Friday, August 18, 2006

To Katie from Gordon, 18.8.1985

It's musical bedrooms round my gaff at the moment. The folks are staying so my flatmates been shunted out (he's doing a job in Birmingham, we haven't turfed him onto the street) and I'm in his room. By the side of his bed is a pile of my old books I've yet to read. When I woke up this morning the first title my eyes fell upon was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book I've been meaning to get round to for ages. Infact I even picked it up in the shop the other day to 'borrow' when I remembered my old secondhand copy.

So I opened this edition and on the inside cover page was an inscription, 'To Katie from Gordon, 18.8.1985'. It was exactly 21 years to the day that this book was first given. It made me instantly despondent. What happened to Katie and Gordon? Was it a relationship that had long ended? Had Katie given away all the books Gordon had given her? Had they broken up over this book? Or had they survived and merely cleaned out a bunch of old crap? Or was it an attempt by Gordon, given the story of the book, to get into Katie's pants?

But then I realised that I was despondent because I just didn't care about Katie and Gordon. In fact worse, they were spoiling my book. Katie and Gordon belonged in their own fiction, indeed it might make a basis for a story but here and now their reality was tainting me and tainting this book forever.

I like my books untouched, box-fresh, new. I don't want someone else's cast-offs. And I don't want signed copies either (the thought of an authors voice in my head is unbearable when I read fiction, their signature at the front of the book only compounds this mania - look out for a future post on the Death of the Author - indeed when I worked at Pan with a revolving door of authors coming in to sign I had to run a mile so anyone's books I admired didn't have the chance to be effected by the author turning out to be a complete knob. This happened anyway more than a few times. Naming no names of course). I'd rather a thousand copies of a book being read by a thousand individuals than a single book being passed through a thousand different pairs of hands. The outcome may be the same but somehow there is a diminishment, an erosion of the power of the book in the latter case. A books new-ness increases it's capacity for impact. A book can change your life but if you know that the copy you are holding has already changed numerous lives don't you feel short-changed? You may know that a text has been read and appreciated for years but there is something in the physical nature of holding a book that gives you a more intimate relationship with it's contents.

It may be considered spooky that I had picked up Katie's book 21 years to the day after Gordon had given it to her but I don't believe in that stuff. It was just a coincidence. And now I have to 'borrow' that new copy from the shop.


  1. Personally, I love it when a book has a story of its own and now that you have written about it in your blog, Katie's book's story has extended (and, little does she know it, so has Katie's).
    Books are tactile and aesthetic artifacts which should add to your enjoyment of the text within: A compressed, greasy crumb found between the pages of a 40 year old Jennings book may have fallen from some tuck, eaten under the covers after lights out whilst reading about the high-jinks of the eponymous hero and his chum, Derbyshire; a page corner folded two-thirds of the way through Stalingrad (did the previous reader ever get to the end, or were they just too exhausted and bored after making it so far?); The musty smell of yellowed pages in an ancient and decrepit copy of The Twelfth, perhaps read between the giant arms of the reader's favourite chair in his Gentleman's Club after been given to him by his animal-loving wife...
    I like brand-sparkley-new books too - it's great to be the first to scuff up the pages, to write a telephone number in the margin of page 143 and to accidentally drop it in the bath... This is why ebooks don't really turn me on.
    I do hope that Katie and Gordon are both well - I'm guessing that if there were no kisses, they weren't lovers - Katie met Gordon on a train just as he was finishing the book and he passed it on to her, their paths never crossing again, or perhaps... the possibilities are endless and wonderful. Who knows where Katie is now and who knows where Katie's book will be in another 21 years?

  2. Thanks Simon. Nice to see we have some romantics reading the blog as opposed to the bitter, cynical, ascetic snobs writing it (well one snob, me).

    Blimey, you'd think someone who owns a bookshop wouldn't be quite so uptight about books.

    Your comment brings to mind Walter Benjamin and 'aura'. Look out for a future post on the subject.

  3. I know I really should try to be a bit more cynical and less romantic about the book industry, but if I was then I'd probably buy all of my books on Amazon or in Waterstones...
    I look forward to being educated on Walter Benjamin and 'aura' in the near future.

  4. Not sure about the 'educational' value of any of my postings...

    But, just read AA Gill's essay on Nostalgia in his new book on the english, Angry Island. Excellent reading. He's not a fan. Calls it suffocating, frightened and backward looking. After reading that I kind of felt the same way about your first comment, sorry.

    I can't help it, I'm a modernist. Always have been, always will. I just don't really like the past that much (unless it's reading about it's failures and looking forward to a glorious future!)

  5. I'm all for modernism (although, as a movement, one can look back on that with fondness too) and applaud your optimism for the future. I'm sad that you found my post suffocating, frightened and backward looking. I think we should all enjoy other people's past and not be afraid of marking our present for fear of spoiling someone's future.
    I love AA Gill's writing, but I also find his friend Jeremy Clarkson quite amusing - doesn't mean I agree with much of what he says...