Long life

Alexander Chancellor: The Kindle is marvellous, but it cannot satisfy an addiction to books

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

My brother John’s great book sale, about which I wrote on this page a couple of weeks ago, finally took place at Stoke Park last weekend, and it went far better than I had anticipated. Admittedly, I had expected little. For a while I had even feared catastrophe. John, who is 86 and in poor health, seemed to think that he alone could sort out and price some 6,000 books in three weeks, even though he liked to stop and read them as he went along. But he has always had an enviable gift for arousing in others an urge to take care of him; so many helpers duly appeared, unprompted, to offer their services for free. It is certain that without them — and in particular without Ruth Moushabeck, an experienced bookseller, who, with her partner Craig, slaved away for a week sorting and pricing and carrying books from place to place — the sale would have been a complete shambles.

As it turned out, it was not. The books were efficiently arranged — the more valuable ones on tables in one of the two Inigo Jones pavilions, where John held court in a large armchair wearing, strangely, a blue woman’s hat; the cheaper ones in an adjacent marquee, where coffee, tea, wine and sandwiches were also on sale — and there were so many friends and relatives chatting up visitors and taking their money that John had little to do except to be charming, which he is very good at. The sale was spread over two days, Saturday and Sunday, which could have been a mistake, since the book dealers arrived early on Saturday in the hope of snapping up bargains, so that at least three quarters of the takings were made by lunchtime on the first day. However, the second day enjoyed glorious weather, which showed the park and the pavilions in the best light and gave a dreamy quality to the whole event.

The visitors on Sunday were fewer than on Saturday and consisted almost exclusively of ordinary book lovers, the dealers having mostly been and gone by then. These people may have spent less money than the dealers, but they hung around, browsing, for long periods of time with smiles of contentment on their faces. Ruth, who was in charge of the sale, felt she could sense among them an almost physical delight in handling the books, a pleasure which, in this age of the Kindle, people are increasingly denied. The Kindle is a marvellous invention, but it offers only text and cannot satisfy an addiction to books any more than a smokeless electronic cigarette can satisfy an addiction to tobacco; and addiction to books remains more common than you might imagine. One visitor who had bought several books on Saturday returned to buy another on Sunday, even though he said he had had trouble placating his wife about his purchases the day before.

Books are, of course, a very mixed blessing. They are so seductive that some people cannot resist buying them, even when they already have more books than they will ever read clogging up their houses. One or two of the friends whom I urged to attend the sale sorrowfully declined because, they said, they were desperate to get rid of the books they already had but did not trust themselves not to buy more.

The main reason for the sale in the first place was my own fear of being overwhelmed by my brother’s books. John is my tenant in a house next door to mine, and until last weekend he had about 6,000 books, most of them stored in cardboard boxes in my garage; and even though my own house contains more books than it can comfortably accommodate, he would occasionally dump piles of books in my front hall in acts of misguided generosity.

Well, we have by no means solved the problem, but, like the badger cull, we have made a start. Ruth estimates that John sold about 2,000 books, a third of the total; and I count this as a great success. Of the remaining few thousand, a large number are almost completely worthless, as so many books are nowadays. I don’t think I can face these going back to my garage; so, Oxfam, prepare yourself. But John, of course, may not agree.

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