Wednesday, October 05, 2016

`Totter's Rights'

Thanks to Ron Slate I borrowed a copy of On the Burning of Books (Unicorn Press, 2016) by Kenneth Baker. Unlike most coffee-table volumes, it comes with a text worth reading, which is fortunate because Baker understands book-burning in the broadest, most interesting sense. The Nazis, communists and the Ayatollah Khomeini receive due attention, but so do Dr. Johnson, Dickens and Philip Larkin. The section on Thomas Hardy, who burned many of his diaries, letters and manuscripts, includes the only known photograph of Hardy smiling. Baker is never preachy, unlike others who document book burning, and he lets the damning evidence speak for itself. Ron rightly describes On the Burning of Books as “even tempered and sanguine” even though it “deals throughout with intolerance, fanaticism, disgust, fear and ruination.”

The book is dense with little wonders. Near the end, Baker includes a brief note from one of its designers, Julia Brown, titled “Totter’s Rights.” Baker defines totter as “something that has been discarded as rubbish, i.e. on a skip, can be legally taken by someone who has found it. `Tot’ may originate from the German for `dead.’” I knew totter only as a verb meaning, as the OED has it, “to walk or move with unsteady steps; to go shakily or feebly; to toddle; also, to walk with difficulty; to reel, stagger.” It has many meanings, though few seem to have successfully crossed the Atlantic. It can refer to a playground swing and to the act of swinging, which I suppose is related to another piece of playground equipment, the teeter-totter or see-saw.

Brown tells the story of the Scottish architect Darcy Braddell (1884-1970), whose wife threw out a shoebox of his letters several years after his death. “The shoebox, unknown to any of the family, was put in the dustbin by my grandmother in a typically methodical and careful clear out before her death about a year later.” The letters turned up in the catalogue of an antiquarian book dealer in Kensington, carrying “a fairly substantial price tag.” Brown was sent by the family to investigate. She explains:

“Apparently as dustmen have `Totter’s Rights’ so one had legitimately sold an old shoe box of letters to the book dealer. We paid up (apparently we were in competition with the Huntington Library) respecting my grandmother’s wishes, and the letters are now back, undisturbed, in the family archive. The moral of this (pre-shredding) story is that if you want to destroy paper you really must burn it!’

That brings us to the pertinent definition of totter in the OED -- “a rag-and-bone collector”—which recalls Yeats’ lines: “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” The dictionary gives only two citations, from 1891 and 1910, and both are from periodicals. There’s no mention of a possible German etymology, but the OED speculates that the word may derive from tot, meaning “a dust-heap picker's name for a bone; whence by extension, anything worth picking from a refuse-heap or elsewhere.” (Go here to see more on this theme.)

Some writers are totters. We collect shiny bits, sort them into boxes and wait to find an appropriate use.