In 1936, George Orwell published an essay, Bookshop Memories. In it, he recalled his time as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop, a time that was happy only when viewed through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia. Irony might be defined as disgust recalled in tranquility, and Orwell’s essay is nothing if not full of irony. He was glad to have had the experience, but more glad it was over.
Not much has changed in the three quarters of a century that have elapsed since Orwell’s experience as a bookseller. Second-hand bookshops the world over still tend to be inadequately heated places, Orwell says because the owners fear condensation in the windows, but also because profits are small and heating bills would be large. There is a peculiar chill, quite unlike any other, to be experienced between the stacks of second-hand bookshops.
Orwell says that the tops of books in such bookshops are the place ‘where every bluebottle prefers to die,’ and this preference, being biological in origin, has not changed in the meantime. The dust of old books, and ‘the sweet smell of decaying paper’, still have a peculiarly choking quality that catch one in the back of the throat. And second-hand bookshops are still one of the few indoor public places where a person may loiter for hours without being suspected of any serious ulterior motive.
Read Theodore Dalyrmple’s article in full at the New English Review …