Inverted Commas 4: Used Books
I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?
Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.
The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.
For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.
The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.
I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.
I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.
Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”
Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?