Book Review: (Yet) Another (Naughty) Book-buying spree

First posted in January, 2005

Today in Shropshire it was Take Your Son's Girlfriend to Work day. I accompanied Miranda to Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, and while she sat in a horrible meeting, I ran an errand at the train station. That having been done, I found my way to the antique market and then spent the rest of the day, um, seeking out neat old used books as Miranda drove me from town to town for work and meetings (I also perused the antiques market in Church Stretton and several miscellaneous shops in Ludlow). I already have far too many books to carry back, and mailing them is going to cost dearly, but I figure that at this point I've gotten so many why stop now, and I have been somewhat restrained in that I've only purchased books that I felt I might not be able to get my hands on again once stateside, and, well, long story short, I bought some more books.

I was marginally naughty in purchasing three recent publications: Dictionary of Egyptology, Dictionary of Literature, and Dictionary of Geography, all published in the mid to late (nineteen-) nineties by Geddes & Grosset. They are tiny paperbacks, well written, and are thematic such that they're a pleasure to peruse in a way that standard dictionaries are not. Individually, they will fit in my rather tiny purse, and thus be at the ready should I be struck with a sudden case of ennui. These are published in the UK, and only list a price on the cover in pounds, so I was worried I might not locate them elsewhere. They're light enough that I really don't mind their modernity or commonality.

But then I also unearthed five old volumes.

The first was really not terribly old - a post 1930 volume of The Ghost by Arnold Bennett. Initially, I was enamored with this riveting foreword provided by the editor (all emphasis is his own):

This is an excellent and well-told story. And by that I mean that it is not merely a psychological study; an analysis of character without any definite beginning and end - a dissertation that one feels might continue for ever and only cease when the author is tired or when he knows he has written the requisite number of words that go to fill a 7/6 or 8/6 volume of fiction.

It is a story that is complete. It has a definite beginning and end; and it gives the reader the impression that its particular happenings are remarkable, and consequently worth telling.

Wow. So it has a beginning and an end? It's finished? You can see why I investigated further. After a quick perusal it appeared to be just a straight fiction story, a mystery of sorts, and seemed readable enough, and it's tiny (also fits in the purse) and, well, it was a mere 20p. I had never heard of the author, so out of curiosity I picked up my Dictionary of Literature and looked him up, not expecting him to be in there. But he was! With another riveting review:

Bennett, Arnold (1867-1931) English novelist and dramatist. His most famous novels, e.g. The Old Wive's Tale (1908) and Clayhanger (1910), are naturalistic narratives of everyday people in the setting of the industrial society of mid-England; the setting being wholly suitable in the eyes of Virginia WOOLF, who dismissed Bennett's work as middle class, middlebrow, and of middling morality.

Wow. Another great review. But the entry does go on to say that his novels are "very readable, and display a remarkable gift for characterization and sharp observation of the dilemmas of human life."

And failing that, it's 20p. When I'm done, surely I can hock it for 50p somewhere.

I also picked up a lovely, thick, and extraordinarily heavy tome: A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, translated from the German of Dr. Oskar Seyffert, third edition, published 1894. It's the most expensive book so far this trip, ringing in at an astoundingly expensive £7.50. That's about $15, and well worth every penny. I thought that when I brought this home, as heavy as it is (714 pages, 8½ x 11), that Sam would wiggle his index finger at me and say, "BAD," but he instead drooled over this volume and reaffirmed his love for me. He approves of my bad habits, and is somewhat of an enabler. Hooray.

Two of the volumes I found today are quirky and fun, reminiscent of The Sexual Responsibility of Woman and Everybody's Book of Facts which were purchased earlier this trip in Hay-on-Wye. These are both natural history volumes, though, and really deserve their own posts. I shall hopefully bring those to you later this week: Fabre's Book of Insects and How to Make a Home Nature Museum. These have kept us laughing all evening.

The final volume for today is The Casquet of Literature: Being a Selection in Poetry and Prose from the Works of the Most Admired Authors, in Six Volumes, this being Volume I, 1888. It's really just a very handy anthology featuring dozens and dozens of authors, many of which would be familiar to many of you (Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Keats, Geoffrey Chaucer, etc.). They actually had three of the six volumes, all quite reasonably priced a £3.50, but the other two volumes did not have nearly so nice a cover as this one, and had a bit of mildew damage. I'll possibly regret not getting half the set in one fell swoop, but I figure that (a) this book anthology stands well enough alone without the others and (b) I now have a second old book series to collect (I also am quite fond of Andrew Lang's Fairy Books). I mentioned that this one had a nice cover; indeed, this book gives new meaning to the phrase you can't judge a book by it's cover, which implies that something with a pleasant appearance is actually quite lacking of substance. That's hardly the case here, as the book's full of good things, but it is a somewhat misleading cover, depending on your interpretation.

First, a view of the overall front cover.
Lovely, isn't it?
Then a detail of the image at the center of the cover.

He's either reading a book, the pages of which were not yet trimmed (unfortunately, that's no doubt the correct interpretation), or he's reading a dramatic tale about a serial killer, and at the appropriately tense moment he intends to frighten both those boring women clean out of their rockers. No matter. Whatever your interpretation, it's a misleading cover: the book's pages have already been trimmed (unlike another book I bought this trip; I'm trying to decide whether or not to cut the pages on it, though I doubt I'll need a knife quite so large as the one illustrated here), and I have yet to find a story about serial killers in the table of contents. So either way, no judging the book by the cover. The cover did induce me to pick it up, however, and I'm delighted to have brought it home with me, despite the fact that this came from an outdoor market, has a bit of moisture, and is subsequently heavy. Can't wait to see what I get charged for posting all these books.

As Miranda put it at the end of the day, if you're going to have a vice, collecting old books isn't really such a bad one to have.