Sunday, January 10, 2016

Page boys

"Is there still any point in collecting books?" That was the question addressed by writer Howard Jacobsen in an article for the BBC website published late last year.

An insatiable book-gatherer ("collector", he suggests, implies a degree of discrimination) since the age of about 12, Jacobsen is well aware of the reasons for answering in the negative. There's the internet, of course, that places pretty much any written material at your fingertips, but there's also the personal cost - in his case, financial (purchase, transportation, storage), physical (various ailments picked up as a result of lugging boxes around) and even marital (in the form of divorce). Like me, he finds himself surrounded by numerous volumes that remain unread and even unopened: "Cold on my shelves, they stare out at me, with chill reproach."

And yet ultimately he gives a positive answer to that initial question - as would I, despite the impracticality of continuing to amass books in a house we've outgrown. He speaks for me when he enthuses about the physical quality of books, and dismisses the notion that technology could ever be an adequate replacement. His collection is essential: "their presence alone remains vital to me. Books breathe as trees breathe". Hence why, in the January purge currently ongoing in our house, my groaning bookshelves are ringfenced.

One person whom Jacobsen would no doubt find a kindred spirit is comedian and bibliophile Robin Ince, who has coincidentally just written a blog post about his deep and enduring love of second-hand bookshops. Given that he also appreciates "an independent tea shop with teetering Victoria Sponges within a short walking distance" in which to digest his new purchases, he really should get himself to Barter Books, which has its own cafe.

The Northumberland institution regularly features in lists of the best bookshops in the country, though can be held indirectly responsible for the now irritating ubiquity of the "Keep Calm And Carry On" meme, having unearthed one of the test printings of the poster in amongst a consignment of books a few years ago. The slogan is the subject of a lengthy piece by Owen Hatherley for the Guardian, in which he touches upon history, politics and economics in assessing its popularity as a manifestation of what a phenomenon he calls "austerity nostalgia" - one that suits the present government rather well.

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