Photo: Kate Andrews (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
It’s a warm day in London. The sun is bright and I leave the office thinking about a lunch in the private garden and whether I should sit in the shade or maybe the sun. It’s only these simple choices which bother me today, not the big ones; today the big ones don’t matter. Because I feel good, I walk past the usual hovel where I buy my lunch and keep going down Marylebone High Street to a shop that sells quiche and salad for far too high a price but who get away with it because they say all the ingredients are natural – rather than those other synthetic quiches and salads you get which are made of plastics and polyester. Unfortunately (but not really because I had planned it all along) this means I have to walk past the Oxfam Bookshop, which is the best Oxfam I’ve found so far for second-hand books. I go in and browse, intending to buy nothing.
Then there it is: an unread copy of Cake and Ale by Somerset Maugham, one of the old 60s orange Penguin series. I snatch it like it was some old lady’s purse and run my finger over the binding (perfect) and check the corners (straight and razor sharp) and I hold it to my chest, cradling it, knowing it only costs £2.50 and that it’s all mine. I approach the counter, sure that the large lady behind it will tell me it’s reserved or to be burnt or something, and I’m checking the exits and wondering whether Oxfam spend any of their donations on CCTV. The large lady – wooden earrings, terrible floral dress – smiles and holds her hand out for the book and I peel it from my chest to give to her, the other already digging for my wallet. She opens the book to check the price and there inside is a Gift Aid sticker and barcode. I don’t resent this. Then, in what feels like slow motion, she picks up the scanner and proceeds to bend the front cover down the middle.
And I scream. I scream out in Oxfam.
Okay, so this is a dramatised version of events, but I really did shout out in the shop. If you have ever borrowed a book from me you will know the strict rules surrounding this transaction. Sometimes people who see my bookshelf assume I haven’t actually read any of them. This is a family curse which has been bequeathed to me, a genetic plight passed down the generations.
When I was young, 11 or 12, I loved horror films (I still do) but I didn’t read much. My father on the other hand could build a life-size replica of Terminal 5 with all his books. It’s amazing that our ceiling joists are able to take the load from all the books he has stashed up in the loft. So, perhaps wanting to get his son to read more, and knowing that I had a penchant for the macabre, he brought down his copy of Stephen King’s The Shining. He handed it to me and explained the rules. “You can borrow this but don’t bend it back and ruin the binding, don’t bend down the corners to mark your place, don’t crease the cover… just look after it.”
I dealt with this by not reading it.
A few years later I just bought my own copy, but by then the gene had kicked in and my books were all perfect.
Everything was fine until I went to university. I didn’t lend my books to my friends at school, other than to our illustrious Structo leader, and he was well aware of my dementia by this point. But at university, we are thrust into this instant friendship with people we don’t know, we want to get on with everyone, we push our own boundaries. So, the girl four doors down, still a friend today despite what was to come, mentions a couple of months into our first year that she’s finished all the books she’s brought with her. In my gallantry I offer to let her borrow one of mine. She checks my shelf and after some deliberation chooses Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Then I explain the rules to her. She listens intently, at first with a smirk – does she think I’m joking? – and then with serious worry. Perhaps I see her hands shake, a lip tremble, but she takes the book with her and despite my cold sweat, I get over it. I almost forget. One week later she arrives at my door with a sheepish, apologetic look. Before she says anything else, she apologises and hands me Rebecca. It bears the unmistakable signs of water damage as well as a breached binding. She offers to buy me a new copy. I just shake my head and close the door.
Let me try and explain the madness. Firstly, if it is a new book it is likely to cost just shy of £10. Not a terribly large amount, but not so little that you wouldn’t be pissed off if you dropped it on the street somewhere and lost it. So why ruin something which cost this amount? If you bought a table – even a terrible £10 table from some unpronounceable Scandinavian emporium – would you immediately, upon bringing it home, take a knife to it? Scratch and dent its surface simply in using it? Or would you use place mats and plates and coasters? A table costing a tenner might always only be worth a tenner – or less – but books can be collector’s items. That little known author you read who none of your friends have heard of might get run down by a car tomorrow and consequently be discovered, maybe revered, and suddenly that copy from the small print run you had to order over the counter is worth a bundle. But oh wait, it looks like you’ve been using it as a prop for your wonky ironing board, the one with the broken leg. How about simply this: an author may have poured their heart and soul into this work, shed tears over its pages, ruined their marriage, alienated their children – and there you go and throw Horlicks all over it.
Our glorious Structo leader [I honestly didn’t put him up to this — ed.] luckily has the same compulsion as me. He now only gives away his books rather than lending them to save him sleepless nights. Then one day he turns up on my doorstep and, after I salute to our leader-for-life, I see he has in his hand a rather battered – for him anyway – copy of Christopher Hitchen’s autobiography Hitch-22. I assume it to be a desperate second-hand purchase, but he informs me that, no, the book was just so good, so amazing, that he stopped caring. All that mattered was devouring the words not already consumed, and the standards which were left in the wake of his greed were acceptable collateral damage. Obviously, we are less kindred-spirited than I had once thought. I would have removed him from my Christmas card list if we weren’t professionally associated.
Okay, so I might be obsessive compulsive, but out of all the things to be OCD about this isn’t an awful one. I look after my books… except the one I once used as a hammer [see the issue six column entitled ‘Why I stopped reading Anna Karenina’ — ed]. I like to look after them, I like to stand them up straight on the shelf and I like to line up all the bindings in a straight flat line. So shoot me.
I managed to save the Maugham in Oxfam. After I cried out, I actually grabbed the book from the large lady with the wooden earrings and terrible floral dress. “Please don’t bend the cover,” I said. She apologised and did her job with care. It’s now sat on my bookshelf. It’s very pretty amongst the other orange Penguins. Now all I have to do is read it.
Keir Pratt (@keirpratt) is contributing editor at Structo magazine. This web-exclusive essay is part of his ongoing column The Incidental