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A Real Reader

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Almost thirty years ago I paid my first visit to America. Heywood Hill had always had a strong American connection, despite Nancy Mitford’s scathing view of the species, and friends had suggested that we might open a branch of the shop in New York. This needed some careful research and very hard thinking but it was, of course, enjoyable to meet fellow-booksellers and to put a face to the shops there, both new and antiquarian.

A long-standing customer, who still orders books from us every week, asked me what was the purpose of the visit. When I told him and added that I was also meeting friends in various cities from Chicago to Boston, he said that it sounded like a modern version of Parnassus on Wheels. This 1917 novel by Christopher Morley meant nothing to me, so he lent me a spare copy.

For those who share my ignorance, its main characters are an unusual couple, Roger Mifflin and Hilda McGill, who join forces to drive a horse-drawn caravan full of books round the villages of the eastern shore, buying and selling their wares at a gentle pace. (At the time I found it charming; when I came to reread it a few months ago, it seemed rather dated.)

In the end we decided against opening an American branch of the shop but I was reminded of the discovery of Parnassus on Wheels last July when I was asked to buy the books of someone who had been both a real reader – she had all the issues of Slightly Foxed published up to the time of her death – and a distinguished bookwoman. She’d worked in the library of the Linnaean Society, had helped Wilfrid Blunt to bring out an illustrated herbal (and been given many of his earlier books), had worked on several dictionary projects for Oxford University Press, and had written two of the splendid catalogues, Sylva and Pomona, of Mrs Paul Mellon’s marvellous collection of flower books. Her name was Sandra Raphael, and she owned copies of several novels by Christopher Morley.

She had clearly been bookish from an early age and she liked the company of other bibliophiles. Of a pre-computer-educated generation, she had a passion for the printed word and for the accuracy of any text:

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Almost thirty years ago I paid my first visit to America. Heywood Hill had always had a strong American connection, despite Nancy Mitford’s scathing view of the species, and friends had suggested that we might open a branch of the shop in New York. This needed some careful research and very hard thinking but it was, of course, enjoyable to meet fellow-booksellers and to put a face to the shops there, both new and antiquarian.

A long-standing customer, who still orders books from us every week, asked me what was the purpose of the visit. When I told him and added that I was also meeting friends in various cities from Chicago to Boston, he said that it sounded like a modern version of Parnassus on Wheels. This 1917 novel by Christopher Morley meant nothing to me, so he lent me a spare copy. For those who share my ignorance, its main characters are an unusual couple, Roger Mifflin and Hilda McGill, who join forces to drive a horse-drawn caravan full of books round the villages of the eastern shore, buying and selling their wares at a gentle pace. (At the time I found it charming; when I came to reread it a few months ago, it seemed rather dated.) In the end we decided against opening an American branch of the shop but I was reminded of the discovery of Parnassus on Wheels last July when I was asked to buy the books of someone who had been both a real reader – she had all the issues of Slightly Foxed published up to the time of her death – and a distinguished bookwoman. She’d worked in the library of the Linnaean Society, had helped Wilfrid Blunt to bring out an illustrated herbal (and been given many of his earlier books), had worked on several dictionary projects for Oxford University Press, and had written two of the splendid catalogues, Sylva and Pomona, of Mrs Paul Mellon’s marvellous collection of flower books. Her name was Sandra Raphael, and she owned copies of several novels by Christopher Morley. She had clearly been bookish from an early age and she liked the company of other bibliophiles. Of a pre-computer-educated generation, she had a passion for the printed word and for the accuracy of any text: she would never be without a book, or three, in her bag, and woe betide the publisher who was careless with his proofreading or managed to confuse a caption to an illustration. She never had the means to indulge in expensive antiquarian books, but her shelves expressed different facets of her reading and, in looking through the collection, I couldn’t help feeling that certain aspects of her choice would be recognizable to Slightly Foxed subscribers. As an ex-librarian, she had everything in good, tidy order. Where it is now unusual to find a second-hand bookseller who even recognizes the category of Commonplace Books, she had several on the same shelf: Auden’s A Certain World, David Cecil’s Library Looking-Glass, Geoffrey Grigson’s English Year and John Julius Norwich’s Christmas Crackers among them. Next were Holbrook Jackson’s Bookman’s Holiday, Logan Pearsall-Smith’s All Trivia and Brian Aldiss’s uncharacteristic Brightfount Diaries, his first book, written when he was a bookseller. Anthologies were a little further along, and then came an intriguing mixture of Letters and Diaries. As a reader, once she’d decided she liked a writer, she tried to find everything he or she had written. So there was a full shelf of Rose Macaulay: the novels going back to before the First World War, reading copies and lacking the dust wrappers that would make them collectable, her Letters and Last Letters to a Friend and her travel books, among them They Went to Portugal and Fabled Shore. Having never known of this particular interest, I now understand why she’d been pleased a couple of years ago by our booklet called The Boasting Party. The party had been organized in March 1934, and Logan Pearsall Smith had typed up an account of it. One of the several literary guests he’d invited was ‘Miss R. M.’ Her boasts had included that she had ‘once swallowed 59 cherry stones one after another’, and that she had ‘been turned out of Francis Edwards’ bookshop in Marylebone High Street for trying to sell them what they regarded as an obscene book: Disraeli’s Curiosities of Literature’. (This was not enough to win the Prize, which was unanimously awarded to a lady whose initials were A.W. At the time none of us, or our scholarly friends, could guess her identity, but an Emeritus Professor of English who lived in the Shetland Isles was given a copy of the booklet and emailed us to say that it was Antonia White. This was confirmed after I’d written to one of her daughters and asked if A. W.’s boasts sounded familiar.) There was also an impressive show of Sylvia Townsend Warner, another great writer of letters, and of Sybille Bedford, who may well have written delightful letters, though no collection has yet been made. Like Sandra Raphael, none of these ladies had married, but I suspect she related to them entirely for literary reasons, because she loved both their style and their variety of subject, rather than for personal reasons. Among her paperbacks was a solid green phalanx of Virago reprints from Ada Leverson’s Little Ottleys to Emily Eden’s Up the Country; among her literary runs a set of Ford Madox Ford published by Bodley Head, and E. M. Forster’s novels, lacking Howard’s End, in the discreet Edward Arnold edition which was kept in print for two generations. Neither lasted more than a few days on our shelves. By the time of her death she had run out of space. This must be a universal complaint for real readers and most would agree on the insoluble problem of discarding or even gently culling; when you do, that’s precisely when you urgently need the book in question. She had always liked giving books as presents, and one group of her gardening books was inherited by a particular friend in Yeovil. Her nephew, a don at Cambridge, had taken on copies of the books she had written or edited herself, plus a full set of the Oxford Dictionary, but even so I removed eight large cartons of her books plus a pile of quarto gardening books that could more easily be transported loose. As I drove my heavy load to London, the springs of my car made an audible complaint – a far cry from Parnassus on Wheels – but I had time to think about the tastes we had shared and the books we might have recommended to each other if we had kept in closer touch, or if she hadn’t died relatively young. After noticing that she had both of Emily Eden’s witty novels, Semi-Detached House and Semi-Attached Couple, I might have told her about Miss Eden’s letters which were published a hundred years ago, edited by Violet Dickinson who taught Virginia Woolf Latin. She might have pressed me to read more Geoffrey Grigson, a fractious character but a brilliant and pioneering essayist. Together, because we’d originally met at the Mellons’ house in Virginia, we might have looked at the diaries she kept during the five years she spent there on and off, and thought about whether they might be publishable. I also began to wonder about the changing equation between books and people. When I first became a bookseller, bookshops lived for that equation, and those who enjoyed the trade took as much interest in their customers as in the books that came into their hands. It was a two-way relationship, and because reading is organic, and no reader can cover every literary field, booksellers were as dependent on their cultivated customers as the other way round. Can such rewarding friendships survive the inhuman Internet, I wonder?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © John Saumarez Smith 2006


About the contributor

In John Saumarez Smith’s Spy in the Bookshop, he pretentiously suggested to Heywood Hill that he was defending Parnassus against the forces of Philistia. Plus ça change . . .

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