For almost as long as there have been books, there have been books about books — writers just love to go meta. As well as all that midrash, those Biblical commentaries, the SparkNotes, the interpretations, retellings and the endless online fan fic, there are also of course plenty of guides, manuals and handbooks designed to instruct the gentleman or gentlewoman in the gentle arts of book buying, book collecting and other vaguely book-related activities. (Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf — a book about bookshelves — being one of the all-time metabook greats.)
I happen to have, by chance, a small library of books about books, including a collection of guides to book collecting. They tend to advise the collector to choose a particular subject — a period, movement, theme, an author — early on in a collecting career, something I have singularly failed to do. They also advise collectors to attend book auctions, to inspect booksellers’ catalogues and only to buy the best — I don’t do that either. Like most normal people, my main source and supply of books (including books about books) has always been among the dross and dreck to be found in secondhand bookshops in unfashionable provincial towns — which is probably what makes the novelist Nicholas Royle’s White Spines seem both so thrillingly familiar and so utterly refreshing.
It’s not a book about the world of grand auction houses and expensive signed editions. It’s an account of how, at some point — around the mid-1990s — Royle decided to start collecting ‘every single B-format Picador paperback published between 1972 and 2000, when the publisher abandoned its commitment to the white spine with black lettering in a more or less uniform style’. He currently has 959 Picadors in his ‘main collection’, including reissues and rejacketed titles, most of them picked up for a couple of quid in unprepossessing bookshops up and down the country.
It’s not exactly a history of Picador, though we certainly learn a lot about the imprint, launched by Pan Books in 1972 by Sonny Mehta. Nor is it exactly a memoir, though there are plenty of details about Royle’s time as a student and his work for Time Out, his teaching and his running of his own small press, Nightjar. There’s mention of a divorce, a new relationship and children — all subtly tipped in, or interleaved, in chapters about various Picador-related matters, including descriptions of book covers.
What keeps this assortment of reflections and reminiscences hanging together is Royle’s delightful accounts of his trips to charity and secondhand bookshops across the UK: Goldmark Books in Uppingham; George Kelsall Booksellers in Littleborough; Southend; Coventry; Wigtown in Scotland. Over the years, Royle has been everywhere. White Spines is a sort of Bill Bryson for book lovers, wry, cosy and full of amusing asides and lovely cameos.
But the question remains, why? Well, Royle is clearly temperamentally a collector, on a limited budget, which makes £3 charity shop paperbacks the perfect buy. And he collects poetry magazines — also things no one else really wants — and bread labels: ‘You know those little plastic adhesive ties you get around the end of the plastic bag your supermarket loaf comes in? With the best before date on?’ (He sticks them inside his cupboards.) He’s just that sort of bloke. But there’s something else:
If I could just acquire a few more Picadors … I’d have a bookcase, a white bookcase no less, full of white-spined Picadors. It would be a thing of beauty. It would be a small masterpiece, and it would be easier to achieve than the masterpieces I was trying to create at my desk in the attic.
Collecting books as a distraction — a displacement, an alternative — from actually writing books. Sounds familiar.
‘I wonder if I might not be the Ronnie Corbett of Contemporary Letters,’ Royle asks himself. (He’s pictured on the dust-jacket wearing large Corbettesque glasses.) ‘And if that’s the case, who is my Ronnie Barker?’ Anyone of a certain age with mild literary proclivities will fondly remember many of the Picador titles he discusses — Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. Which makes us all Barkers to his Corbett.
The great, renowned rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski is another sort of character entirely. He’s like something out of a Raymond Chandler. In Guarded by Dragons he relates the story of one particularly fraught book-related negotiation: ‘The call ended there. I put the phone down, and lit a cigar. “Son of a bitch!” I said in a very loud voice, as I put my feet up on my desk, and said it again.’ He is not a man to be messed with: ‘They might suppose me clever, self-satisfied and disputatious, rich and aggressive, as the clichés demand, but to these putative qualities I would add “relentless”.’
Guarded by Dragons is indeed relentless — and clever and self-satisfied and disputatious — which makes it an absorbing read, like listening to your favourite uncle regale you with tales of life and work back in the day when men were men and book dealers were cigar-chomping buccaneers, ready to go to battle at the slightest hint of a rare first edition. The book’s title relates to Gekoski’s sense of having spent a lifetime on a great adventure: ‘There’s something enticing and valuable out there, the intrepid hunter-dealer seeks it out, but it is guarded by a jealous owner-dragon, and other hunters are circling.’
Gekoski’s tales from 50 years on the front line of rare-book dealing — his encounters with writers, institutions and fellow dealers — make the whole business sound like such fun that one is tempted to take it up oneself, not least because the barrier to entry seems so low ‘There are only two things a rare-book dealer must know: at what price is a book buyable and at what higher price one might sell it.’ Alas, it’s not quite as simple as that. In order to succeed you’ve got to be a bit like Rick.
He tells how he gave up a secure academic teaching position to pursue book dealing, starting out with a few D.H. Lawrence first editions, until eventually he ended up handling entire archives, jetting around, smoking cigars, fine-dining, drinking and generally wheeling and dealing across continents at the highest level. You’ve got some original documents relating to the Balfour Declaration? You need to quickly offload some Ulysses first editions? Or you’re Rachel Cusk, looking to sell your archive? Rick’s your man.
Gekoski’s accounts of his relationships with the likes of Ted and Olwyn Hughes, Graham Greene and John Fowles are — to say the least — revealing. If you think that authors are really only interested in writing, this is a book which will quickly disavow you of any such quaint notions. Books are books? Books are business.
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