Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Lusts of the Flesh #6

After my intemperate book-buying spree(s) in the Borders Closing Down Sale, I not only had to assemble six new bookcases, but also had to sort through all my books and cull them. I'd rather club a baby seal over the head than cull my books.

After four hours, I had one book in the charity shop pile: The National Trust Handbook 2002. After five hours, I'd added another book: a very worthy vegetarian cookbook, all brown rice, beans and carminative qualities. Eventually I added a book about The Chinese Art of Conning Money Out of Gullible Westerners (The Joy of Feng Shui) and one on aromatherapy. Look, it was the '90s: everyone went through a hippy-dippy phase.

And then I had to lie down and mainline ginger and Sal Volatile.

I suppose I ought to make my point. Books are a Lust of the Flesh. The solid weight in the hand, the texture of paper (soft and loved as a worn leather glove or smooth, crisp and new), the font, the cover, the familiar publishing logos. The makers of Kindle and other e-readers would have us believe that books are obsolete, outdated, so very yesterday. Phooey! I bet the Kindle will go the way of the Beta Max video tape - anyone remember Beta Max? Anyone remember video tapes?

We buy pulp fiction along with our Utterly Butterly and Fray Bentos pies, and forget that books were once so very precious they were chained to the shelves of the Bodleian Library and no-one, not even the king, was permitted to borrow one.

King Charles I: I'd like to borrow a copy of La Chanson de Roland, please.
Librarian: Sorry, your Highness, but that will not be possible.
King Charles I: But I am the King!
Librarian: Yes, Sir, but that is a book.

I was taught to love books but also to treat them with respect; not to crack their spines, make dog ears and certainly not to write or draw in them. I remember the horror of being given my mother's original copy of When We Were Very Young and discovering that she'd coloured in the pen and ink illustrations. Wicked, wicked child.

Still, a colleague has written a book about Robert Louis Stevenson's reading habits - having tracked down his original library and studied the comments he'd scrawled in the margins of his books. And the Bodleian librarians not only know that Romeo and Juliet was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, but that the divinity scholars read and re-read the balcony scene more than any other. The evidence is on the Quartos: all grubby finger marks, worn page corners and even an elbow print where one reader rested on the book and swooned.

I cannot bring myself to write in the margins of my books (the memories of beatings and coal cellars linger) and so any future reviewer of the Moptop Archive will think I had a mind as empty as a drunkard's purse.

I shall go to my maker (a small factory in Taiwan) with a head full of characters, plots, poems, plays, obscure literary conceits and the odd drug deal in Baltimore. Take my jewels! Take my furs! Take the Limoges porcelain! But leave me my books.


  1. Great post. Loved your link to the picture of the baby seal you would rather club than cull your books. It increased the dramatic impact of the line so much more! I say Amen to all of your opinions about books.

  2. Thank you again, Fran. No. 6 on your Thing's I've Never Said list set me off on this.

    I s'pose I could use the Concise Oxford to club the baby seal ...

  3. I risk turning into one of those 'Awesome post!' nimbos who are otherwise struck dumb with the sheer wonderfulness of what you write.

    I went to read about 'carminative' and swooned over there too. Here, at least, is an obscure word that I might actually be able to insert in conversation sometime, most likely with my youngest son.

    Your love of books is shared, although I confess to treating mine more cavalierly. Sixty-seven of them came home with me from a used book sale a few weeks ago and I only hope I can stay awake long enough to get through them all.

  4. Once I remarked on the scatalogical nature of Small Boy's conversational topics. Goodness, how I came to regret ever introducing that word into his vocabulary.

    Sixty-seven books. I am delirious with envy.

  5. I googled 'A Stupendous Undertaking' - the first result concerned the spiffing new 'Parcels Post' scheme of 1883 and the second the quest of the Right Honourable James Carroll in 1900 to find a father for every illegitimate child (in the world, or just Hong Kong, I'm not sure). Stupendous, indeed.

    But neither of those helped me to discover anything about the 'drunkard's purse' text, Moptop.

  6. Erm, I may have extemporised somewhat ...

    "You may clothe the drunkard, fill his purse with gold, establish him in a well-furnished
    home, and in three, or six, or twelve months he will once more be on the Embankment, haunted by delirium tremens, dirty, squalid, and ragged."

    But I admire your diligence, Deborah!

  7. Moptop, you're so kind to call it 'diligence'. I did click on that link (my sore neck having robbed me of the will to do anything more useful)and found the drunken passage but as the doc was untitled and un-anythinged, my curiosity as to its authorship and provenance was left UN-satisfied.

    I do usually have a life. Just not today.

  8. It's something to do with The Salvation Army - William Booth, I imagine. It might be a Top Secret Plan to make everyone take up the tuba and join a marching band.

    So keep that under your cap, too.


  9. That's exciting! That means it IS about the Totally Honourable James, whose quest for Dads for All was his way of helping out the Sally Ann.
    We're on to something, MT! I smell a subplot for the novel I'm (not at the moment) writing.

  10. Let's aim high and go for a Top Grossing Screenplay.

    I'm thinking Tom Cruise as General William Booth (Heavens to Betsy, that man will grab any chance to wear a uniform). He'll need to wear a beard but it will hide his little pointy teeth, so that's okay.

    Catherine Booth will be played by Julia Roberts. It's a no-brainer.

    Then how about Leonardo as William's son, Bramwell? I know, I know. Leonardo looks like a potato, but he'll be wearing a hat and sideburns for most of his time on screen, so we can get round that.

    Then we'll need various drunkards, wretches and ne'er-do-wells to loiter in the slums of London and be saved by the Trumpet of Salvation (I've got a bugle which will do for rehearsals), but I thought we could sign up our subscribers for these non-speaking parts.

    What do you think?

  11. Brilliant! And Roman to direct, whenever he can free himself up.

  12. (I will never again be able to look at Leonardo 'Spud' diCaprio without thinking of you.)