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.