One of the less obvious benefits afforded me by my job, is the ability to visit second-hand bookshops around the world. These are hard times for booksellers; the last page has turned for so many under the relentless pressure from on-line retailing. So when I come across a still-thriving business like Brattle Book Shop in Boston, I rejoice; and go shopping.
Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the largest and oldest antiquarian book shops in America, established in 1825. I’m not in a position to argue this claim, and in any case, I don’t care: it’s a great place. Three floors of books, rammed onto shelves, mostly double stacked (imagine the thrill of pulling forward book after book to see what’s lurking behind in the dusty shadows), plus a bargain section bravely shivering their pages in an outside lot.
I love to browse a second-hand book shop; I could do so for hours at a time. However, I like to set a shop a challenge too, and tend to enter with one particular title in mind, after looking for which, I begin the leisurely wandering, searching for something new, or surprising, or exciting.
Some time ago I set myself the challenge of reading Trollop’s Barsetshire novels. Easily done, of course; they are all available, and inexpensive editions can be purchased on-line. For some reason, on a whim, I decided to only read used copies, and only ones I had bought myself. My last rules were to only buy them in the correct order, and only after having read the previous volume in the series. This has proved to be a good policy, because to read the entire Barsetshire Chronicles in one go is a literary marathon; un peu de trop de Trollope, if you like.
So, my first task on entering the Brattle Book Shop, was to locate a copy of Framley Parsonage, number four in the saga. I’m happy to report that Brattle’s did not disappoint; and they had a copy of the special edition Penguin series of numbered Trollope novels. A result indeed. In fact, I could have completed the entire set in one go, but that would have been to break my self-imposed rule, so I desisted, and set about browsing.
I scored again almost immediately with an almost new copy of one of Christopher Isherwood’s early novels, The Memorial, Portrait of a Family.
It can’t be more than a few months old, and has almost certainly never been read. I’m intrigued by this: it’s hardly something you would give as a gift without knowing it to be to that person’s taste; but this copy has been received and given away, seemingly without pause for thought. If only books could talk us through their personal history.
If only….because my next find would surely have more than a little to say about its journey.
I ventured to the top floor, the space reserved for antiquarian and rare books. I only went for a peek; to touch, to feel, to smell and to marvel. There were dozens of Baedeker travel guides from Edwardian times, the sort Cousin Charlotte insists on consulting in A Room with a View, much to Eleanor Lavish’s disapproval. I also spotted an early edition Harry Potter on my way along the shelves. Then I had the idea to just see, out of pure bibliophile interest you understand, if there were any vintage Isherwood books to look at. There was: a wonderful, first edition of Prater Violet, published in 1945.
Despite the price tag, I had to have it. I don’t own a copy of this novel, but I wanted the book for the cover alone; it’s so of its time, with a highly stylised design, redolent of another era. I was hoping to find an inscription scribbled inside by one of the book’s previous owners, something to perhaps hint at its history, (there was an interesting segment in Open Book on Radio 4 the other day about this), but instead found something far more interesting and evocative.
The book was printed in America during the last year of the Second World War, after America had become involved, and therefore produced under wartime restrictions on use of materials. This information is printed on page two of this edition.
I’ve never seen this in a book before, and it is rather moving. It is also encouraging that the US government deemed books to be of sufficient importance to the American people, that they should still be produced, as well as warplanes, naval ships and munitions.
This places my new book firmly in the past; a past of which I only have second-hand knowledge from my Grandma. It is, if you like, part of history. Indeed, Isherwood’s use of dialogue places it firmly in that era, as do the descriptions of serviced apartments and operator-placed calls. And yet.
And yet what Isherwood has to say is timeless.
The short novel concerns the author’s actual involvement with an Austrian film director in the 1930s; Isherwood is hired to assist in the writing of a screenplay for a pretty mediocre film. In the course of the story, Isherwood’s character comes to understand the true horror of Nazism through the film director’s fears for his family who are still in Austria. The writer uses his cast of characters to express the different views about Hitler which were prevalent at the time.
Some talk about the horrors already being inflicted on Jews (the story takes place in the 30s), the fears for their old lives, the violence, the desire to escape. Whilst another, the head cutter at the studio, appears to see life as a quest for efficiency by establishing patterns; he is the embodiment of Nazi ideology in life and art. These people know exactly what Hitler is up to; most are horrified, one seems to appreciate it. But do they do anything to stop it?
As we know, there was a degree of indifference to the plight of Europe’s Jewish population during the 1930s, not to mention that of communists, gays and gypsies, amongst many others; anyone who did not have a place in Hitler’s vision. Isherwood wasn’t blind to it; he’d been in Berlin as the National Socialists began their rise to prominence. He may have felt a degree of regret for not being able to do more himself. In Prater Violet, he highlights the impotence displayed by those with the knowledge of events not so very far away. In this respect, the novel seems as fresh and as topical as ever: Hitler didn’t register a monopoly on ethic cleansing; there are several well-publicised events in more recent history to testify to that. And the evidence of history also proves, as, I think Isherwood is saying, that as much as people might care about events, mostly, they (we) just don’t care enough to act.
So, as old as my new book might, at first glance, appear to be, the words are timeless and tell us more about ourselves than we might honestly feel comfortable with.
This post started out as an ode to a wonderful book store. Somewhere along the way it changed into something altogether more serious. Thanks for staying with it.
Here’s to my next impromptu visit to a second-hand book shop; I hope to learn something more about myself next time.