Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Library of Forgotten Books

Shuffling between my two home bases in Oxford and Madrid last week I had a couple of hours to kill at Gatwick airport. It being past noon, I decided to spend them in the airport's pub, The Flying Horse, enjoying a last couple of pints of English real ale.

Airport pubs are soulless places, but the management at the The Flying Horse has tried to make it homey by installing big bookshelves stuffed with volumes of an age suitable for the faux country mansion decor of cheap wood paneling, dark carpet, and dim lighting.

Studying the titles I had to wonder when the last of them was read. They all seemed to be unknowns that passed into obscurity in the first month they were published. How many people really read A Girl and Her Ways by Amy Le Feuvre or Edward Henry Bickersteth by F.K. Aglianby? Did Hine's Relics of an Uncommon Attorney earn out its advance? The Six Proud Walkers almost got me with the title, but sorry F. Beedin, I prefer to hike alone.

The only familiar face in this crowd of strangers was War and Peace--in an edition old enough to be tattered but recent enough to be of no value. And it was in Russian. And only volumes three and four.

I can't decide how I feel about books being demoted to mere decoration. On the one hand, it's demeaning to the dreams of hundreds of struggling authors. They're all almost certainly dead, so I guess that's a relief. On the other hand, their only other destination would have been the rubbish skip. If books can still provide the atmosphere of refinement, don't they still have a value?

I wonder if my son will walk into an airport pub seventy years from now and see one of my own titles being used to line the walls.

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