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.