The secret life of books
A story unfolds and it’s not on the pages — it’s about the pages, writes Luke Alfred
We’ve all been struck by the fact that books have secret lives. Second-hand bookshops offer confirmation of this. We’ve all been in such a shop — in Melville, say, or in Cape Town’s Long Street — where we pull a book off the shelf only to find someone else’s name in it.
Occasionally there’s another name alongside that; more occasionally still, a personalised card, which was once popular, with the name of the book’s owner and the words "Ex Libris".
Sometimes it is a name we know ("I didn’t know such-and-such was an Annie Proulx fan") but more often than not the name signed or printed on the inside cover is that of a stranger.
Who was this person, with such upright and precise handwriting? Did they do this for all their books, or was this simply part of their book collecting phase? And what of that "J", floating pompously between first name and surname? Is that how he introduced himself to strangers?
Such musings invariably lead one to wonder at books’ secret trajectories, the long orbits in which they wander through the cosmos of readers only to alight quietly somewhere, on a shelf, perhaps, or a bedside table. Perhaps the books simply end up in a stack on a floor and glow quietly, awaiting their next reader.
Sometimes a book’s visitation can be fleeting — relayed through many hands like a bucket of water on its way to a fire — suggestive of a kind of occult power. Such books can be tawdry, popular in the way bad books can be popular (George Orwell called them "good-bad" books, but I prefer to think of them as literary outlaws, jewels of knowledge and story and learning, which one reader is compelled to share with another.)
When I was a student, Milan Kundera’s books had such cachet. There was something about Kundera’s slightly risqué blend of politics and eroticism that made us feel (we were younger then) that he had written The Book of Laughter and Forgetting especially for us.
All readers suffer from such vanities, the shallow idea that such a book was written for them particularly.
This is what makes finding a book with someone else’s name in it so momentarily destabilising. It proves that books circulate. They are promiscuous. They go about their business, which is not only ours but others’ too.
I prefer to think of [bad books that are popular] as literary outlaws, jewels of knowledge and story and learning
Every generation enters into a breathless state of knowing with certain authors and their books: Jack Kerouac in the 1950s, Hermann Hesse in the 1960s, Richard Brautigan — who? — with Trout Fishing in America in the 1970s. Kundera, of course, in the decade after that.
I once asked a bookseller whether any particular titles were shoplifters’ favourites. "You’ll be surprised at the answer," she told me with a grin. "But the book we find gets stolen most often is JM Coetzee’s Disgrace."
I should have asked her why this was but the conversation moved off elsewhere and I was obliged to provide an answer of my own. Shoplifting Disgrace was a form of infantile revenge on the part of undergraduates, I told myself. They were obliged to read the book because it was prescribed but were horrified by the bleakness of Coetzee’s view of the country’s future. They disliked his perceived politics and liked his sexual politics even less. They were voting with their feet, or, rather, their hands. Stealing was a form of clumsy literary criticism.
Another bookseller once told me books by Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko were among the most stolen. The seller’s stratagem in response was to move the category to a higher shelf, where the books were more difficult to reach.
This set the men apart from the boys. Now you needed to be a proper literary-political striver to reach the top. The books continued to be stolen, but less frequently.
Clearly the long arm of political ambition stretches only so far.
A good place from which to observe the secret life of books is in other people’s homes. You might be at a party, or house-sitting, or, as I was recently, at a holiday rent on the coast where there was a collection of impeccably aged, leather-bound books by George Eliot and Charles Dickens.
There were also books once belonging to people who were both friends of the people from whom we were renting and very distant acquaintances of mine, people long vanished into the mists of time. How long ago did such-and-such emigrate, I wondered. Was she married to him? Really?
The memories raised by the secret life of books can all too easily give way to musings, meanderings, little bouts of strop, flurries of pure, unadulterated bitchiness ("Do they really read him?"). Reading is not only a field of dreams but a field of snobbery — or it can be — with subtle shades and literary gradations. Perhaps surprisingly, given that we are a nation that tends not to get too het up about books, such gradations can be exceedingly fine.
As he moved into a retirement village with limited space, I inherited some of my father’s books. One of my most prized is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which contains six line drawings by Robin Jacques. This particular copy was used by Dad as an undergraduate at Wits in 1958. I can be sure about this because he signed and dated it. For all sorts of reasons it’s a book that I cherish.
As he grew older and had a family, my father discovered a kind of shorthand of ownership — he initialled every book he owned on page 33. Recently I discovered a book in my collection owned by his dad, my deceased grandfather, recognised because it had the words Lionel Alfred scrawled in it. Lionel graduated from Sea Point Boys’ High (as it then was) around about 1920 and then spent a period at the London School of Economics.
He played football there and swam the trudgeon (sometimes spelt trudgen), a stroke that gave way to the breaststroke and the Australian crawl. He went on to become a Western Province swimmer and a barnstorming centre-forward in the Cape soccer leagues when it was within the rules of the game to shoulder-charge the goalkeeper over the line to score a goal. I never had him down as a reader of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, but the evidence in my hand suggests he was.
Finally, let’s face it, books gathering dust in a second-hand bookstore don’t always radiate secret charm. They don’t thrill us with intimations of their secret lives. Sometimes they simply look old, boring, and musty.
Books, argues the Anglo-American literary critic James Wood, are always in some sense sacred, and he is surely right in saying so, but books can also be so many workaday words on paper awaiting slow death.
The logical extension of such a view is that second-hand bookstores can be vast barrels of books way past their sell-by date, full of books that people can’t be bothered to keep. Every Lawrence Durrell novel ever written has congregated in them. And every anthology of developmental writings about the economic history of South America.
Like me, have you also not found yourself pondering one of the great literary questions: "Where do all the second-hand copies of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon spring from?
My answer is that there is a factory somewhere deep in Africa designed to keep the book alive. They print hundreds of copies of them, day by day.
I take my hat off to them.
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