I rather wish I had read this essay Bookshop Memories, which first appeared in the November 1936 issue of Fortnightly magazine, before I had read and written about Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. As usual, he used his own experiences to help him write both novels and essays, and his time working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead in 1934 really informed his characterisation of Aspidistra’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock. I felt, as I was reading that novel, that Comstock really was Orwell himself, only vaguely hidden. And now that I have read his own personal account of working in a second-hand bookshop, I have no doubt that’s the case.
It’s a short and simple account of his observations about what it is like to work in a second-hand bookshop. He offers us all sorts of opinions, regarding the clientele, what sells well (and what doesn’t), the sensory overload of being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, to how it changes your own opinion about books. Having myself been a second-hand book trader (although online, not in a shop) I can recognise some truths in his writing that are as accurate today as they were in the 1930s.
That overwhelming sense, for instance, of being surrounded by centuries of writing, of decaying paper and musty dust. “Books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.” How true. Orwell claims that he would never have wanted to be a full-time bookseller because “while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.” I also think there’s a lot of truth in that; and whilst I hope I never lied about the books I had for sale, I did have to dissect them scientifically in my descriptions, highlighting all the faults within a particular copy – there’s nothing worse than a disappointed book-buyer – and by doing so you miss out on conveying the magic of the thing. Certainly when I was a bookseller I was not a book-reader.
But I was still shocked by Orwell’s criticisms and sheer judginess of the customers in the shop – and it’s exactly the same snobbery and cynicism that colours the character of Gordon Comstock, which makes him so thoroughly unlikeable. It’s the first topic that Orwell takes in this essay – the kind of people who, you suspect, made every day in the shop a misery for him. If it’s not “first edition snobs”, it’s “oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks”, “the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts”, “unmistakable paranoiacs”, “certifiable lunatics”, or “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists”. He is so judgmental about the customers! To him they are nothing but “pests”. He definitely wasn’t created for retail work.
Rather like Comstock, he is dismayed that the number one author with the library subscribers was neither Priestley, Hemingway, Walpole nor Wodehouse, but Ethel M Dell, a fairly prolific writer of romances whom the critics hated but her readers loved. The snob in Orwell gets no pleasure out of giving the people what they want, because it’s not what he thinks they should want. He’s very certain about what he thinks people should read: “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.” The use of the phrase “manly and wholesome” seems very revealing to me – particularly when you consider how Comstock despised the artistic young man to whom he referred as Nancy in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
There are some general observations about life in the bookshop that, whilst still being judgmental, are perhaps not quite so offensive. He notes that they sold used stamps to stamp collectors, whom he describes as “a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.” Whilst personally I wouldn’t call all stamp collectors strange, silent and fish-like, I have to say I’ve never met a female stamp collector, but I’m sure there must be some! I think it’s something that gets introduced to boys whilst girls are happily doing something else, and time never catches up with them.
It’s also interesting to see that the shop made good business from the sale of Christmas Cards, although they only spent “a feverish ten days” on sale, whereas today they’d be there for at least two months. “It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited.” Some things never change, but just get worse. There’s also the very interesting observation that “in a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones” – and the authors that one borrows are very different from the authors that one buys.
“It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say. “Oh but that’s old!” and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.”
I’m not sure that Dickens has stayed that popular 85 years later; although, yes, there are a number of Dickens that I haven’t read, and I’ve always meant to! He notes the growing unpopularity of American books – that’s a trend that’s certainly changed over the years; and the unpopularity of short stories. I’m no expert, but I sense that might still be the case.
So this a curious essay in some respects. Very personal, and one presumes Orwell is being scrupulously honest with his reader. His bookshop snobbery is quite jarring, but his factual observations about what sells and what doesn’t are fascinating. It’s written in a chatty, conversational style, that’s perhaps different from any of his previous essays which were more detached and serious in both style and content. A very interesting accompanying piece to Keep the Aspidistra Flying!
Next in my George Orwell Challenge, and still with the essay format, is In Defence of the Novel, first published in the New English Weekly in two instalments November 1936. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!