Friday, 21 August 2015

Second-hand books: Reasons not to be Annoyed

The Christmas Companion, 1939

Luke McKernan has written about second-hand books, specifically those aspects he finds annoying, and has come up with a list containing 19 things that to a greater or lesser extent irritate him.  Some of these I agree with, but on others I have to take issue (of a fairly mild sort; this isn’t going to turn into a flame war).   The heart of my disagreement is that Luke sees a second-hand book ideally as something which floats free of its context, whereas I embrace that context and approach the book as an object with a history.  This may contradict the point I made some time ago, in response to another of Luke’s blog posts, about it being the words that count, not their container, hence my general lack of sentimentality about the vehicle that delivers them; but I added that I am most definitely a bibliophile, and that means a deep affection for books as objects.  I can melt at the sight of a fine binding with the best of them, but also find pleasure in what Luke sees as warts.  So, what does he say, and how do I feel about those 19 things that so vex him?  I’ll run through them in reverse order (shortening the longer ones).  His comments are italicised.

19. Library stamp – a book stamped as belonging to a library is no longer a real book. Ditto school books

No longer real?  Well, there may be some subtle metaphysical issue here, but how can a library stamp affect the utility of a book?  There are occasionally sound reasons to avoid such volumes – the information inside may be redundant, or they may score high on the yuk scale (thank you the inventor of anti-bac spray for helping with grime and germs), but stamps might be of interest.  Knowing that a discarded book came from Croydon Public Libraries in the 2000s might not set the pulse racing, but if it started life in (to use a random example of my own) W T Stead’s Borderland Library, that to my mind contributes an extra layer.  School books are real too, but may well fall into the redundant category and be off the yuk scale altogether.  On the other hand my copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer is identical to the one I had at school, with the exception of the cover, and would not be a jot different if it had a school stamp in it.

18. Faber paperbacks – so badly bound; the publisher seems never to have considered how the books were to be opened. Stick to the hardbacks.

A bit harsh; I don’t find Faber’s paperbacks significantly better or worse to read than other publishers’.  At least they remain intact.  What is annoying is glue that disintegrates so that pages loosen, and acid paper that becomes brittle.

17. Vanity publishing – the puzzling this is, who acquired them in the first place before disposing of them?

It depends on the content.  Vanity publishing is a term that has become somewhat looser with the advent of digital self-publishing and an expansion of the ways an author can get a book before an audience.  The difference is that a vanity publisher takes a huge chunk of money for doing the job, usually badly, and there is an element of exploitation of the author.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the book is worthless, though as with self-publishing the chances are that it is less polished than it would be had it undergone proper editorial scrutiny.

16. Book society reprints – all those book society reprints sold as special offers through magazines … I know they look exactly like the real thing, but they’re not. I know I’m being snobbish about it, but the simple fact of the matter remains. Sorry.

Yup, snobbish.  There may be more scholarly editions available, but as reading copies there is nothing wrong with them.  Societies have played a huge role in the past in increasing the number of titles available to those with limited incomes and their role should be celebrated, not dismissed.  I have quite a few Science Fiction Book Club hardbacks that I picked up second hand, and welcome them as opportunities to acquire books that I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across.  One cannot say the same of Reader’s Digest abridgements, which have always struck me as undermining the integrity of the original.

15. Folio Society – presumably there are people out there who purchase Folio Society books and think they look good on the shelves. Then they realise their mistake, dump them in the second-hand shop, where no one ever touches them again.

I suspect there is a market in second-hand Folio Society editions to judge by their prices, but possibly more among collectors than readers.  I have a few myself, but in general I prefer editions with a critical apparatus to nice illustrations.  They are so big in their slipcases as well, taking up valuable shelf space.

14. Missing volumes in a series – argh, how I going to find the missing one? Even if I found the same edition, it still wouldn’t fit in properly.

On the plus side there is the thrill of the chase, on the minus side it is frustrating to have gaps that are difficult to fill.  There is also the problem of duplicating classic novels issued by different publishers because I can’t decide between them.

13. Underlining – I tell a lie, finding that someone has written in the book is worse ….

On the whole I agree, with exceptions.  My pet hate is highlighting using a fluorescent pen, which renders the words unreadable, with underlining a close second.  Sometimes though marginalia can be illuminating: I once had a copy of a book that had been owned by the renowned psychical researcher Molly Goldney which was full of her annotations, but was in poor shape.  I sold it when I acquired a copy in better overall condition, and still regret having done so.

12. Food stains – nothing can disfigure a book more.

Definitely – that’s one element of its history I can do without. What sort of person uses a book as a coaster?  Even worse is the idea of employing a rasher of bacon as a bookmark; thankfully not a common practice.  I do like finding (clean) objects, old receipts, bus tickets and the like.

11. Foxing – the book is dying, and there is nothing I can do about it.

It’s a cause for sadness rather than annoyance.  Digital reproduction can extend their lives as well as making them widely accessible, but it’s not the same as holding a piece of processed wood in your hands.

10. Faded jackets – don’t leave your books in the sun, dear previous owner.

I totally agree, though unless said previous owner is rigorous about pulling the curtains during the day it’s hard to avoid completely, at least on the spines.

9. Books put aside that someone else then buys – how can this be?

I know that feeling when you are not sure, change your mind later and return, only to find it’s too late.  On the other hand I also know the feeling of buying hastily and repenting at leisure.

8. Books I already have – a special sort of annoyance, in that I really would like to buy the book, yet it would be absurd to do so. Maybe it is a compulsion to repeat a successful past action.

Yes, this is a most odd phenomenon that I too have experienced.

7. Over-priced – of course I know the correct price for any book ever published in whatever condition, and will huffily put back on the shelf anything that does not match my perfect estimation.

Sometimes you bend, sometimes not, depending on how much you want it.  You have to learn to be strong enough to walk away, but it still rankles.  I find it helps to have a wife who is happier than I am to haggle with dealers.

6. Pages missing – and it’s only after you’ve bought the thing and got to page 200 that you find out …

It does happen, but rarely.  The overall condition is an incentive to check carefully and find whether bits are missing.

5. Split spines – there has to be a special circle of Hell for people who break the spines of books to make them easier to read. Such people should never have been allowed to learn to read in the first place.

No argument.  Pure evil.

4. Cut corners – all those books with the price removed from the jacket so that the grateful recipient would not know how much had been spent on them. Bad manners masking as good manners.

You don’t see this as much nowadays, perhaps indicating that books are less likely to be given as gifts, or because the price often appears on the back with the barcode.  It is annoying because the original price is part of the book’s history (see below), and clipping affects the book’s monetary value.

3. Ex Libris and ‘This Book Belongs to’ labels – how ludicrous to have a personalised label and to stick it in the books that you own. How many perfectly books have I come across and had to spurn because someone before him had stamped their ownership on it forever? …

I tend to agree, unless the owner is famous or the book is from a significant collection.  I did once receive a box of personalised bookplates with a nice Aubrey Beardsley-esque cat design, but frankly they were a pain to get straight.  I was also given an embossing stamp as a present but the results weren’t visible enough.  There is no reason to spurn a book for having a label, even if the labeller was of modest background.  In particular I rather like books which have been given as prizes – the bookplates can be attractive, and they supply some context that would otherwise be lost.  I have a few that I received as prizes for various achievements in the Boys’ Brigade and I will always keep those even when I have obtained a better edition.

2. The donor’s name written on the flyleaf – equally so those books with loving messages from a relative who did not realise that their gift would handed in to the second-hand shop as soon as Christmas was over.

It’s a bit sad to see loving inscriptions dating from last year.  You wonder at the callousness of the recipient when someone has gone to the trouble of buying the book for them.  They could at least hide it at the back of a cupboard and get rid of it when they come across it again, to put a respectable distance between gift and disposal.  I agree such additions are pointless, unless the signature is that of the author, or associated with the subject in some way (I was pleasantly surprised recently to find that a 50p charity shop purchase on the 1943 RAF bombing raids on Germany had been signed by the author and a couple of members of those bombers’ crews).  Those I like, though book signing is a bit of an industry these days; Kazuo Ishiguro autographed so many copies of The Buried Giant that I thought the hardback would probably be worth more without it (‘oh look, here’s one he missed!).

1. The owner’s name written on the flyleaf – ugh, what sort of fool is it who wants to write their name in a book – and then give it away?

I’ve left this until last because here Luke and I part company completely.  I have written my name in books, usually neatly in the corner in a small triangle, since I was a teenager.  Antiquarian volumes are exempt, at least until my signature becomes a means of enhancing rather than diminishing their value.  So why put my name inside?  Probably to begin with it was in case I lent the book, to remind the borrower that it was mine.  Later it was to show that it had a history; I liked to see old signatures, and to speculate on them.  I frequented the Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham when I was at school and in my twenties, and over a period bought a number of books that had come in a job lot.  The previous owner of these was a G C Pearson and I wondered who he or she might have been, and why the address given with the name was c/o Mrs Rudling of 18 Venner Road, Sydenham SE26.  The inclusion of a name to me imparted something more than an anonymous book would have, and I thought I should like to be part of that chain of ownership.

Vanity perhaps, but I was intrigued once when talking to someone who sold books in King’s Lynn when he said that he had been in London and had come across an item with my name in.  You send them off into the world for whatever reason, and you don’t know where they go, but there is still a link.  Some time ago I bought a paperback with a Book Crossing label, which in theory enables a book to be tracked to its various destinations.  When I replaced that copy with a hardback I too logged the details into the Book Crossing website, but heard no more.  I had however also put my name inside as well, so hello The Holmes Affair, wherever you may be.  G C Pearson is doubtless long dead, but in a sense lives on for as long as those books he or she wrote in exist.

One he missed.

I am surprised Luke didn’t mention sticky-back plastic.  It is marginally acceptable on reading copies of paperbacks, and looks better than a dog-eared copy, but it is a dreadful substance generally.  I went through a phase of using the stuff a long time ago, and was recently embarrassed when I donated a rare pamphlet to the Marx Memorial Library that I had covered (and it had to be me because my name was written in the corner underneath it).  I apologised profusely for being so daft.  What I do like are ex-library hardbacks that are covered in removable plastic.  Even if the book is ratty, the dust jacket can still be pristine under its scuffed shroud, and I have been known to swap covers to get the best combination.

To conclude, Luke says: ‘I’m always in pursuit of an elusive ideal – the pre-owned object that by some magical transmutation becomes mine and mine alone.’  It is not merely elusive, it’s an impossible ideal because that book can never be yours alone: it had a previous owner, and unless your stewardship is disastrous, it will have subsequent ones.  What I think he craves is a second-hand book that is indistinguishable from a new one.  That is fine, but a second-hand book has so much more to offer if viewed in the right way, and in reality there is very little to get annoyed about.