Tuesday, March 17, 2009

George Orwell on Losing His Love of Books

In "Bookshop Memories," George Orwell writes of losing his love of books in a concluding paragraph which, it seems to me, fairly brims with a love of books:

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl's Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can't borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

From George Orwell, Books v. cigarettes (2008; essay first published in 1936).


Suko said...

This loss of love may be a direct result of "book overload", association with unpleasant, heavy work and dealings with disgruntled customers, which could make the greatest writer, bookworm, or bibliophile renounce books--at least temporarily. That is the danger of turning a passion into a job: it becomes work.

Finn Harvor said...

This is a beautiful -- perhaps because it is intelligent and does not try overly hard to be beautiful -- description of losing one's sense of mystification; in this sense, it describes a process all literary people must go through, since it is middle-brow to "love books" in a manner that fetishizes the object, not the text.

So the question becomes: how do we assess texts objectively -- granting admiration (and yes, love) to those that deserve it? This, it seems to me, is a question literate Canadians in particular need to ask themselves, since some of our largest cultural institutions have a proclivity for promoting the middle-brow and the "done before".

Melwyk said...

Thanks for sharing - I can relate to George here, dead bluebottles and all.

Anonymous said...

Or, as I told a friend the other day, "used books smell."

Anonymous said...

Lovely post this - I'm coming to it a bit late... Yes, it must be easy to lose the love of something, including books, when they become a commodity like so many other things on a shelf.