Wednesday 12 October 2011

On buying an unwanted book

When I was forced to play team sports as a boy, I would wait in diminishing hope while all the other boys were chosen one by one. In the end there would be two of us left, me and the kid with coke-bottle glasses who couldn't tie his own shoelaces and who was known to burst into tears if he was knocked down or if he lost the ball. For long agonising seconds the two hairy-legged captains would size us up, before, finally, one of them would turn to the other and pronounce the cruel verdict: "You can have them." (I cannot lie: this happened even when my own best friend was one of the team captains.)

Yes, my friends, I know what it is to be unwanted. I suppose that's why Calvinism has always appealed to me, and why I was forever bringing home stray kittens as a boy. It is also why I sympathise with the unwanted book, the book nobody else will buy or read, the book that might have languished in embarrassed silence until the end of the world, and still remained unchosen. It is part of Christian belief in the resurrection to assert that nothing is ultimately unwanted, nothing finally lost or forgotten. When the last trump sounds and the sea gives up its dead, whatever was forgotten will be raised up and kept forever in the presence of him in whom Memory and Love are one.

So sometimes when I'm rummaging in the back corners of a used bookstore, I will choose a book just because it looks lonely, neglected, and forgotten. I find myself treating the book with special respect, handling it gently, patiently studying the printing and binding, admiring the typeface, before finally taking it to a special place – my favourite cafe, or the shade of a big tree – where I can read it slowly and in secret. Like one of those orphaned kittens, I love the book even more on account of its rejection by the world. By reading the unwanted book, I give my silent witness to the coming day when all the books are opened and everything is remembered and whatever was last becomes first.

On Monday I acquired a book in this way and for this purpose, while I was poking around in one of my favourite Sydney bookstores. It is a grubby little pamphlet called Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was published in 1948 in London by the charmingly named publisher, His Majesty's Stationery Office. It is set in a sober yet energetic Roman typeface. It cost me $3.50, though in 1948 it could be purchased directly from H. M. Stationery Office for 2s. 0d. net. The first sentence is so plain and workmanlike as to be almost beautiful: "This book was written at the invitation of the Treasury." It was written to advise civil servants and other government bureaucrats on the use of English in their official documents and correspondence. 

Admittedly, when I Googled the book I soon discovered that it is neither unwanted nor forgotten: in fact it was a huge success, and a greatly expanded version is still in print today. In fact, the whole thing is freely available online. There is even a recent biography of this unassuming civil servant. But you'll appreciate that none of this mitigates my own special reasons for acquiring and reading the lonely little 1948 pamphlet. 

And even if Sir Ernest addresses himself to His Majesty's civil servants, I found his advice very relevant to contemporary scholarly writing. So in the next week or so I'll try to do a series of posts on writing tips, based on Gowers' advice about how to choose the right words and avoid the wrong ones. As someone has said: comrades, if we cannot all be artists and geniuses, let us at least strive to be literate!


notjustabewilderedape said...

Haha, I can relate to the sports analogy. Happened to me all to often..although now I have a more developed understanding of the rejection. AUSSIES WORSHIP SPORT!... (I apologise for my outburst - my therapist happens to be on holidays and unreachable - :-). Seriously though man, even in Australian society today most intellectuals; academics are largely misunderstood and ignored unless they are in politics. I look forward to reading the tips on writing, I sure could use it.

Jeremy Myers said...

You lost me on the Calvinist connection....

Wouldn't this be a reason to not like Calvinism...since everyone else in the world is "not chosen" by God, and He says to Satan, "You can have them"?

Sure, I suppose it feels good be chosen yourself... but since you have been on the discard pile before, you know how it feels to be not chosen.

Derek said...

One of my favorite posts Ben, thanks. Also, can we get another "Off the Shelf" post soon? I really enjoyed those.

Ben Myers said...

Oh yeah sure, I forgot all about "off the shelf" - thanks for the reminder!

Ben Myers said...

Good point, Jeremy. I guess you know I'm pretty fond of Barthian-style Calvinism, where everyone gets to be chosen.

Pamela said...

We visited Sydney last weekend to spend some time with our son. And we had the best time in a bookstore - I bought a book of poetry (surprise) and our son chose something as well. Thanks for a great post.

Ben Myers said...

And for anyone in Sydney with kids, the Children's Bookshop in Beecroft is an absolutely world-class bookstore.

Greg Colby said...

Yeah, I didn't understand how you painted yourself a Calvinist with words like: "It is part of Christian belief in the resurrection to assert that nothing is ultimately unwanted, nothing finally lost or forgotten."

There is a great bookshop in Glebe called Sappho Books which has another bookshop contained within entirely devoted to books about music - it also has a cafe and poetry nights...if i lived in Glebe I would live in Sappho Books!

Raoul Perezoso said...

an unwanted book

Anything by those little anti-christs Kotzko ,Smith et al , the postmod prep cooks of Peoria. Derrida & Co. Or that queer Stringfellow. Or Barth's ugly tendentious scrawls.


Eclipse Now said...

Hi Ben,
I love this forgotten book post. It's so true that yesterday's gold often sits dusty and unappreciated while what is 'new' and trendy proves to be fool's gold. I also love the Beecroft bookstore and experience amazement, and for some reason nostalgic sadness, every single time I visit there. (Do you ever find some unread books scream at you, especially if you feel you 'should have read them' when you were a kid, even if they were not 'born' yet way back then?)

While thinking about children's books, have you read "The Hunger Games"? It's like a Sci-Fi Earnest Hemingway for kids! If you feel you have time for some purely recreational reading, I'd love you to grab the trilogy and devour them and write your review.

Lastly, the SMH have a writing competition you might be interested in tinkering with. It's an online collaboration about your favourite places in Sydney.

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