For the past couple of years I have been buried in old books. Once that might have seemed a languid dream, days and days spent in the quiet company of dusty old titles. But, instead, it has become a disheartening slog, a creeping aversion therapy for my own bibliophilia.
My father spent his life immersed in words. A journalist, he spent his mornings cutting up the broadsheets into delicate doilies of leftover copy and his evenings reading books. The books kept coming, usually second-hand finds, and they quickly began to outstrip the capacity of our small terraced house.
When he moved in 1960 he had a set of white-painted shelves purpose-built in the study — a sturdy, elegant structure which I admired as a child when the room doubled as a dining room (at least for Christmas lunch).
By the time he had become armchair-bound a couple of years ago, the shelves, now a smoggy shade of grey, had long disappeared behind piles of papers, folders, stacks of books and ephemera that filled the room entirely from floor almost to ceiling. Even the window panes had cracked from the outward pressure of collapsed piles of papers.
Once the study had solidified into an impenetrable block of books, the other rooms started to fill, too. First the upstairs back room, then my old bedroom (my shelves, then the floor, then my bed), the corridors and finally, slowly, the front room once my mum had died. The cellar had long been filled.
The books became a kind of building material. The house was like a sculpture that I used to think would have stood up on its own if the structure was removed. The massive cubes would have created solid where there should have been air, negative space like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture, with paper instead of concrete.
In his series A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell titled one of his books Books do Furnish a Room. They do, but they can also become the room, physically and literally, a cast in paper. I even worried that the house might begin to collapse if I started removing the piles, whether it was the stacks that were holding everything up.
There is a shared language between the printed word and architecture. We talk about columns of copy and structures of knowledge, there are gatefold illustrations and blocks of print and there are gutters on pages.
To open a book is like opening a door to an unknown room. And books themselves can be bricks and, like them, they can be laid in a number of bonds, upright or on their sides, structurally or as a skin. Books are the structure for the life of the mind.
My dad’s death last year was accompanied by the inevitable reflections on the futility of it all. The books are a cipher for a life lost, all that knowledge disappeared in a shallow last breath. Just as it is difficult to believe that a parent has gone taking all those memories and parts of your life with them, so it is difficult to confront the books and papers that seem to embody that life.
Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher, in his wonderful 1931 essay “Unpacking my Library”, wrote “[It is] Not that they [the books] come alive in him, it is he who comes alive in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.”
Books represent a search for meaning in a disordered and empty world. In those endless piles, in the thousands of magazines and clippings resides the evidence of a search for order, a thirst for a knowledge which might make sense of the random, unpredictable everyday.
The irony is that the books, which started off on those purpose-built shelves in clear classifications had multiplied to the point where their abundance itself became chaos, not a manifestation of the desire for clarity and synthesis but a representation of the disorder itself, of the inevitability of loss and entropy.
For months I have been sorting, stacking and chucking, blowing dust off old titles and finding theatre tickets, letters, postcards, reviews and clippings inside paperbacks, slowly working my way through this world of words. Now that I have stripped the rubbish out, gone through the cuttings and the scrapbooks, the junk mail flyers, now that I have cleared the unread colour supplements and the press releases, I have finally managed to get back to the books. Some semblance of the old order has re-emerged.
It presents an archaeology of obsession, a strange striptease of strata in which newer papers and books give way to progressively older works. This reveals an intriguing layering that exposes the changes in politics and design, the fads and fashions in publishing and my father’s interests as they evolved over the years.
Libraries almost always start off with the best intentions. You can see the order in the oldest books, the classifications which saw books on the Napoleonic wars spread over the four shelves up on the left, and next to those British history and politics and a lovely-looking run of Britain in Pictures, mostly with their original dust jackets, which took my dad half a century to collect.
But you can also trace the beginnings of disorder, the occasional novel stuffed in beside a run of books on Marxism in Latin America. There are albums of cigarette cards, squeezed into cracks between bigger books. This phase leads to fortuitous or weird juxtapositions, moths beside maths, Lenin beside the Marx Brothers, biographies of Hitler beside anthologies of Jewish humour.
The point of a library is to have more to discover, to have a stock into which to retreat and retire, a longed-for if mythical future of endless time to read
Then, as space got scarcer, books got laid horizontally over the vertical rows and then, inevitably, double, even triple rows appeared meaning newer interests masked older obsessions. A dusty series on cathedral cities, for which I remember my dad scouring provincial bookshops, covered others on angling and butterflies.
Then the other surfaces filled up too; the dining table/desk, the mantelpiece and finally the floor and the space beneath the table. Then the shelves themselves become remote, piles building up in front of them, then the room itself becomes impenetrable.
The strange thing is that the avid bibliophile becomes oddly careless, the books at the bottom getting crushed and bent, the others inaccessible, dusty, discoloured by sun. The books, in their messy presence, begin to exert their weight. Shelves begin to bow and crack, piles topple, a narrow access corridor left between the stacks gets blocked by a paper avalanche.
That the majority of books became inaccessible reveals perhaps that it was not, in the end, the books that were the objects of desire but their accumulation, the dysfunctional idea of an endless library.
But now I have cleared away the detritus, the leaflets and the brochures, the provincial bus timetables and tangerine tissue wrappers, what next? I have got to the point at which most of the books — even the boxes of Penguins and Pelicans covered for decades in a layer of sooty coal dust in the boxes in the cellar — are more or less accessible.
What on earth do you do with thousands of old books? Charity shops only want new-looking novels; they might politely accept dusty old books but they get quietly disposed of in big bags of waste. Pulped. Even libraries are getting rid of books: too bulky, too difficult to keep, too rarely read.
Books as burden even, absurdly, for those institutions founded upon them. For the moment, the books live on in limbo. A state between deadweight and delight. But I know I need to make decisions. My own shelves are already heaving with what looks worryingly like a genetic predisposition.
Sure there are a few desirable things in here: nicely bound military histories, some old art folios, a (very) few first editions. Yet most of it, most of a life’s work of almost-obsessive collecting, marginalia, knowledge and often superb design, is barely even recyclable.
Second-hand book dealers want only first editions of novels by famous authors in pristine dust jackets. Who has those? Surely people read books, they pile them up, the books get dusty, their edges fox, the spines fade in the sunlight, the jackets get rubbed.
Charity shops only want new-looking novels. They might politely accept dusty old books but they get quietly disposed of in big bags of waste. Pulped.
Books that have been read and used and have contributed to human happiness are never pristine. And then there is the sense of hope in the unread volumes, now dusty and neglected but still full of potential.
Some may look at this obsessive accumulation as a mania. Why buy so many when you surely have no real hope of reading them all? But that is the point of a library, to have more to discover, to have a stock into which to retreat and retire, a longed-for if mythical future of endless time to read. My father complained towards the end of his life that now he finally had all the time in the world to read, he kept dozing off.
I have rummaged through dust and crumbling papers, finding weird titles and odd volumes. I have been immersed in the smell of old books, which I still, despite everything, love. It has not put me off second-hand bookshops. My fingers become grey and dry from the residue of old paper, skin and newsprint and in that dust I cannot help seeing a correspondence between life and death, between the ashes I have only just buried and the veneers of dust on paper. The question is, if you love books, what on earth do you do with them?
How to identify a valuable book
Some rare books are easy to spot because of the fame of the author, or the title, or both: a first folio Shakespeare, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Isaac Newton’s Principia. But there are other books that may not seem interesting to the casual observer, but which are highly valuable to the specialist.
That is why you should seek an expert opinion. Rarity alone is not enough to give value; there also has to be a market. That is something that only an experienced bookdealer will know.
Books in bad condition are unlikely to be saleable, no matter what they are. Whether or not a book is complete or the binding is in one piece is important, even if the binding is original. If you take a book with damaged binding to a dealer, they will offer you a lower price because they are going to have to pay to repair it.
There is no hard and fast way of telling whether a book is a first edition. They rarely have the words “First Edition” printed in them, so you have to go by bibliographic details, such as the date of publication or the dust-jacket design. These are things you either know by experience or by looking at a bibliography.
Second editions are simpler, because they will often say “Second Edition” on the title page, or have a line that says “First published 1932, reprinted 1933”, or similar. Every publisher does things differently and the further back you go from mass-mechanised book production, the more difficult it gets. Such books were less likely to be dated and more likely to have variations.
One of the best books to have is an inscribed copy. That can add enormously to the value. If you have letters with it, even better. Dealers want an item that can tell a story. The more of the story, the better. We have a copy of Spike Milligan’s Rommel? Gunner Who?, usually worth about £50. However, this copy was inscribed by Stephen Hawking just before he lost the ability to write, which has vastly increased its value to the tune of £24,000. Children usually drop eggs on their books or try to eat them. So children’s books in very good condition are sought after, too.
Look for a bookseller who is a member of a trade association. Henry Sotheran’s is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and we are bound by a code of ethics. Companies that have been around for a long time generally have a good reputation for a good reason; they are fair dealers.
If you take a book to a dealer and they do not want it, there are always auctions — a good option if you really do not want to take it to a charity shop.
Chris Saunders, managing director of Sotherans, as told to Alex Howlett
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
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