Good Reading : June 2005
goodreading 21 the reading life the comedies of Aristophanes, essays of Lucretius, Bacon and Montaigne, Don Quixote, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, anything by Voltaire, Hume and TH Huxley, and much more – a sizzling, centuries-long examination of what it means to be human. If I played my cards right on this trip, thousands of hours of luscious and provocative reading lay scattered through the years ahead. I could find the whole kaboodle back home in paperback, of course, by poking computer keys while sipping a latté and stroking a tabby cat. But I’d come to London to swim in the tide of old books that has lapped the pavements of Bloomsbury and Charing Cross for centuries – printed with care, bound in hardcover, and gently worn by their pas- sage from hand to hand across genera- tions. So no paperbacks, but neither the museum pieces of gilt and tooled leather, pages uncut, valued by past owners only for the pretty wallpaper of their spines. I want ragged pages, jotted exclamations – evidence of fellow readers long past. My first find was a solitary volume of Hume’s History of England (1796), had for a relative song at a book market under the brooding arches of Waterloo Bridge. Still bleary with jet lag, I’d found it in five minutes, then set it down and picked it up again several times. It wasn’t on the list, you see … though Hume certainly was ... only one volume out of eight, though … but 1796, my word … No. I walked away without it, decisively, the very picture of self-control – only to return at a run three minutes later, pant- ing with fear lest someone had snatched it up. I had my first catch. And oh, the fishing was fine. Each morning I’d leave the flat with my Underground pass and a list of shops, returning in the afternoon with Ovid’s Art of Love or Lucretius On Life and Death, or a signed copy of the breathtaking Spoon River Anthology. Many were on the list; others had simply leapt into the boat. By the end of the second week I could enter a store and know at a glance if it was my kind of shop.Yards of immaculate leather soldiers standing at attention in gilded piping, sorted care- fully by author and subject? Not for me. I began to crave wild disorganisation, the wilder the better.There’s no mystery to be had in the petrified ranks of the well- ordered antiquarian shop, no heartstop- ping surprises, no obscene bargains. I want teetering piles, shelves three volumes deep, books stuck up and for- gotten in the two inches between the dusty casetops and the ceiling. It was in Walden of Camden, just such a fabulous shipwreck of a shop, that I found an 1812 edition of Bacon’s Essays, stuck between a cookbook and a history of hats. And Books Fatal To Their Authors was not likely to surface among the groomed shelves of Jarndyce in Bloomsbury.That one came to light in Keith Fawkes, a tiny shop in Hampstead so densely packed with piles of unsorted flotsam that an ill-timed turn in the middle of an aisle in an overlarge sweater might well spell the end for everyone within the avalanche radius. The search is the thing, really. Fresh from the discovery that 84 Charing Cross Road – perhaps the most celebrated bookshop address in the world, thanks to the eponymous book and film – was now a Pizza Hut, I stumbled across Leicester Square to Henry Pordes and nabbed a gorgeous three-volume first edition set of Huxley essays.The fabled Mr Pordes him- self ambled up behind me and, spotting my list, asked if he could help me to find anything further. I declined politely, the search being the thing. ‘I only ask,’ he continued, ‘because our complete stock is listed on the web- site, if you’d like to check there.’ I blinked, swallowed, then stammered something unintelligible, completely thrown. I felt at once foolish and a trifle miffed.Was I really being too quixotic about this whole thing? Of course it’s all on the website, but the suggestion that I go there made me a titch nauseous. Imagine hailing Odysseus’ ship from a passing Jet- Ski to let him know there’s a lovely ferry to Ithaca he can catch just around the cor- ner, full dinner service, every hour on the hour. It’d save a lot of hassle, sure, but am I so obtuse in thinking there’s some intrinsic worth to the odyssey itself? At which question we are reunited with a certain middle-aged professor nosing about in the back room at Fisher & Sperr. Unlike the front, whispering softly of Dickens and Pope, the back was singing of the owner’s more eccentric tastes.What might the upper levels be singing, I wondered – at which point I overheard the proprietor dashing another customer’s hopes (‘Sorry?’) for access to those upper realms. I re-emerged at last with Old Kensington, a novel by ‘Miss Thackeray’, which I presented to the warden. He placed it ceremoniously on the blot- ter, opened the cover with great care, then lifted the huge magnifier and held it above the pencilled price, raising and lowering it by millimetres like a boy burning ants. ‘Eight pounds fifty, looks like,’ he said at last, then paused suddenly in mid-breath. ‘The upper floors are open now. Interested?’ Ah, so that was the trick. A dem- onstration of my seriousness had been required before he’d admit me to the Holy of Holies. Miss Thackeray had gotten me past the bouncer, God bless ’er, and I found myself ascending a spiral wooden staircase lined with random dust-covered marvels. And holy it was, four rooms of gasping secondhand ecstasy beyond anything I’d seen in London.An entire wall of signed first editions.A 1677 edition of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas in 20 massive vellum folios.A full leather first edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A stunning illustrated Metamorphoses. And, most astonishing of all, the complete works of Aristotle in a tooled vellum edition from 1597, endpapers covered in handwritten notes in Latin. I descended the stairs at the end of another hour and placed the half dozen lovelies I could afford on the counter before my benefactor. He looked up at me, reached for his magnifying glass and asked a silly question, one that I knew signalled the end of our pas de deux. ‘Have fun?’ he asked, eyes twinkling, as he drew the books towards him. I’d come to London to swim in the tide of old books that has lapped the pavements of Bloomsbury and Charing Cross for centuries – printed with care, bound in hardcover, and gently worn by their passage from hand to hand across generations.