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2003-12, 340, Alan Rickard, Book collecting

Some Perplexities of Book Addiction

It has always been considered easy to find a book addict known to be in a certain area. You might find him in the pub of course, but sooner rather than later you will find him in the nearest bookshop. You won’t need much patience. But book collecting can often lead to strange situations. A few years back when we were living in Armidale, N.S.W., John Fletcher asked me to keep an eye open for slim self published volumes of poetry, nominating any such booklets issued in the area within a certain time frame. He wasn’t astray. I found quite a few in bookshops and news agencies and some of these conformed to his requirements. Then one night I saw a number of likely items in the window of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s shop, dimly lit by a street lamp. The shop was closed of course, but returning the following day I found the booklets were not poetry but, of all things, the polemical writings of Marx and Lenin. I wondered how the local clergy would view the innocence of the St Vincent de Paul ladies and whether the incident was due to innocence or the action of the local party cadre, Armidale being at that stage one of the towns in which a Communist Party branch was still operating. A long time ago when working in London I happened to wander into the church of St Martin’s in the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, the place where the grasshopper used to grace the weather-vane on the roof. (Apparently it doesn’t anymore.) I found the bookstall in the foyer, a small glass structure where one inspected the stock from outside, watched carefully by a lady who peered between the books to monitor one’s movements. Interspersed amongst her stock I noticed a number of explicitly suggestive sexual titles. It was a thought-provoking discovery, and the bookstall is still part of that environment today. I wonder what might be discovered at the annual book fairs conducted by some churches. To browse them sometimes might prove a revealing experience. Then, I have always been fascinated by the attitudes of certain booksellers who stock items of which they obviously disapprove, but allow their disapproval of purchasers of such books to be quite apparent, irrespective of the profit involved or the possible motives of their customers (who may after all merely be seeking understanding of attitudes contrary to their own). But some booksellers are more forthright. I have vivid recollections of entering a bookshop in Nathan Road, Kowloon (Hong Kong), and unwarily asking about books on Taoism, which I don’t take too seriously, although I find certain of its philosophical aspects of some interest. I was immediately assailed by the Chinese owner of the business who said very forcibly: “I don’t stock such bloody rubbish! What do you take me for?” I didn’t take issue with him, but just found and bought other items and departed. I wonder too about the Brisbane bookstore where, no doubt to save on electricity costs, the place was kept in darkness until someone entered. Then the lights were switched on and off in appropriate areas as the customer moved around. I had initially hesitated to go in, thinking the shop was closed. But possibly the owner has since realised the counterproductive nature of his actions.

A few years back I told the story of a psychic experience which, despite the disbelief of sceptics, is true in its entirety. A friend, a farmer in a remote area, asked me if I could find him a copy of a particular book which appeared to be out of print. Then living in Sydney, I combed the inner city bookshops, carefully working my way uptown. I found nothing until, about to cross Park Street, I was suddenly stopped on the kerb by psychic flash regarding a shop in a cross-street not far away which I had never entered in my life. Somehow it came to me that there was a copy of the book between a particular shelf and the wall. I went to the shop, to the shelf I had visualised, put my hand in a gap at the back and pulled out a single copy. I immediately took it to the cashier, saying: “You’re not going to believe this…”, paid for the book and walked out. She didn’t say a word, but her expression told me she didn’t believe me. Nor did the farmer when I told him. His response was: “Oh, don’t give me that!” When I wrote up the story I encountered more disbelief, but the sceptics can think what they like; the story is entirely true, though I don’t claim to understand it. So, there can be strange aspects to book collecting, but of necessity I myself have had to become more circumspect in buying over recent years.

Alan Rickard

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