Hitting Rock Bottom.

I took each book, gingerly – for some of them were very delicate – out of the box and handed them to the man behind the counter.

“…and this one,” I said, a little sadly, “Is probably my most prized one. First edition of Capital, the first volume only, I am afraid, 1887. You can see it was signed by Raymond Williams. The Marxist Literary Critic,” I added, rather stupidly. As if the man who ran the antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge wouldn’t know who Raymond Williams was. “It’s the first English language translation, I believe – the Moore and Averling…”

I trailed off, watching as the elderly gentleman with horn rimmed spectacles – the stereotype of a bookseller, the kind you only found lurking in University towns like Cambridge – examined the copy, checked the spine, flicked gently through a few pages. I caught a glimpse of Raymond William’s spiky signature on the title page and felt a little sad. I never thought I’d find myself, one rainy afternoon in August, holding a box of  first editions, and asking someone to take them away from me for money. In the box were four first editions of T.S. Eliot (two volumes of Collected Poems, Murder in the Cathedral and Four Quartets), a rather decrepit edition of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, signed by the author, three first editions of A.E. Houseman, a fairly nice edition of A Room of One’s Own, among others. This was a collection I had built up over the course of almost a decade. And now, I was selling it, because I needed to eat and pay my therapist.

The Marx, in particular, was something I was sad to lose. It had been given to my by Chris Bristow, an ancient supervisor, and probably the single smartest human being I had ever met. He had presented me the volume after I got a high mark in my Part II Tragedy paper. Bristow, in his youth, had been a colleague of Williams and Terry Eagleton, both giants of literary Marxism, and Williams had given him the signed copy of Capital as a birthday present many years before. I had politely refused – I could not take something so precious. Bristow has smiled his crinkled smile and merely replied: “I have others. And I wouldn’t give it away lightly.”

Three years later, I was watching the bookseller at an antiquarian bookshop well hidden in central Cambridge, man handle one of my precious possessions. I wanted to snatch it back. It was like finding someone else stroking your cat, or coming home to find a complete stranger sleeping in your bed. It was a sight I had never hoped to see. Vainly, I tried to distract myself by looking around the low ceilinged room, lined with venerable volumes. It didn’t help. I remembered that I used to bring girls here on dates, partially because most of the girls I tried to date were English students and old books are an literature students aphrodisiac, but mainly because I wanted to show off how fucking cultured I was. Look, love, here’s where I hang out. You probably imagine me sitting at home by a roaring fire in a smoking jacket, having read and understood the complete works of the 19th century French visionary Marcel Proust – a radical with rather conservative habits, a rather quaint trait for a bearded leftist. What a complete fool I must have seemed to those nervously giggling girls. I say “seemed” – “was” would be more accurate.

The Marx wasn’t the most prized book I’d ever owned. That was a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which, by sheer chance, I found it a charity shop in Manchester. I had picked up the slim, rather battered little thing on a whim, because I recalled that we needed to study T.S. Eliot for AS Level English Language & Literature and I should probably read some. That book sat at the bottom of my satchel for a week, before, midway through a lesson, my teacher asked to see it and almost had a fit. I later had it valued  – £17,000. I kept it in my bedroom at my parents house, in a glass box, open on my favourite verse:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.

A few years later, I came back to my parents house to find the box smashed. I found the remains of the dust jacket in the barbecue, a rather forlorn curl, upon which, ironically, the word “Waste” was still visible. Apparently, our lord and saviour, Jesus Christ, had informed his favourite servant – my mother – that my possessions were blasphemous and needed to be cleansed in fire.

Such is the way life goes. 
The books weren’t the only thing that would need to go. My Xbox would be on its way shortly, as would my bass guitar. I was actively exploring a second job, and thinking about a 3rd. If, perhaps, I wasn’t saddled with huge debts from my masters degree, if, perhaps, I didn’t also need to scrimp and save for a PhD, if, perhaps, I hadn’t had all of my savings stolen and had been financially screwed over by several people close to me, then none of this would be necessary. It’s not like I live a particularly extravagant life. With the exception of tobacco, I barely spend money that isn’t on essentials like food, pet supplies, things for my house and so on. I rarely go out, and when I do, I generally limit myself to a pint at most to save costs. My main evening activity is going to stand up gigs where I am the entertainment. In other words, selling my books wasn’t the consequence of a life lived outside of my means, but just the next difficult step in a difficult stage in my life. 
In his essay, Unpacking my Library, Walter Benjamin wrote that “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memory.” I suppose that was the saddest part of this – each book was a memory. I recalled, in vivid detail how I had found each one, where I had found it, the first time I had read it (often with exaggerated care). I remembered who I was with when I found it, remembered whether they were particularly excited or not by my daft habit (if they weren’t, it tended to sour the friendship). Similarly, as I try to rebuild my home environment after traumatic events, I feel like I’m trying to hold onto memories while simultaneously being haunted by them. 
Elsewhere in the same essay, Benjamin wrote: “…Thus there is in the life of collector a dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder.” Perhaps this is why I hold on to so many old things. Old books, photographs of myself, smiling on beaches with ex-girlfriends, old pendants, letters, post it notes…an ex ex girlfriend of mine was livid that I continued to wear a Mjolnir, a gift from my first ever girlfriend. “You can have your precious memories, or you can have me!” she screamed tearfully. I later threw the pendant in the river, in order to show how committed I was to the relationship. It’s rather sad that, given everything that happened in that clusterfuck of a partnership, I’m saddest about losing the Mjolnir. Objects, things, photographs…they help apply some sort of framing device, some order to what would otherwise be chaos and anarchy. 
Some Marxist I am. 
The bookseller finished perusing Capital, and gave a perfunctory glance at the other volumes. 
“Thirty pounds, the lot.” He said, “And I’m being generous.”
I told him, politely, to fuck off. That done, I gathered my books, put my collar up against the cold, and walked home in the rain.

3 thoughts on “Hitting Rock Bottom.

  1. We're forever being told not to hold on to material possessions, but this so eloquently shows that it is the memory tied to the item that makes it valuable.


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