Monday, October 29, 2007

The Books Crux - Who Will Love My Babies?

Spéirbhean a bhí ann. Spéirbhean a gcuirfeadh fonn ar Easpag cic a thabairt dá fhuinneog gloine dhaiteHaunting the bookstores is one of the things that An Spailpín Fánach particularly enjoys doing. Even when I don’t buy any, I like looking at the books on the shelves and tables, seeing them there, and enjoying that peculiar atmosphere that exists only in bookstores. That atmosphere is heightened in second-hand bookstores, as I remarked in this space earlier, when mourning the passing of Greene’s of Clare St, and the second-hand stores always carry the additional promise of buried treasure, the book that everybody has forgotten but you.

I discovered just such a cache on Saturday, on a visit to the Secret Book and Record Store on Dublin’s Wicklow Street, a few doors down from Tower Records. You go down a long corridor to get to the Secret Store itself, and then you burst into the light, into a large retail space. In the middle are the display tables, with the special offers, while the books are categorised in a more orderly fashion on the shelves on the wall. And last Saturday, on the table nearest the door, I saw them.

Three piles, with maybe twenty or so books per pile, of books by such pulp greats as Edgar Wallace and Peter Cheney. What made them so wonderful – Wallace hasn’t aged well and I had never heard of Peter Cheney – was that they were all Pan books from the forties and fifties, with those marvellous Pan covers, with the cartoon drawings of terrified dames, tough guys with gatts and square-jawed heroes with cigarettes hanging from their lips, felt hats pulled down hard over one eye and bottles of mule-kicker rye whiskey just sticking up out of the suit jacket pocket.

And then I realised that there was only one way for all these books to have come on the market so suddenly – someone has swapped the easy-chair and the reading lamp for wings and the sheet music of the Choir Invisible. They’ve crossed over the bar and their books have been left behind, with no-one to care for them anymore. The books are in beautiful condition too, especially considering they’re so old. The shop owner even remarked on it, saying that most books of that genre get creased and hammered and kicked around, whereas these were loved and cherished. Anne Fadiman wrote in her wonderful Ex Libris that the one area where men show genuine tenderness is over their books – whoever collected these Edgar Wallaces loved them the way courtly swains love their maidens fair.

And now the lover is gone, and the maidens must make their own way in the world. I hope it’ll go easy on them, not least as I had a presentiment of my own deeply treasured collection ending up in a similar circumstance on a similar table. My friend An Tomaltach and I were taking porter in McDaid’s of Harry Street only a few days earlier, and our conversation turned to the issue of books, and how hard it is to keep them.

Although I have yet to ask him, I would hazard a fair guess that An Tomaltach would agree with me that the library of Lord Peter Wimsey, the gentleman sleuth, is pretty much the ideal for the conscientious bibliophile. Dorothy L Sayers tells us of the library that “its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embrace of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby-grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèrves vases on the chimney piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums.” Nice. Miserably, it’s hard to bang a library like that into a two-up two-down in a former corpo estate in the capital of the Irish nation, and it can only exist as an ideal, rather than an attainable goal. An Spailpín Fánach is up to his rapidly receding hairline in books, and he’s trying to summon the god of geometricians to figure a way to get the lot shelved without flooding me out of house and home.

Eventually, of course, it will come to either selling or donating some of the books, or buying a bigger gaff. The bigger gaff is the option of choice, but one which may be looked at askance by our friends in the banks, subjecting us to a smorgasbord of easy credit this time last year, tightening the belt as the hangman tightens the noose this year. But I hope and pray that the weather changes before I have to serve eviction orders on any of my books, and they end up in a pile similar to that one in the Secret Book and Record Store. This is difficult to understand for my friends who have no hoarding instinct or who, bizarrely, actually give their books away after reading them. A number of years ago I caught a friend with One Hundred Years of Solitude in a box destined for a charity shop; An Spailpín Fánach is now the proud owner of two copies of same magisterial novel.

But this Mother Goose complex is an instinct which I will have control, until such time as your faithful narrator buys his tropical island paradise and builds his bookshelves from palm trees. As such, your faithful narrator has been taking it easy in his book shopping this weekend. Only the Dorothy L Sayers’ from which I got that marvellous library description. And Ingrid Black’s first book. And two highly regarded movie books that, bizarrely, were on sale in Chapters, and therefore irresistible. And a jackpot collection of the old Irish Press columns of Seán Ó Ruadháin, my fellow Mayoman – a terrible crank in many ways but my God, beautiful Irish. But that’s it, definitely, until Christmas at the very earliest.

Except for when Duggan’s book finally comes out, of course...

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