The interior of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Paris, which has its own secondhand selection of books.(Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

How I discovered secondhand books

A home with books is a launching pad for a life well lived, says Daniel Johnson

Rare books are in many ways the relics of our time. And yet, as Christopher de Hamel explains in The Book in the Cathedral (Allen Lane, £9.99), his masterly monograph on St Thomas Becket’s Psalter, the medieval world did not normally consider books to be relics — even when they had belonged to saints. A rare exception was when the book in question had actually played a part in its owner’s martyrdom, thereby acquiring the numinous qualities that could work miracles and confer the status of a relic. These rarest of rare books were, in the jargon of the trade, “association copies” — but the association that mattered here was with the Holy Ghost.

One famous example cited by de Hamel is the Ragyndrudis Codex, with which St Boniface, the English missionary to the Germans, is supposed to have tried to protect himself from the Frisian pagans who killed him. Their gashes left by their swords are still visible on this battered but venerable tome. De Hamel’s impressive piece of sleuthing is devoted to another such book: an Anglo-Saxon Psalter that belonged not to one but to two martyrs, both Archbishops of Canterbury, and was saved for posterity by a third.  

De Hamel shows how this richly illustrated, illuminated and bejewelled manuscript survived for more than a millennium precisely because of its archiepiscopal owners. The first, St Alphege, kept it with him in captivity after the invading Danes had burned his cathedral and its library. Alphege, like many other prisoners before and since, found comfort in reciting the Psalms, before he was taken to Greenwich, there to be martyred in 1012. When I worked in Greenwich, I used to visit St Alphege, the fine Georgian parish church which commemorated the place of his martyrdom, and often ate my lunch in the churchyard. 

The Alphege Psalter was returned to Canterbury after his death and was still there when, more than a century later, Thomas Becket — then not even a priest — was promoted from Chancellor to Primate by Henry II. As Becket had predicted, the King fell out with his friend and the Archbishop was forced into French exile. Hamel suggests that Becket identified with Alphege,  and arranged for the precious Psalter to be brought from Canterbury to France so that he could be reunited with this relic of his patron saint. He, too, read and meditated on the Psalms, which spoke to his own predicament: “Put not thy trust in princes…” Having defiantly returned to Canterbury, on Christmas Day 1170 Becket gave his last sermon on St Alphege. Three days later, Henry’s four avenging knights came for the “traitor”. The Archbishop was waiting for them, dressed to die — and, if de Hamel is right, carrying the Psalter. As he lay dying, he commended his soul to Alphege. The book became a relic of the man who would quickly become St Thomas and the centre of a great cult. 

Even Elizabeth’s sternly Protestant Primate, Matthew Parker, seems to have realised the significance of this Psalter and made sure to preserve it in the library still named after him at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It mattered because the fledgling Anglican Church need to trace its origins back to the conversion of England by St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and both Alphege and Thomas were vital links in that chain of succession. The Psalter that had belonged to them both bore witness to the Anglican claim to have preserved a more authentic form of Christianity than that of Rome. Parker’s Canterbury tale was no less fictional than those of Chaucer, but it served its purpose in legitimising the “Elizabethan Settlement” that temporarily ended religious strife in England.

This story of detection revolves around a medieval Psalter: de Hamel is a former expert on rare books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s. It set me thinking about my own love affair with old books: rare, scarce or merely secondhand. My tastes, which have evolved over half a century, are not quite as esoteric (or expensive) as de Hamel’s. I discovered the joys of collecting books as a student, when I was sometimes so broke that I had to choose between books and food. I lived for weeks on lentils in order to pay for an expensive old volume ordered from across the Atlantic, decades before one could do so easily online. Such sacrifices gave real meaning to the memorable words of Milton, emblazoned on the walls of the New York Public Library: “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” 

Like relics, books work miracles for the children lucky enough to grow up with them

For me, like countless others, a life without books would be a living death. Like relics, books really do work miracles for the children lucky enough to grow up surrounded by them. A home with books is a launching pad for a life well lived.

Though books may be secularised relics, book-lovers are not saints. They possess only one virtue: perseverance. The grander sort of bibliophiles don’t necessarily even need that. Most book dealers and collectors would never dream of spending hours rummaging through the bookshelves of bargain basements and charity shops, village fêtes and markets, or even scouring the murkier corners of reputable establishments, from Any Amount of Books in the Charing Cross Road to the Strand Bookstore in Lower Manhattan. Even in the days before bookshops went online and bargains became rareties, they never bothered to get their hands dusty. But I did and I do. 

For me, serendipity and serenity go hand in hand; and the most satisfying objet trouvé is the book. Once found, the sought-after volume creates a kind of aura of tranquillity around itself. There are, of course, gradations of serendipity: a book that must once have given me deep satisfaction now struggles to justify its place alongside rarer or more handsome volumes. But every personal library is a bibliographical palimpsest: its earlier acquisitions are gradually obscured by later ones, until one reaches the point where antiquarianism and sentimentalism can no longer be reconciled. Choices must be made. While old lamps are almost always better than new, with books one sometimes has to choose between the dog-eared paperback, the faithful companion of one’s student years, and the irresistible first edition; the latter copy is much older than the former, though much newer to me. 

“Downsizing sounds so sensible and wholesome. It is, however, the euthanasia of the book-lover.”(Photo by Adam Berry/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One is loathe to part with old friends, of course, but nobody has infinite space. Downsizing sounds so sensible and wholesome. It is, however, the euthanasia of the book-lover. I know one writer who has filled several entire houses with his books, quite apart from the one he calls home. His long-suffering spouse has come to terms with her husband’s bibliomania. Perhaps she secretly dreads him suffering the fate of Peter Kien, the protagonist of Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (translated as Auto da Fé), whose library destroys his marriage and  ultimately his life. My wife has a simpler solution: one book in, one (or preferably two) out. Thanks to their lower overheads, charity bookshops, especially Oxfam, have driven out the competition on the high street; they are, though, still welcome recyclers of secondhand literature. Unfortunately, whenever I donate a box of books, I end up by buying at least one or two. And every so often review copies arrive in the post. It may happen that one takes it to the book launch and the author signs it, whether in gratitude for a good review or perhaps exasperation, because for some writers no review is ever good enough. The book is thereby given a permanent home: nobody can decently sell or donate a copy signed to oneself, if only for fear that the author will encounter it again. My wife is wise to this ruse: she sighs when I return from a launch brandishing an inscribed copy. The only solution, she says, is a converted barn with mobile bookstacks, like those in academic libraries. Perish the thought!

Our grandson still prefers the page to the screen – admittedly he’s only one, but we hope to keep it that way

For if rare books are indeed secularised relics, they should be kept in appropriate reliquaries: proper, open bookcases, there to be read, admired and enjoyed rather than merely stored. A private library should be a living room for the living word, not a graveyard for dead authors who will never again find readers. The book is in any case still thriving. British publishers generated revenues of £3.5 billion from 650 million printed books last year, a record number of copies sold. Our grandson still prefers the page to the screen. Admittedly he is only one year old, but we hope to keep it that way once he learns to read. 

It is a myth, by the way, and a pernicious one, that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. These words by Cyril Connolly occur in Enemies of Promise. The context in which it occurs is a quixotic defence of “the childless writer”. For Connolly, this tends to be “the homosexual writer”, whose “equipment” — described as “combativeness, curiosity, egotism, intuition and adaptability” — “leaves nothing to be desired”. The idea that a writer might well be fertile not only intellectually but  also physically is evidently as alien to Connolly as the notion that being a gay man might not exclude empathy with women or children. Above all, Connolly seems only capable of conceiving of “the pram in the hall” as an obstacle to men, while not giving a thought to the billions of women throughout history whose creativity might have been suppressed by domesticity. It is hard to imagine a more egregious example of female invisibility to the male gaze.

I have in front of me the copy of Enemies of Promise that belonged to my late father-in-law, J.W.M. (John) Thompson. The book appeared in 1938 and this is a first edition, but it has an enigmatic later inscription in a fluid, even florid, hand: “First steps to immortality. Café Royale, June 6, 1946. Yrs, PHB.” It seems unlikely that my father-in-law was the intended recipient of this copy, which a stamp on the inside back cover shows to have at some point belonged to The Times Book Club in Wigmore Street. It is probable that he bought it from a secondhand bookshop, already inscribed to the unknown budding author. But it is possible that the mystery man taking his “first steps to immortality” was John. Sadly, he died seven years ago and Cynthia, my mother-in-law, died last March. So we shall never know.  

To Connolly’s lasting chagrin, he never fulfilled his own authorial promise. Yet his achievement in founding and editing Horizon during the 1940s more than justifies his existence. “It is the function of the writer to produce a masterpiece,” he wrote. It just so happened that his masterpiece was not a book but a magazine. My destiny has been somewhat similar. One does not need to have written many books, or any at all, in order to fall in love with them. And children are not an obstacle to producing the masterpiece, but conducive to it. There is no more sombre enemy of good art than fear and loathing of the pram in the hall.

This is the fourth of a summer series on youthful discovery.

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