Sunday, 19 February 2017

Books


Do you remember a young person's book from the 1950s called, 'How Things Work'? Can you imagine a book with a title like that these days? Life used to be so simple.

Our family were not what you would call big readers. Father would read trashy cowboy books and Mother read bodice-rippers. We had no library in our large house and the closest thing to one was a small, glass fronted cabinet with a few hard-backs in it, chosen more for the appearance of the spines than the contents.

There was one heavy book in it called, 'The Home Doctor', and the nearest thing I got to a sex education was when one of my sisters suggested I should take a look at the part which covered reproduction. I did, and was none the wiser for it. I had to find out the hard way.

Another concept difficult to grasp in today's world is that of the travelling Encyclopedia Brittanica salesmen. They came to our house in the rich neighbourhood of Surrey on a regular basis and vainly attempted to pressure my father into believing that should he not sign up to collecting the volumes at a staggering cost of hundreds of pounds (paid in instalments over a period of years), he would be denying me a vital education and condemn me to failure in adult life. Maybe they had a point.

Aside from Oliver Cromwell's attitude toward the English literati, there is another reason why so few books remain from the 17th century. The fashion for shooting guns as a sport amongst the upper classes of the first quarter of the 18th century, coupled with the scarcity of plain paper, meant that the young men of the country houses which were grand enough to have a library would raid the books in them to tear out pages for use as wadding in the guns. You put the powder down the barrel, then some wadding, then the ball or shot, then some more wadding to stop the balls from rolling out of the end. One day's shooting party could get through quite a few books.

Samuel Pepys covertly admitted to ordering a copper-plate book of pornographic pictures which he burned in the fire out of guilt and shame after he had looked at it a few times. This book had to be ordered for printing and cost him a lot of money, but he was wealthy.

The next bit of desecration came in the 1960s, when dealers - and even anitquarian book-sellers - would carefully tear out the illustrative plates from 18th century books to mount and frame as pictures to be put onto walls. You still see them today, some hand-tinted with coloured ink, and they sell for next to nothing.

Years ago when Bath's public library was just over the road, I heard that an original first-edition of John Wood's 'History of Bath' was in the lending section there. Not the reference section where it should have been, but the lending one.

I went into the library and asked for it and to my amazement they went into a back room and returned with it. I signed for it and took it home in disbelief.

It is a wonderful and huge, leather-bound tome with great fold-out illustrations made by John Wood himself, and is of inestimable value. I spent a few days marvelling at it before putting it on the shelf with the rest of my books, then forgot about it for a couple of years.

One day it called to me from the dusty shelf and - saturated in guilt - I took it back to the library, fully expecting a massive fine along with a non-custodial sentence if I was lucky. I had to do the right thing.

"I'm sorry," I said as I placed the book onto the desk, "but I have had this book a very long time."

The librarian was speechless for a few moments, then she almost cried with joy, saying that I was exempt from all fines because they did not expect to ever see it again. I got the feeling that someone may have lost their job over my abuse of the system.

John Wood's original book is now under lock and key somewhere, and if you want to look at it they give you a pair of white gloves and lock you in the room with it. I have since bought a facsimile copy and it cost me about £150.

So my misdeed may have saved that book, and for that I feel strangely (and probably unjustifiably)  proud.


20 comments:

  1. That was a good thing to do, to save that book!
    My parents were members of the Bertelsmann Book-Club - and some of those books I should not read (Thyde Monier e.g., Malarparte). Funny: very young people who can read know exactly were to find what they want (I was also forbidden all the works of Colette - but the parents of my friend had them, and she graciously lend them all to me). But I still remember my sister, whom I told NOT to read "Mike Walthari: Sinuhe der Ägypter" - you are to young for that!" Of course she read it all through - all that boring long novel, haha.

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    1. Tell a kid that they are not allowed to read something - tell ANYONE they are not allowed to read something - and they will not rest until they have read it.

      In the 1960s they banned 'Lady Chatterly's Lover', so a copy was brought into my school and handed it around. We only read the bit where Lady C holds the gamekeeper's balls in her hand to feel the weight, and that was easy to find in amongst the rest of the novel. You just held the book spine-down in the palm of one hand and gave it a little shake up and down - just like Lady C and the balls - whereupon it would fall open to the exact paragraph.

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    2. Also, Harold Robbins ' Never Love A Stranger ' and, a few years later, ' The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B ' ..... they were really well-thumbed in our local library !! XXXX

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    3. I tried to read the BBBB one but couldn't.

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  2. I need to quote from a letter from a friend: "I returned a book about Chinese Poetry. I told the person at the desk it was late. She said, 'How late?" I said, 'Pretty late.' She looked at the date, then went and got the manager. The manager said, 'This book has been due for 17 years.' I said, 'But I read it.' She said, 'In that case the fine is $5.00'"

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    1. $5 to learn Madarin in 17 years. Not bad.

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  3. My mother used to collect me from school and we would call in at a rather shady looking backstreet newsagents only two minutes from the convent. (The boys who ran it would bow to the nuns when they passed by. We always referred to it as "the boys shop". When we went in my mother would be handed a parcel from under the counter. She said they were books "difficult" to get from Smiths. Lady Chatterley and J P Donleavy, Nabakov and Joyce. I doubt that they were really that difficult to get apart from Lady Chatterley but she probably had something going on with the newsagent, she being a bit like that. Sometimes I was asked to stay in the car. My brother and I read them all because they were always laying around in the bedroom on her side of the bed. She didn't mind. She also belonged to a book club and got things like Kon Tiki and Gerald Durrell and du Maurier and we read those too. She enrolled me in a book club and I got loads of Biggles books which along with everything else they sent I mostly hated having got used to Donleavy and Lawrence from an early age. The main books downstairs were the atlas and the dictionary. My father read engineering books and farming books. xxxxxx

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    1. Lolita is a briliant book. Somewhat contraversial these days, but brilliant nevertheless.

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    2. Yes it is. It had beauty. Sad to see the word pedo mentioned in the same breath.

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  4. I agree with you that your misdeed may have saved the book and, as a lover of all things old, I am glad that it is now safe.

    As you may well know, the entire diary of Samuel Pepys can be read online for free. I read the first two months worth. But the man did nothing but eat, drink, go to the office (where he found nothing to do) and generally ignored his wife. So I gave up on it and never got to the good parts.

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  5. We were just talking about encyclopedias in class the other day. I miss them.
    Hello Tom!

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    1. I always hated encyclopedias. Maybe because I thought that it was a ridiculous notion that you could stuff all the world's knowledge into a few books. They were a follow-on to the arrogant Victorian mission to disseminate personal theories in the guise of knowledge.

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    2. Also, for such a huge series of expensive volumes, they dated so quickly. Most had whole sections on the productivity and populations of countries whose borders would be likely to change in a couple of years.

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    3. You are absolutely right about being dated, but I just really enjoyed the huge set in the bookshelf at my parents' house - I guess I just dig books in general!

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  7. Your illustration reminds me of modern day French 'flyers'. Why use just one font, when twenty would do.

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