Have you ever tried to explain the finer points of book collecting to the uninitiated? Last night I had a new neighbour round for a drink: roaring log fire, bottle of light red wine and two glasses waiting on the table, best shirt on, quick tidying away of miscellaneous junk, put the Cliff Richard CDs at the bottom of the pile (they’re not mine, honestly, but it’s a long story).
“So many books”, she said even before sitting down on the settee. This was not what I wanted to hear, because I had laboriously moved several piles of periodicals which had grown around the table, for her benefit: the ones on the armchairs I left deliberately; who wants such a guest marooned, isolated on an armchair?
“But of course, you’re a bookseller”, she continued, showing a bit of sofa-resistance as I settled her down - people can be so suspicious.
“Oh, these aren’t for sale”, I said. “My stock's in the other rooms.”
“What? Are you going to read all these?”
“Not all of them, no. Won’t you try a glass of this - it’s rather good?”
“I don’t drink. Do you have some orange juice?” What a waste.
“Anyway, enough about me; tell me something about yourself - you’re from Sweden originally?”
“Yes,” she said without interest. I moved towards her from my end of the settee, hoping the orange juice, which came from a forgotten plastic box at the back of the fridge was up to requirements.
“Your hair is quite -”
“Tell me about this book.” This made me tremble, because she had casually pulled from a shelf behind her a volume of Horace Walpole’s letters, Mann’s edition, in the original boards. To handle this without damaging it requires the delicacy of touch of a haemophilic Grand Duke erecting a barbed wire fence, and a sort of polite game of snatch ensued as I attempted to remove the book from her grasp.
“Look at this”, I cried in desperation, pulling down a monstrous copy of Longfellow bound in rock hard morocco, almost braining her with 6 kilograms of verse.
Dropping it on her lap I gently prised the Walpole from her grasp. Breathing heavily from the exertion, I straightened by shirt, while she pushed her hair back from her face, looking at me rather oddly. I was all in favour of a romp on the settee, but this was not what I had in mind. The Walpole, by the way, had suffered a tiny nick at the top of the spine. The Longfellow is for sale, very reasonably priced, should you need it.
Her attention slowly turned to the Longfellow, in all its gilded, glittering splendour, and she gave a satisfying flick to the pages, each as thick as a piece of Medieval parchment.
“Oh, but what are those?” She reached out her hand towards a row of tiny classical texts in perfect little bindings that live on the side table and I noticed there was a ring on that lovely hand, a ring in the wrong place. Politely I released her from her imprisonment under Longfellow: poets get all the luck.
“They’re Lovely;- what are they for?” she asked, running her finger over the miniature raised bands on the red and blue leather spines, that accursed ring glittering in the light from the fire.
“You look at them when you get an unexpected bill in the post and know that life is worth living.”
Other books attracted her attention. I poured myself a glass of the wine, as there was no need to keep my wits about me now, and followed her graceful form as she reached and stooped amongst the shelves, answering her questions. Noblesse Oblige.
“Can I see your other books, the ones you sell?” So we went in the book-room, which is not a place I planned to show her; for me, and probably you it is a place of romance, but the furniture is not suited to seduction and I fear the thought it would put in many women’s minds is of a duster.
“They’re fascinating”, she said after half an hour, her endlessly absorbing eyes met mine and her soft fingers lingered on my arm for a moment. Damn all - but what’s the use?
“But there’s more!” I exclaimed and, leading her down the corridor, like Bluebeard in his castle, I opened another door.
She was suitably impressed. Bluebeard, with his torture chambers and ex-wives behind the doors, has nothing on me. Because here I store the thousands of books I cannot sell; not because they are unreadable, but because they are uncollectible: shelf upon shelf, pile upon pile, copies of the books that litter the internet at under twenty pounds, even under ten pounds. What am I to do with them?
“What are you going to do with them?” She asked, echoing my own thoughts.
I looked into her blue eyes,
“I’m going to have them delivered to your house, as a present to you and your husband.”
“That would be kind, but my house is quite small and my husband died many years ago, in Sweden, it was a most tragic accident.”
I closed the door and, taking her hand, led her back to the warmth of the sofa by the fire.