The Shelves They Are a-Bulgin’

In which The Author spends some money on books

Everyone who knows me talks to me about my book addiction in hushed tones. It’s not the sort of thing which one discusses with friends in polite company, after all. Remember, in some parts of Aberdare, simply being able to read marks you out as a freak. I once heard a joke which used to entertain the radicals in Communist Bulgaria:
Q: Why do the Bulgarian secret police walk around in threes?
A: Because one knows how to write, one knows how to make a phone call, and the third one’s keeping an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals.
When it comes to addictions, there are far worse things than books to get hooked on. Pretty much the full range of illegal drugs is on sale openly on the streets of Aberdare six days a week, so I don’t feel bad about spending a few quid on books every so often.
There are only a few known side-effects, none of them very dangerous: the eventual need to wear glasses; the automatic assumption by others that you’re the fount of all knowledge and wisdom; the propensity of idiots to see books as an open invitation to interrupt your quiet time (especially if you produce one in the pub, as I told you in All Trussed Up and No Place to Go); and, finally, the fundamental physical conundrum that your collection will eventually expand to fill the shelves available – and then keep on expanding.
As I recounted in On the Up, I had the great pleasure of discovering Ben Aaronovitch’s books in The Works in Aberdare a month or so ago. I finished the second one, Moon Over Soho, on Monday night and dived straight into Whispers Under Ground on Tuesday. In the meantime, Rhian is waiting to start Mr Aaronovitch’s first novel, Rivers of London, when she finishes her current book. A chance conversation with Lauren B. a few weeks ago resulted in my lending her the first volume of David Kynaston’s fantastic history of post-war Britain. Lew M. has recently discovered the African-American writer and activist James Baldwin, so I’m going to lend him Go Tell It on the Mountain when I see him next.
On the incoming side, Ed L. and Karen J. have recently moved house, so there’s a fair chance I might get back all the Philip José Farmer novels I lent them years ago. But the expansion isn’t going to stop there. I blame Professor Brian Cox, personally.
In the second part of his BBC series Science Britannica, Prof Cox spoke movingly to one of the surviving cryptanalysts from Bletchley Park. After I watched it, I had the urge to read Station X, an account of the wartime codebreakers. I’ve already read Andrew Hodges’ terrific biography of Alan Turing, but Station X paints a broader picture of the whole project. On the way back from the surgery this morning, I decided to call into Barbara’s bookshop-cum-warehouse-cum-fire hazard opposite Aberdare Bus Station (see Up the Amazon …).
After outgrowing not just two but three stalls in Aberdare Market, Barbara and her husband Adrian decided to relocate to a shop unit around the corner about a year ago. We suspended our inventory on Amazon while the dust settled; then, in the spring, the Royal Mail made their postage charges so expensive that we’d have lost money if we’d continued selling online. When you factor in the fact that I rarely go to the bus station during the daytime, you’ll realise that I haven’t been in there for a good look around for ages.
The situation I described months ago, while the books were still in the market, has rapidly grown out of hand. It’s now hardly possible to see Barbara at all behind the mountain of second-hand stock she’s accumulated. As soon as you open the door, you’re confronted by a wall of crime and thrillers, at least three deep on the shelves, in something approximating alphabetical order. There’s no point in even trying to tidy them up; there are so many multiple copies of books by Jeffrey Deaver, Tami Hoag and Harlan Coben (to name but three) that any attempt at classification would seem like a Markov Chain – just a chance sequence of apparent order in the heart of chaos.
There’s a great visual gag in an episode of The Simpsons, when the family are in a shopping mall and they pass the ‘Just King and Crichton Bookstore’. I’m fairly sure that Barbara could open a similar spin-off store, and call it Just Formulaic American Crime Novels. It’s possibly a good thing that Royal Mail have made things so complicated for us; we wouldn’t even know where to start looking for saleable items amongst all the crap.
There are stacks of fiction; there are masses of craft and cookery books; there’s a totally random selection of non-fiction covering all possible bases; there are biographies of just about everyone who’s ever lived, seemingly; there’s a whole island of horror and SF, some remarkable classics, and shelves and boxes full of kids’ books. Just inside the door, dangerously close to trapping Barbara inside forever if it topples over, is the history section. That’s where you’d have found me at about 11.30 this morning.
As usual, Barbara knew that she’d had a copy of Station X, but it seemed to have been sold – possibly while Adrian was minding the store. However, while I was digging through a stack of titles on military history (interspersed with some historical novels for that all-important impulse purchase), I came across a book by Gar Alperovitz called The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. I decided that it would be an interesting read, and Barbara only wanted a quid for it. Job done!
I called into the Prince for a can of Coke. Martin H. had been making his way into town when I caught the bus back from the surgery. He’d looked really unwell, and I was wondering if he was still around. Boring Bob told me he’d been and gone, so I chatted to Rhian for a while. After that, I walked around to Iceland, and on the off-chance I decided to check out the books in the British Heart Foundation charity shop.
To my delight I found a copy of Jen Campbell’s Weird Things People Say in Bookshops (see Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 1)) sitting on the shelves. Rhian and I had mentioned it in passing while we were talking by the bar, so I decided to grab it. It must have been one of them coincidences. Then I spotted the Penguin edition of Freud’s On Sexuality, the first of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, The Big Over Easy, and a large-format hardback on Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was on a roll …
I installed Tellico Collection Manager onto the Netbook a couple of hours ago, and started cataloguing the Cosmic Tigger Lending Library this afternoon. It could take me the rest of the weekend, but I think I can get it all listed before long. Then I’ll know where everything is, and (more importantly) who’s got the missing items. I tell you, when it’s all catalogued, it’s going to make our so-called ‘library’ in town look a bit pathetic. After all, unlike them, I’ve got a copy of the Koran, a couple of dozen books on mathematics and science, and something by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’m sorry to report that there’s nothing by James Patterson, though. I’d hate to tread on Barbara’s toes.