habits. Nothing delights us more than to overhaul some dingy tome, and read a chapter gratuitously. Occasionally, when we have opened some very attractive old book, we have stood reading for hours at the stall, lost in a brown study and worldly forgetfulness, and should probably have read on to the end of the last chapter, had not the idle vendor of published wisdom offered in a satirically polite way, to bring us out a chair. – 'Take a chair, sir; you must be tired.' "

It's oddly reassuring to find that there was evidently enough dross about in the 1830s for Leigh Hunt to talk of 'eternal disappointment'. It's a feeling present-day haunters of book-stalls know only too well.