Five or six summers ago, I was browsing in a shabbily genteel second-hand bookstore in a university town somewhere in the middle of the United States. The shop had a substantial stock of fiction, a generous and eclectic supply of non-fiction and the sort of haphazard shelving policy which actively demands exploration. I cannot now remember which section I was in when I discovered Reginald Reynolds’s extraordinary Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1949). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in fiction, but beyond that it could have been anywhere. The British Library shelves the book under ‘hairstyles’; the Library of Congress under ‘fashion’; Cambridge University Library under ‘European History’. The seller’s pencilling on the fly-leaf simply reads ‘History (?)’, which is probably where it was. But the uncertainty speaks volumes.
It was the cover that first drew my attention – the title on the paperback edition sprouts wildly across the chin of a figure who looks rather like Karl Marx – but it was the preface that ensured I bought the book. As part of his rambling discussion of the book’s genesis, Reynolds turns to the subject of serendipity, and the discovery of unexpected delights while browsing:
Now any good library is to a Serendipitist what a fly-paper is to a fly; and the most dangerous of all such fly-papers to a fly of small learning, such as myself, is the Reading Room of the British Museum. You ask for some old pamphlet or broadsheet, and it is certain to arrive in a bound volume with some twenty others or more, that are all the more entertaining because they have nothing in common with your studies. Or again, you are reading a life of Pomponius Atticus, who does not interest you, when you find that he died of tenesmos, which lays a hold of your curiosity. A considerate footnote explains that this affliction is a Violent Motion without the Power of going to Stool; and a new word with a sinister sound and truly terrifying connotation is added to your vocabulary. It will explain almost any modern poet, except Mr Betjeman, and can be swung on the head of any adverse critic of this book who has not himself written a volume on beards.
Fellow enthusiasts of Reynolds’s Beards occasionally surface online and more rarely in person. Almost invariably, their first encounters with the book and its author prove to have been remarkably similar to my own – a chance find in
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