“My natural tropism, however, is towards the secondhand bookshops of the Charing Cross Road. Here I move as an expert. I do not know what I am looking for but I know when I have found it. My knowledge of the editions of all the more valuable productions of the English poets, miscellanists, producers of odds and ends, theological, biographical, what have you, would make me a respectable bookseller in no time. After a glance over the shelves I know infallibly whether a bookseller is one to be taken seriously, and whether he is cheap or dear. But I only look for books that can be read, and in order to read them; the bibliophile who is a sort of stamp-collector is nothing to me.”
I’m an “expert” only in knowing my mind when it comes to books, not first editions: what I enjoy, what I detest; what’s flashy and superficially alluring, and what’s built for the long haul; what isn’t a natural fit but something I might grow into. A seasoned reader’s tastes are at once elastic and tightly specialized. I think I’m easy to buy gifts (books) for. People say otherwise. The author above is C.H. Sisson in On the Look-out: A Partial Autobiography (Carcanet, 1989), and I share his distaste for bookish dilettantes and his gift for “cold reading” bookshops. Here is Sisson on the first page of his autobiography, describing the room where he is writing. There’s a complete set of “Johnson’s poets,” de Quincey in fourteen volumes, William Law in nine, Blackstone’s Commentaries, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Pepys’ Diary, “volumes of Kafka bought in Berlin, Munich or Freiberg in 1935”:
“Most of the other books have come to me by the same sort of attraction – not as gifts, but they have stuck to me as to a fly-paper as I have perambulated through bookshops. By that I mean that they are almost all books to which I at one time or another adhered, not that I have taken any of them without payment. Indeed I have suffered some of my most noticeable moral agonies in bookshops, hesitating to spend on my passions money that could be conceived of as already appropriated by my duties.”
I’m uncomfortable in the company of unmindfully big spenders, people who act on every whim, especially in bookshops. I’m “dear,” to use Sisson’s polite word. “Cheap” isn’t quite right. “Cautious” is closer, especially if bills remain unpaid. That's one of the reasons I spend more time in libraries than anyone my age who still has a job.
I likewise feel a kinship with Sisson in non-bookish matters. His prose is Swiftian – transparent, agile and tricky. A portion of his autobiography he narrates backwards, moving in reverse from 1964 to his birth in 1914. And yet the effect is never gratuitously experimental or avant-garde. You feel him finding a form for expressing his understanding. He’s no show-off. Sisson is a conservative in the literary and philosophical sense that Swift and Beckett are conservatives. A career civil servant, Sisson helps me understand my younger self, a working-class kid trying to wear a white collar without soiling it; a bookish fellow trying to get along in a non-bookish world. He wrote some of the finest passages I've ever read about office life, about working in a dauntingly large organization and maintaining one's dignity and composure:
“It would be fair to say, however, that to my colleagues collectively I owe a large part of my education, which has consisted in the suppression of my private interests. When I first entered this establishment, years ago, I did not hesitate to talk to people about the things that interested me - about Dante or about Tourneur, if I happened to be reading them. I then learned that it was no business of theirs what I read, and that the thoughts to be cultivated were those which were generally accepted as such and so of some practical use. The other kind of thought worth cultivating (but privately) was that which explained the mechanism of public behaviour. For many years life in the office seemed to me to be a sort of tight-rope turn; it consisted wholly of trying to move in accordance with laws imposed by the circus-master. It is not that the circus-master was wrong and I was right; but after all he knew what would make one fall off the rope and if the laws of nature didn't, he could give you a push. So I learned simultaneously to keep my counsel and to do as I was bid.”