Serendipity between the covers

Amazon comes in a for a barrage of whacking from those who believe it’s the harbinger of civilisations’s end, insofar as civilisation is synonymous with the sale of books and the ideas therein.As a writer dependent on brave independent publishers such as Parthian and Cultured Llama, I withdraw from the commercial ramifications of the debate in my second par, but perhaps the whackers will permit me a meander down the byways.

Part of Amazon’s appeal for buyers of secondhand books is its ability to herd sellers into a heavily-populated corral and to offer books at what it sometimes amusingly calls ‘£0.01’ from both individuals and traders. A few of the big operators invest a portion of their profits in libraries and other ‘information centres’, as libraries are often euphemistically and nonsensically known these days. So good with arguably bad.

Another attraction is the greater likelihood of finding more than one bargained for, as it were. For just under £1 I’ve just bought a 1975 second edition of Fertile Image, a collection of black-and-white photographs by the artist Paul Nash. Last time I looked it wasn’t available for less than £15. With Amazon, it’s always worth waiting: a secondhand hardback copy of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is currently being offered for around £3, in only the year after he won the Man Booker Prize with it. Maybe as a writer with a commitment to a publisher, I shouldn’t get too excited about that, but non-writer readers couldn’t possibly balk at it unless they are interested in the febrile exigencies of bookselling. Whatever, there should be some way of getting at the world’s store of multi-user bounty.

As a competent draughtsman and photographer – a drawing of mine was used as the basis of the cover design for my début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool – I bought Nash’s book for inspiration. I didn’t expect to find the ex libris information equally exciting. The inscription, in the owner’s handwriting, reads ‘Rohan Butler, Christmas Day 1979, White Notley Hall’. I’m a former daily-newspaperman, whom curiosity will ever get the better of, so I look up Rohan and discover that he was a distinguished historian, academic, and influential political thinker. Perhaps I should have recognised him without Google’s assistance. But I was more interested in how a book from the great man’s library found its way into a warehouse in West Sussex before being dispersed by an Amazonian hand. I’m glad I bought it for his memory’s sake, and I wonder what will happen to my books when I and my contemporaries, family and friends, are no longer here. Perhaps someone yet unborn will covet them more than I do.

Imagine my state of mind a few years ago when I bought secondhand a short biography of Elgar – I’m a music critic, too – written in the 1930s. Inside, the author had inscribed a message to a friend accompanied by a musical phrase with a question mark beside it. I read music and knew that with some musicianly legerdemain it could have been the theme for the composer’s Enigma Variations. Alas, the book was mislaid when I moved house. I wanted to tell my colleague and Elgar biographer Michael Kennedy, but he died even before I lost the book. Perhaps it will excite and inspire someone else. Books do that.

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