Books for a dollar

I am working now, up here in the High Doganate, on the accumulation of what I count as my sixth library. The first five had to be dispersed, for one reason or another, which means that many of the books around me have been bought several times. When possible, I obtain the same edition and printing of a book I once owned, and still value, hoping to fool myself into believing that the same copy has been with me all along. For while I am an ardent reactionary, in the main, in some respects I am just an effete conservative, who enjoys the familiar, and does not like anything to change.

This is the story of my life: rebuilding libraries — the last of which will probably be consigned to a landfill by my heirs. But I’m inspired, as the Scotch, by the little spiders, who will resume the weaving of their webs no matter how the winds blow, the tempests fall, or rude little boys put sticks to them. Their activity might seem hopeless. But they are spiders, they know what a spider is about, and they will never despair.

For the spider must catch gnats to eat; how can he surrender? The bibliophile’s web traps food for thought, but the principle is the same. And with this one advantage over the spider, that, confined to a cell from which all books were removed, I could still spend my day in imagination, wandering through pages remembered from the past.

At present, I am permitted to walk the streets, and furnish my own quarters. I exult in this freedom, and effetely hope that it can be maintained.


We often complain about the decline, or collapse, of Western Civilization (which can exist only insofar as it is Christian), and perhaps make ourselves tedious on the point. We should not always be acerbic, and today I should like to hail one good thing. It is to note our abundance. How impressed my ancestors would be if told it is a time when anyone can make a thousand dollars, from pogey if not from work, save two, and borrow perhaps five thousand more against little cards that are freely available. They would be astounded by our wealth and ease. (The trick with facts, as every journalist knows, is in their selection.)

Imagine, further, what a great age in which we now live; for within my own lifetime books, which once fetched a pretty price from knowledgeable dealers, may be found (if slightly mildewed) in the barrows of flea markets and the bins of charity stores, each for a dollar; rounded down if you pick a few. Sometimes I have found my own former possessions, with my name still in them from my earlier life — books I had been forced to sell for five or ten or twenty dollars apiece — which I could now retrieve for a small handful of base-metal change. Or books which belonged to my book-buying rivals, now sadly deceased.

Take Wolfson’s Philo, for today’s example. It is in two volumes, and I distinctly remember a brief scene at a college book sale many years ago, when two scholars vied for it with their sharp academic elbows. One had laid hold of volume one, the other of volume two, and no third volunteered to render the Judgment of Solomon. On Tuesday I found both volumes, equally neglected, in the dollar rack outside a second-hand store that prefers fresh paperbacks, and will take “hardcovers” only if they have retained their lurid dust-jackets. The tattoo’d child at the cashpoint inside interpreted the set as one volume only, and thus charged me 50 cents for each half. He did not notice that the name of the late beloved A. Robinson Orr was signed on the fly-leaf. Why would he?

Nor did I vex him by explaining that Harry Austryn Wolfson, late professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, was a learned expert on Spinoza, whose purpose in expounding Philo Judaeus — that beacon of first-century Alexandria — was to show the background condition of religious faith common to all the philosophers (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) through the intervening seventeen centuries. Through Philo, Wolfson showed, gracefully set up, what Spinoza devoted himself to taking down: a sophisticated trust in Scripture. In his attempt to prove the consistency of Judaism with the finer Stoic teachings, Philo had plumbed rich veins of allegory (a kind of rabbinical Edmund Spenser) and … well, a lot of other things. Leafing through, one realizes that one has shamefully belittled the significance of Philo; how, in some sense, we may see the “Middle Ages” unfolding in his work, co-terminously with the Life of Christ.


Actually, I parted with two dollars, for I had also spied a copy of The Milk of Paradise. This last volume of (the twelve of) James Lees-Milne’s diaries was in fact a shiny, new-looking book, with its dust-jacket intact, so that at first I didn’t see it. But the store sorter had decided it was worthless, notwithstanding. No colour photographs, and from a glance at the blurb, somewhat highbrow and elitist. Perhaps the thing had fallen open at one of Lees-Milne’s sneers against “coffee-table” books, remainders of which were the store’s founding raison d’être. The sorter could have no idea how much entertainment was obtainable, from the running commentary on our own times.

Consider, for instance, this entry from the 1st of September, 1997:

“The grieving over Princess Diana is beyond all belief. Radio and telly given over, and today’s Times contains not one paragraph which is not devoted to her. Now undoubtedly she was a great beauty, and had star quality of the film actress sort; also seems to have had a genuine caring side. Q. rang yesterday to ask what I felt. I said the tragedy seemed pre-ordained; and dreadful though it was to say, it would be recognized as a mercy in the long run. Q. admitted that to see her with old or mortally ill people was a revelation; yet it was terrifying that the world regarded her as a saint. People did not realize that few of her staff could abide her, and that she was odious to the Prince ever since they became engaged. She was shallow and devious, cunning as a vixen, determined to do him down, motivated by malice and spite. She took no part in his interests and his intellectual friends, never read a book, and was totally uneducated and stupid.”

How wonderfully poised and just — though written in a moment when, as a friend calls to say, anyone critical of the Princess in the London streets risked being lynched.

To be fair, there were lynchings too, sometimes, in the streets of old Alexandria, of those whose views varied from the opinion of the pinguedinous mob. But some truth has been preserved, in the mouldering pages of a few printed books, which may still be found in the bins, for a dollar. (Or ignored, for free, as long as they stay posted, in the memory clouds of the Internet.)