Monday 10 October 2011
In Praise of Dirty Books – Michelle Lovric
Am I the only person who finds the trade in pristine first editions somewhat distasteful? Who thinks it a little degrading? That it manifests a necrophilic love of books rather than a living joy in reading?
For years, the cry has been ‘Forsooth, let us desist from treating women as objects! It’s not all about looks or age!’ I also have issues with valuing books according to meretricious criteria. The outward condition, the publication date, the edition number and print run are NOT the most interesting things about a book. Unless, of course, it is an extremely boring book. Surely, in all other cases, it’s what’s between the pages that should interest us, not the state of those pages or the untouched appearance of the cover.
No book should be untouched! What could be sadder than an aged but pristine children’s book? One of my main objections to any electronic reader is that I cannot make my mark on the pages!
I have sterner objections still to the concept that a book without a mark on it – and therefore likely unread – is more valuable than a volume with the patina of pleasure on it. That patina should consist of fingerprints, chocolate smudges and dried orange juice rivulets. A wine stain is always pleasant to behold. Blood is intriguing. Even a squashed mosquito with its meteor trail of rusty red is quite gratifying. The highest honour that can be awarded to a summer holiday read is to be brought home from the beach, even if blistered with sea-spray and anointed with suntan lotion.
The best kinds of ‘dirt’ that can befall a book, in my opinion, are interventions from other readers. One of the great joys of borrowing from the London Library is finding the emphatic annotations of previous readers – sometimes scholars from a century past. I love finding a thick wiggly line beside a paragraph and a large ‘NO!’ beside it. (Imagine the mutton chops quivering with indignation.) And I’ve been helped by a time-travelling comment from an antique reader: ‘Interesting. But see also …’
And what writer could fail to find more joy in the expression (and the manifestation) of ‘slightly foxed’ (dappled with brown age spots) than in ‘pristine’? To me, ‘pristine’ has redolences of the freshly mopped hospital corridor or the embalmer’s sponge. And so to me, the trade in first editions reduces books to carcasses.
When I look at my own face, I do not find it ‘in pristine condition’ and nor do I wish to do so. I’m quite fond of that Harry Potter-type scar above my left eye; my head wound was sewed up by a doctor-friend while my husband held my hand – in the end, that’s the memory that remains. There’s the little pit in my cheek in the place where a dodgy mole flowered and darkened and was then safely removed without pain. I’m also quite happy with my laughter lines – even though you might say my crow’s feet have the imprint of a larger and heavier bird – a pterodactyl, perhaps. Then there are the freckles and blemishes: dealer in the carcasses of writers would definitely have to advertise this one as ‘slightly foxed’.
If I were botoxed, dermo-peeled and surgically perfected, would I be more interesting?
Or, to put it another way, would I value the opinion of someone who thought me so?
So why this obsession with denatured books? Books that have for decades preserved their reading virginity like aged nuns? Are such books expecting their wedding night in heaven? Who is their intended bridegroom? Someone who will never open or read them but cloister them in a silent glassed bookshelf among other unread trophies?
I wrote an anthropodermic bibliophegist into my novel The Book of Human Skin. But even the sociopathic Minguillo Fasan enjoys handling his treasures. Sometimes he even reads them. At least he loves them for their intimate and pungent juxtaposition of subject and binding: he does actually care about what’s inside. His collection is personal to his interests, vile as they are. About the value, Minguillo cares nothing at all. I could write someone who loved books bound in human skin, but I could not quite bring myself to write a character who was interested purely in the value as objects.
Perhaps someone in the rare books trade can explain the first edition trade to me? Or a printer who sees it as the curating and exalting of the highest forms of printed art? Or a collector, even, who can love their books in ways not yet understood by me?
I may or may not be open to reasoned argument, but I am quite curious.
Michelle Lovric’s website
For info on the Slightly Foxed Quarterly and London Bookshop, see www.foxedbooks.com