Thursday, 22 December 2011

Three American Classics

Sometimes there comes a realisation that for all the books you have read there yet remain obvious classics of literature that for some reason you have passed over. So it was a month or two ago when I decided the time had come to fill a significant gap in my reading life by finally getting round to three of the greatest works of twentieth century American literature. These were, in no order of preference: "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote, "The Great Gatsby" by F Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". These were all books about which I had read, of which I had seen film adaptations and which I had probably held discussions about with others; short of actually reading them I guess I had already pretty much absorbed their characters and themes. It could be argued that "In Cold Blood", being a factual account of a savage killing, is more true crime than literature but the writing is so good, the scene so well depicted that, like the other two, I would consider it a great work of literature.

"In Cold Blood" tells of the killing of four members of the Clutter family (man, wife and two children) at their home of River Valley Farm in the West Kansas town of Holcomb on November 15th 1959, by two young men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, newly released from jail. Capote visited Holcomb (in the company of Harper Lee) some time after the killing, interviewed witnesses, local people and the lawmen who brought the killers to justice. He also interviewed the killers, both hung after several appeals, while they waited on Death Row. The result is a gripping, chilling narrative, full of atmospheric description and forensic studies of the killers' personalities. The book was published to universal acclaim in 1965 and ensured lasting fame for its author and lasting notoriety for the town of Holcomb. The photograph below is of Truman Capote in the lounge of the Clutter farmstead.
Two years ago we drove across the Kansas prairie and saw something of the countryside so wonderfully described by Capote, with its isolated farmhouses, small towns and low sand hills, much as Hickock and Smith must have done on their journey to Holcomb, triggered by a chance conversation in jail between Hickock and a fellow prisoner who had once worked at River Valley Farm. On such chance encounters are fates determined and nobody could have told this story better.

 "The Great Gatsby", by the flamboyant F Scott Fitzgerald, is beautifully written, with the light touch of a master, but it too has its dark side as the appalling socialites Tom Buchanan and his flirtatious wife Daisy wreak havoc on their neighbours in the wealthy villages of West and East Egg on Long Island. The story is set in the 1920's and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a cousin of Daisy's, who rents a house next to the mansion rented by Jay Gatsby, a reclusive apparent millionaire who throws lavish parties for all who come. Jay had loved Daisy in his youth and exploits Nick's good nature to set up a meeting with Daisy. From this flow bitter arguments between Gatsby and Buchanan as the former attempts to wrest Daisy from her husband. The climax comes when Daisy accidentally kills her husband's mistress in a motoring accident. Believing Gatsby to have been driving the car, the victim's husband shoots and kills Gatsby in his swimming pool before killing himself. The appalled Carraway says farewell to Daisy and Tom, who, apparently not greatly affected by the tragedy wrought, move on to continue their lives in the roaring twenties. One of the recurring themes in the book is the 'eyes of Dr. Eckleberg, the eyes being on an advertising billboard for an optician. This billboard is next to the the garage run by Buchanan's mistress's husband and the eyes act as mute observers of the chaos caused by the reckless playboys of the Jazz Age.
 Fitzgerald himself was very much a part of this scene. That he could stand back from it and produce this masterpiece is something for which we should all be grateful.
 "To Kill a Mockingbird" shares with "The Great Gatsby" a narrator through whose eyes and ears we enter a particular kind of world. Here we are in Maycomb County in 1930's Alabama and our narrator is Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout), the 6 year old daughter of an honourable white lawyer, Atticus Finch, a widower, who share the house with Scout's 9 year old brother Jem and their black servant, Calpurnia. Through Scout, over a 3 year period, we learn about the neighbourhood, the mysterious Boo Radley, who lives near them but never goes out of the house, and we take part in the daily activities such as school and the longed for holidays. Slowly we become aware that Atticus is deeply unpopular amongst many of their neighbours since he has been appointed to defend a black man Tom Robinson, against a charge of raping a young white girl, Mayella Ewell. It is not the fact that he has been appointed that upsets them, but the fact that he clearly intends to demonstrate Tom's innocence to the best of his ability. The court case, witnessed from the 'coloured balcony' by Scout and Jem is riveting and Atticus succeeds in discrediting Mayella and her father Bob, who we suspect beat his daughter when he saw her making overtures (which were rejected) to Tom Robinson. However, with an all white jury, the guilty verdict is inevitable and Tom is eventually shot whilst making a bid for freedom some time later. In the gripping climax, Scout and Jem are savagely attacked by Bob Ewell, but are saved by Boo Radley, who stabs and kills Ewell. The sheriff convinces Atticus that it is best to tell the world that Ewell fell on his own knife, since the reclusive Boo could never survive the ordeal of trial. As Scout points out it would be a sin to kill a mockingbird, i.e. a beautiful creature that does no harm to anyone. "Remember", Atticus had told Scout and Jem when he gave them their first shotguns early in the novel, "you can kill as many bluejays as you want, but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
 This book I would place as my favourite of the three because of the wonderful characters and the utterly convincing Scout.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Defining a Collection

The last part of this Blog described a particular author collection, specifically a Bronte collection. It is now time to lay down some rules. Let us assume you have chosen an author and wish to build up an impressive collection confirming your interest and the serious nature of your collecting ambitions. Let us further assume this is to be a literary collection.

The focal point of any author collection must be the works of that author. You may already have most of these in various forms; dog-eared paperbacks - hard backs without dust wrappers, with spines drunkenly leaning - odd volumes of a collected set of the author's works. You may even have a great attachment to these early members of your collection. But this is no time for sentiment. You are now into the serious business of collecting and must seek out the best possible copies of the major works. Depending on the author it may or may not be possible to make a strike for First Editions, particularly for the earliest works. But you must get as close as you can without blowing the whole budget. Thus, later impressions of the first edition with the same dust wrapper will sit on the shelves as comfortably as a true first, and only you will know the difference.

There must be one or two signed or association copies. These may have been 'flat-signed', i.e. a simple signature made in Waterstone's; they may be dedications to an individual. If the dedicatee has some connection with the author then this is very good ("To Bosie from Oscar"), but in most cases you will not be so lucky. Some authors signed almost everything, many in luxurious limited editions, before the 'trade' edition was published for the masses. As a true collector you may prefer the honest trade edition to such esoterica (particularly if funds are limited). There are exceptions: The Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf are inseparable, early fragments of James Joyce's 'Work in Progress' are essential in a Joyce collection.

OK, now we have the books by the author, but then you become aware of various collected editions of the author's works that are generally referred to in coded references such as Cook and Wedderburn Vol XXXIV. To hold your head up in any assemblage of devotees of your author, it is really necessary to acquire such a set even if you never read it and leave the pages uncut and unopened. There is only one rule here, buy the best or none at all. The best is instantly recognisable from the cadence of it's title, reflecting all that is best about the author. So we have The Sussex Edition (Kipling), The New York Edition (Henry James), The Knutsford Edition (Mrs Gaskell), The Caerleon Edition (Arthur Machen). Such titles reflect a certain elegance and grandeur and pity the author who has not laid claim to his native town or adopted county in his collected works. You will search in vain for The Stoke on Trent Edition of Arnold Bennett.

Next Bibliography; how else can you confirm the completeness and importance of your collection? Here you are well served and should easily acquire the standard bibliography, i.e. the one everyone quotes. Classic examples are Michael Sadleir's Trollope bibliography and Slocum and Cahoon's James Joyce bibliography. There is something really affirming in proving that your copy of 'Dubliners' is actually Slocum and Cahoon 9, while your copy of Arthur Machen's 'The Secret Glory' is Goldstone and Sweetser 19e (variant issue). You somehow knew these books were important, but nice to have your instincts consolidated in this way.

And so to Biography; accepting that your author's autobiography, if it exists, is likely to be the least reliable record, this must be first on the shelves, followed by, maybe three or four others spaced out over the period since the author's first success, with at least one recent life of the author, to put to rest any suspicions that you are not keeping your collection up to date.

The next area is difficult; this is the area of literary criticism. You really need to demonstrate that you do not merely read your author - you study your author. Now, do not confuse this with Reading Circles or York Notes. I am not talking here of books that take a difficult work and simplify it for the average reader. I am talking about books that take a basically simple narrative and deconstruct it into layers of impenetrable complexity. These books on your shelves confirm that there are no boundaries to your study. Worthy additions to your collection would be books such as 'Ironies of Ulysses', 'Let me be Los: Codebook for Finnegan's Wake', 'Ruskin's Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major Works'. Feminist and/or Marxist criticism will confirm your lack of prejudice and willingness to embrace new interpretations.

Finally, it will come as no surprise that most authors were copious letter writers and that most people receiving their letters put them in a safe place, even more so once the author's fame was assured. Even less of a surprise is that the Collected Letters of some authors exceed their entire literary output and being seen as an invaluable part of the author's oeuvre have not lacked for enthusiastic editors. So, these, too we must have (usually in expensive editions emanating from universities in the American mid-west, which with enviable foresight and bottomless purses managed to purchase the actual letters before the rest of us caught on).

So that is it - all that is left now is to try to get even closer to the author by acquiring a manuscript letter from the author, or piece of ephemera belonging to the author. A personal letter would be best - 'Dear Nora, I am going to tell you what I am really trying to say in the Proteus episode of Ulysses ....', - but the best you are likely to get is a visiting card or an acknowledgement for a delivery of potatoes.

Reviewing the above, I see that I may be accused of straying into cynicism here and there. This is not my intention. A collection built on the principles stated will not only be a continuing source of pride and pleasure, but could, just maybe, grow into something important. Only two rules apply; collect the best you can afford and don't stop until the bookcase really is overflowing.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 11 November 2011

Felix Kelly: Visions of Haunted Houses

One of the joys of book-collecting is that new categories emerge within the collection without any initial intent to create that category. Surreptitiously, a new group of related books appears and initiates a new interest.

So it was with Felix Kelly, at first just a name identifying him as the illustrator of the dust jacket of Faber and Faber's "Best Horror Stories" (1957). I first encountered this volume in its year of publication and, with its suitably ghostly picture of a wraith-like figure with a skeleton in its arms outside a deserted house, it immediately puts you in the world of M R James.
Some time later two more Felix Kelly dust jackets turned up, again in Faber and Faber's series of "Best of ..." collections. These were "Best Tales of Terror" (1962) and "Best Detective Stories" (1959), both edited by Edmund Crispin and again both suitably menacing with threatening figures appearing out of the dark.
Perhaps, though, the definitive Felix Kelly ghostly image is that making up the wrap-around dust jacket of Joseph Braddock's "Haunted Houses", (Batsford 1956). Here, trade-mark wraiths glide between gothic mansions in a landscape of tombstones and bare trees. Particularly effective is how the title of the book is placed on a white shroud (?) hanging over the scene.
Two more dust jackets complete this collection, both published by Home and Van Thal. That of Rhoda Broughton's "Twilight Stories" (1947) is set within an architectural drawing of a decaying window and has the usual leafless tree and gravestones as backdrop to the solitary figure.
"A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay" (J Sheridan Le Fanu, 1947) again features gravestones, towards which a female figure is falling as ominous black birds approach out of a lurid sky.
Felix Kelly (1914-1994) was a New Zealander, born in Auckland, who came to live permanently in England from 1935, serving as a fighter pilot in World War II. He is often compared with Rex Whistler and, like Whistler, made something of a speciality of decorating country houses with murals, often depicting imagined romantic landscapes replete with ruins in the manor of Claude. In pursuit of this career he was friendly with many aristocratic families, in the eighties working for Prince Charles at Highgrove.

Perhaps his most famous murals are those in the Garden Hall at Castle Howard, which he painted for Granada TV, under the patronage of the Howard family, for "Brideshead Revisited". It is these murals, depicting imagined Vanbrugh buildings, with features from Castle Howard, that Jeremy Irons, in the character of Charles Ryder, is seen painting in the series. Indeed there are so many parallels between the career of Kelly and the fictional Ryder, that the former's character may well have been used by Evelyn Waugh as the model for Charles Ryder.

The actors Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews are seen in the Garden Hall below:
A Kelly painting of the station at Castle Howard, painted for the Howard family:
As an artist, Kelly incorporates surrealist elements, but is chiefly associated with the Neo-Romantics. Some other typical works:

Kelly's childhood remembered in this surreal image of Takapuna Beach, near Auckland:
Mural for the Banqueting Hall, the Royal Palace, Kathmundu, Nepal:
Disturbing image with Kelly-esque woman in a black cloak:
A monograph on Kelly (known to friends as "Fix")was published in 2007 by Donald Bassett, an art historian at the University of Auckland, accompanying an exhibition (A Kiwi at Brideshead) of his work.
Felix Kelly illustrated many books, some with superb dust jacket designs, but, for me, it will always be his haunted houses decorating the dust jackets of some of my favourite books that retain their hold on my imagination.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

More Musings from the Daughter of a Mad Book Collector

My last entry focused on the IKEA bookcase which leans in an inebriated fashion in our living room. A month or so ago we found ourselves buying a new bookcase – this time, and in order to avoid paying the extortionate delivery costs, from Argos. The bookcase is handsome enough and, at only £19.99, pretty good value. The purchase became necessary owing to the number of books I had accumulated since discovering I was pregnant last July, and the books I had bought since the birth of my beautiful son, Tristan.

The first of this three part post will, I hope, offer some guidance to anyone daunted by the number of books about pregnancy, while the second part – which is much more fun – will be about the beginnings of my baby book library.  Having had very little sleep over the past five months, the final part will survey the books  which, all with the compulsory picture of a perfectly contented baby in a dream-like state on the cover, attempt (to give it away from the outset, I would say unsuccessfully) to get your child to sleep through the night.
Part One: Nine Women Can’t Make a Baby in One Month: Books about Pregnancy
I am sure I wasn’t alone in desperately searching for the perfect book to get me through my pregnancy and, within a few days of seeing the two red lines appear on my pregnancy test, I was off shopping. I didn’t even know where such books could be found in Waterstone’s and, found myself wandering round aimlessly until I stumbled across bookshelf after bookshelf tucked away in the Childrens’ Department.
Of course books play a secondary role compared to the internet and, despite the doctor telling me on my very first appointment not to rely on the web to diagnose all the pains, sores, aches and nausea which I would inevitably experience, I found that I couldn’t help myself. Google’s search engine dealt more than adequately with my requests for information, and I rarely even had to type in the word ‘pregnancy’ as from merely entering ‘8 weeks …’ or ‘pain on left side …’ Google assumed that I must be wanting to know what on earth the faint red line was that was slowly working its way from my belly button in all directions, or wondering why for the first time in my entire life I didn’t feel like eating a custard cream.
Anyway, back to books. I didn’t find the book I wanted on that first visit, but my problem was solved when I found my husband had ordered ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’ from Amazon and we discovered, to our absolute delight, that Tristan was already the size of a blueberry. In the weeks that followed and, as a result of this book close to hand, we could happily browse Sainsbury’s and pick up the very fruit or vegetable that the growing foetus could be compared to, and place it next to my tummy. Even when he was the size of a melon and shopping trips for me became more of an ordeal than a pleasure, we both squealed with delight when we found the comparable food (n.b. At 7 months, Tristan is currently not even half the weight of the world’s largest sweet potato which weighed in at 24lbs.)
The book had other uses too and, for each symptom that appeared, I could look through the books’ index and find out that what I was experiencing was perfectly normal or, if it wasn’t, I would resort to the internet again and discover at least a dozen discussion sites devoted to the subject. So ‘What to Expect …’ was never too far away. The only trouble with the book and, being an art historian you can perhaps sympathise with me, was that there weren’t any pictures at all. One of the most enjoyable things about being pregnant (and there were very few in my case) was trying to imagine the baby growing inside me. This was when Anne Deans’ The Pregnancy Bible came in handy. Lent to me by a friend, this tome had colour photographs throughout of, not only the rapidly expanding child with alien features, but also of a tummy which, until the final 10 weeks, was significantly more impressive than mine.
Still the very best book was undoubtedly The Best Friends’ Guide to Pregnancy by Vicki Lovine which my sister had sworn by. I didn’t actually care very much for this book until the final month when I read it more or less from cover to cover. Because of Lovine I decided not to get my hair cut (she advises against attempting a new look during pregnancy as you’re doomed to looking rubbish most of the time anyway) and, in those final few days when I was literally pulling out strands of my unkempt hair, it made us chuckle as the author described the moment when I would wake in the middle of the night and calmly announce ‘darling, it’s time’ (actually this isn’t far off what happened as, unlike in Eastenders when the actresses crumple up in the middle of the square in agony when labour starts, I only had mild cramps at the outset). She describes the process of childbirth fairly candidly (I’m afraid that I didn’t have much time for Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth in which she basically says that, with the right techniques, all you’ll feed in childbirth is a slight tingling effect as the baby pops out).
In conclusion I would say that the very best guide to pregnancy, and the one that it’s worth having on your bedside table in case you can’t make it out of bed in the morning, is The Pregnancy Book which is published by the NHS, and should be given to you by your midwife on your first visit. Although the photo of a woman with stretch marks was a bit horrifying, the book tells you everything that will or could happen and, best of all, is completely free. It’s also useful for listing up to date information about all the benefits that you can claim, and has a chart detailing what to expect during each check-up.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

"not yet, though vennisoon after" - when to read 'Finnegans Wake'

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, for all except a select band of devotees, in 'Finnegans Wake' James Joyce bequeathed as his parting gift to the world a book that is essentially unreadable. Yet any list of the world's great books would include Joyce's 'book of the dark' alongside his book of the day, "Ulysses". To its admirers it is the greatest book of the twentieth century; to others it remains a mystery as yet unexplored.

It is complex, deliberately made so, as Joyce expanded and revised earlier drafts, creating ever richer neologisms and portmanteau words and incorporating words from a variety of languages. It is the multiplicity of meanings and interpretations contained in each phrase (and often word) that makes 'Finnegans Wake' the magical work it is. This, in turn, has led to a veritable industry of commentators, annotators and critics who have subjected the book to possibly the most detailed examination ever accorded to a modern work of fiction.

This process began even before the book was published in its final form by Faber and Faber in 1939, as a result of the publication in the journal 'Transition' of extracts from what was then called 'Work in Progress'.

These extracts in fact comprise the bulk of the work and were published in 17 installments between April 1927 and May 1938, Joyce having commenced his 'Work in Progress' in 1923, the year after 'Ulysses' was published. 'Transition', published by Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company contained alongside 'Work in Progress', work by other leading modernists, such as Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters and even Franz Kafka.

Sections of the work were also published in individual booklets by private presses, such as the Paris based Black Sun Press and the New York Crosby Gaige. Copies of these, especially the signed ones, can be very expensive. The first of these was 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' (1928), the last (and most elaborate, including a hand coloured initial letter by Joyce's daughter, Lucia) 'Storiella as She is Syung' (1938).

Only two years after the first appearance of 'Work in Progress' in 'Transition' Joyce encouraged a group of friends to publish their responses to it. Thus it was that in 1929, Shakespeare and Company published 'Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress', containing articles by, amongst others, Samuel Beckett (to whom Joyce dictated parts of 'Work in Progress' as his eyesight failed) and William Carlos Williams, surely the only occasion on which a spirited defence of a book has been published ten years before the actual book was published. A significant number of Joyce's letters to his friends also contain explanations of various parts of his text.

But then everything about 'Finnegans Wake' defies the usual conventions; it is one of those works like 'Tristram Shandy' and 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' that changes the landscape of literature. For a start, since its original publication, successive editions have maintained essentially the same pagination, from Page 3 through to 628, enabling references in critical works to page and line numbers to have universal application. This is similar to the Bible, with its generic Book, Chapter, Verse references and, in my mind, 'Finnegans Wake' is Joyce's sacred book, since into it he poured not only his own life experience, but a view of life that is both universally valid and profoundly sympathetic. Joyce's writing style, in this work, has all the characteristics of a dream, with characters undergoing transformations both to heroic archetypes and to geographical features. But the identity of the dreamer is not certain.

Who are the characters? Essentially a family living in a public house in Chapelizod, on the banks of the Liffey west of the centre of Dublin, at which house, a party has assembled for the wake of one Finnegan, a builder who fell from a ladder. The family are the publican, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE), his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, their twin sons Shem and Shaun and daughter Issy. But these characters represent all of humanity.

HCE is the archetypal flawed man, who has committed some sort of indiscretion in Phoenix Park, from which event much of the book's narrative action (such as it is) is derived. But he is also the mythical hero of his race, Finn MacCool, and a builder of cities and civilisations. His geographical counterpart is Howth Head, where the Liffey meets the Atlantic.

Anna Livia is all women and has her counterpart in the 'rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of' the River Liffey, Dublin's passage to the sea. She is a subject of gossip amongst the washerwomen down at the river but is the well spring of all life.

Shem 'the Penman' is the writer and artist (possibly Joyce), Shaun 'the Post' is the practical son (possibly Joyce's brother Stanislaus), deliverer of messages, while the lively Issy is every daughter.

Through these characters in their multiple avatars Joyce presents a view of all history, geography and literature. Finnegan's fall is Earwicker's fall is humanity's fall. Joyce was Influenced by the Italian philosopher Vico's theory of history as repeating cycles (successive ages of gods, heroes and humans followed by a period of chaos before the cycle repeats) and this cyclical pattern occurs thoughout the book, evidenced also by the first sentence of the book being the continuation of its final sentence.

I (perhaps like many others) read selected parts of 'Finnegans Wake' before attempting the whole book (which I have now done). To help I assembled a collection of, what have become standard 'companions' to the 'Wake'. Perhaps the best known of these is 'A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake' by Campbell and Robinson (1944), which contains analysis and a paraphrase of its text.

My own favourite is James Atherton's 'The Books at the Wake' (1959), which is a detailed study of the literary sources Joyce used. These include Skakespeare (every play is incorporated), Swift, Lewis Carroll, The Bible (every book) and the Koran (all 114 suras). But Joyce also built in references to his favourite books, such as Le Fanu's 'The House by the Churchyard' and Thomas Moore's 'Irish Melodies' (all first lines and titles of the melodies are used). Atherton lists several hundred separate works which can be found in the 'Wake', including the 11th edition of the 'Encyclopedia Brittanica', which Joyce plundered for river names and other geographical and historical references.

Louis Mink's 'A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer' (1978) includes references to the thousands of place name references, arranged both in linear form (i.e. in order of the text) and alphabetically.

Add to these Clive Hart's massive 'Concordance' and McHugh's 'Annotations', which provides page by page analysis of every word requiring it, and you would be as well equipped as any previous reader.

There is a wonderful book edited by Burns and Gaylord entitled 'A Tour of the Darkling Plain'.

This contains letters exchanged between Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen over the period 1950 to 1975, in which they share their love of 'Finnegans Wake' and attempt to solve its mysteries. Glasheen went on to produce the wonderful 'A Census of Finnegans Wake' (1956), which lists the hundreds of characters, fictional and historical, who appear in the work, with suitable annotations. She later expanded this in second and third editions.

So, when to read 'Finnegans Wake'? Perhaps, as Joyce wrote it at the end of his writing life, it is best read late in your own reading life. It is the work of a mature mind at the very height of its powers.

And perhaps now is exactly the right time, as a New Edition of 'Finnegans Wake', the product of many years work on the manuscripts, has just been published in a sumptuous edition by the Houyhnhnm Press, Dublin. This has some 9,000 'corrections' from the previously published version and is perhaps the last word on the text. It will be available in Penguin shortly.

Why read it? Because hidden away you will find (as on page 328, line 29), lines that take your breath away:

"In the buginning is the woid, in the muddle is the sounddance and thereinofter you're in the unbewised again, vund vulsyvolsy.".

For a succint statement of life (and death) that is about as good as literature can get.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, 23 September 2011

High Barn Books - Stella reports on the first ten years

It could have been the 14th, or possibly 15th September 2001 when we first thought of it. We know now to call this ‘post 9/11 Britain’ and although the shocking twin towers collapse seemed to have nothing to do with the conception of High Barn Books, maybe we were in a way ready for something new.

We had gone to York Book Fair and picked up some books we had bought from a local bookseller. Being heavy and expensive to post it seemed sensible to go and get them while we were so close. We ended up at the house of Jeffrey Stern - quite a stunning property in itself, but even more so given the books inside - and the books outside in his substantial outhouses. Jeffrey had a radical idea. He thought we should become booksellers.

Actually this wasn’t so radical. I don’t think that any of our friends at the time would have thought it at all strange that we should go into the business. We had been collecting books since we were married in 1970 and one look at any room in our house would show that it had grown from a collection to, well, a BIG collection.

I don’t say it’s an obsession as that somehow implies piles of books in corners of every room. We have made an effort to keep the size of our book collection down to the size of the place we live - which means we either have to limit our book collection or keep buying somewhere bigger. No prizes for guessing which we did. But then suddenly it became obvious that some books we had begun to collect weren’t as interesting as they used to be. And we had new interests, new collections to build up. When Jeffrey suggested becoming sellers it immediately became apparent to us that we had some books to sell already. He thought about 300 books was enough to start selling and we felt that we had that many we could pull out of our own collection without missing them too much.

So then we had the drive home. Could we do it? Yes. What should we call it? Rabbit Lane Books? Gressingham Books? Stelandjohn’s Book Emporium? But of course High Barn Books was the one and only name in the end. 3 strong monosyllables standing firm like a solid 19th century 3-decker novel and a bit of alliteration into the bargain. We already had a company and we weren’t too sure if we could slot High Barn Books under the same umbrella. As soon as we got home we searched the internet to see if there was another High Barn Books. Assuming that the High Barn B and B in Sussex, and High Barn recording studios in Essex wouldn’t even notice, we felt confident that we had the only High Barn Bookstore in the world. And a call to our accountant on Monday morning confirmed that we could have one company that sold second hand books and were nuclear safety consultants.

Next thing was to sort out some books and catalogue them. There seemed many frightening things to tackle about starting up a new business from scratch - not least the technology of putting things up on the internet rather than downloading them from it. I had a fair amount of knowledge of databases and so we could hash something together that way, and to my amazement I could upload to abebooks using the software we already had.

But describing books seemed to be the most frightening of all. Terrified of doing something wrongly, my first attempts consisted of cutting and pasting other booksellers’ descriptions and then changing them slightly so that they sounded like the book we were trying to sell. After a few days of this I cautiously wrote my own. Now nearly 30000 books later I can’t quite remember what I was so nervous about.

Meanwhile, on the financial front, John was busy buying nice new account books and arranging for new bank accounts in the name of High Barn Books. We had the target of getting the business going by 1st January 2002 - a 3 month margin to sort out all the ins and outs of our new venture, but we achieved our first upload to Abebooks on 25th October 2001. But of course our most important milestone was that first book sale, ‘The Legacy of England’ (Batsford) to the memorably-named Vince Prank.

By the following May we had 1000 books online and had sold nearly 200 books and so the business grew. We picked up books along the way from charity sales, library sales, and through friends we bought collections of unwanted books, mostly locally, though some further away. Some we could put into the boot of the car, and for some we hired a decent sized van. Somehow it just grew.

Problems of shelving our stock were relieved from time to time by bits of shelving acquired here and there over time and this entailed finding tiny bits of free wall space to put them. Now we think we have as much shelving as the house can stand, but there are also books in the garage and some in boxes. But by and large our current stock of nearly 6000 books is about the maximum we can manage here alongside our own collection and the business ticks over well at that level.

In 2001 bookselling on the internet wasn’t new - but it was, compared to now, in relative infancy. Bookselling, unlike most remote selling, lends itself perfectly to the internet. Book buyers have long been able to translate the arcane language of booksellers. Such fragments as cold. ill. or a.e.g, are easily translatable (coloured illustrations, all edges gilt) to your average bookbuyer as booksellers have been using these for years in catalogues.

Bookbuyers don’t just peer at dusty bookshelves in dustier bookshops, spectacles raised to their eyebrows, tattered sports jackets with leather elbow patches, their sit-up-and-beg bikes with wicker baskets poised to take flight with brown paper covered packages perfectly tied up with string. Sometimes they sit by their fires, pipes in hand eagerly perusing book catalogues, phones poised to ring up the bookseller to catch their latest ‘find’. So once the internet became available more widely, it was almost inevitable that some bright spark would put books up there.

Amazon, early on the scene, appeared to the internet all guns blazing to sell new books in 1995 and more discreetly, the Advanced Book Exchange in 1996. Advanced Book Exchange had the idea of matching sellers of unwanted books to buyers who wanted them. Little is left of that idea, though buyers who are looking for particular volumes can add a want and both buyers and sellers get lists of matches. But times change and Advanced Book Exchange turned into a worldwide market place and became Abebooks - with some uncertainly as to whether it should be A-B-E books or Abe as some brother of Cain who has wondered into the book of lost consonants. By 2001 Abebooks was still king of the second hand bookselling business and although they charged commission, they felt that the link between seller and buyer was paramount. It may be only 10 years later, but there have been some dramatic changes since then.

But High Barn Books keeps on going - soon to be in its second decade. We have had our own website for many years, and our packing is second to none. Our average sales are slightly above average and we enjoy what we do. The ebook may be threatening, louring above all booksellers, but we are positive. The look, feel, touch, smell of a real book will never be a phase that will pass.

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