This is an essay by C. Witter.
In this digital age of e-books and mail-delivery online book stores, many commentators seem to suggest the printed book is an anachronism. But, one thing these prophets of techno-literacy elide is the joy of browsing the shelves of a good bookshop. And for me, though I generally detest shopping, few things are as relaxing and curious as the second-hand bookshop.
One of the most wonderful things about second-hand bookshops is the element of chance – of serendipity. Click up your internet browser and, within seconds, you can locate almost any book you can name – to read online, to buy online, to search and bookmark, with reviews and commentary. But, in the bookshop you don’t know what you will find – and that’s the joy.
I frequent bookshops for many reasons: for a good novel, or some poetry, to track down academic research materials, to buy gifts for friends, sometimes just to relax amidst that curious dry odour that seeps from so much old paper squeezed together on shelves. I often walk around in a near-trance, scanning book spines, and occasionally leaning around people to see what volumes they’re considering. In this state, it is something a surprise to find my hand going out for something: a green Virago Press paperback; a slim volume from Faber; an old hardback with a tattered dustcover. And more of a surprise to realise this is just what I was looking for – looking for without knowing – as though the book were waiting for me to come along and find it.
Many of the books I buy are for academic work. I’ve sat through long Research Methods tutorials in my time, dedicated to giving one the tools necessary to track down research materials. But, often it is the chance encounter that seems most transformative. A biography by James Forman, a Civil Rights leader in the 1960s, found in an Adams Morgan bookshop in Washington, DC, became more important to me than all of the books I was able to read whilst undertaking a research fellowship at the Library of Congress. Apparently Forman lived in the neighborhood briefly; that coincidence – the fact that he, too, might have bought books from the same place, made the book even more resonant for me.
This leads me to another thing I love about second-hand books: that they’ve been owned, read, loved – and often marked: inscribed with the previous owner’s name, or a dedication, or scribblings in the margins. Sometimes these books have been given as gifts.
In one book I own there is a note on the first page:
Here is a book from my own collection. A reminder.
With love, as always,
How many questions this simple message provokes! Who was this couple? What did it mean for Simon to part with one of his books? A reminder of what? And how did this gift, this token of love, end up on a mildewed shelf in a ramshackle shop in Morecambe, Lancashire, scored over in pencil: £3.50?
To read is always to encounter other people – their lives and experiences – in profound ways. But, to chance upon a book in a certain place, at a certain time – a book carrying the invisible thread of other readers’ lives – is to begin to step into another dimension.
C. Witter grew up on brown bread in the flatlands of the Fens. He now lives, reads and writes in the cold, windswept North-West of England. He has just finished doctoral research on US literature in the 1960s. He writes fiction, poetry and polemic, as well as academic research.