The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Saviour Pirotta: Treasures rescued, treasures lost...

A beautifully written and rather tragic tale from the brilliant Saviour Pirotta:

"A few weeks I was on my way to the bakery round the corner when I caught sight of a pile of old books overflowing out of a skip. At first I thought someone had dumped a boxful on top of the detritus you usually find on skips. A quick poke in the debris and I discovered it was actually the other way round. The skip was full of books and someone had plonked a few bits of broken furniture on top. There must have been a few thousand volumes in there. Dozens of students from Shipley College up the road were milling around the skip, their eyes glued on their mobile phones. None felt in the least bit compelled to have a poked around.

I popped into the newsagents’ nearby. Did they know were the books had come from? It turned out that the place next door had been a second hand bookshop. It had closed a few months before I’d moved to the village. The owner, a taciturn historian, had suffered a stroke and, unable to operate the business, had closed it down but refused to relinquish the lease back to the council. Apparently he had lived the last years of his life alone with his books, unable to sell on the stock and unwilling to part with it for free. Now that he was gone, workmen had been sent in to clear and fumigate the place before a new business took it on.

Where were the books going? I enquired. Surely, they weren’t just going to be dumped in a landfill site like so much worthless rubbish? It seemed they were. No one wanted them. No school, no college, not even a dealer could be found to offer them sanctuary. I texted a quick SOS to some friends, book lovers like me, who surely would come to the rescue? One of them owned a shop selling vintage memorabilia; she might find some of the books a new home and make a bit of a profit in the bargain.

The best went a long time ago, came back the reply from the only person who bothered answering. Only rubbish left. Don’t bother.

I delved in to see what the rubbish was. A 60s compendium of JM Synge’s plays! It included The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea, a brilliant one-act play! How could scripts like that be classed as rubbish? I also found a Nelson edition of John Buchan’s Greenmantle, its red cover slightly faded but still in good condition! And several copies of those Pan Books of Horror I used to treasure in the 70s, but which went to my brother when he married! A woman in a spotted kaftan ambled across the road. What kinds of books was she interested in? I asked. There were all sorts in here. She didn’t want any of the books on the skip, as it turned out. They might be mildewed, for heaven’s sake! What she was after was the bookcase she’d spotted from half way up the hill. A good clean and it would be as good as new for her doll collection, she reckoned.

I helped her dig out the bookcase but we soon attracted the attention of a young community liaison officer. Did we know that it was a criminal offence to dig around in skips, without the express permission of the owner? I knew it would be futile to explain that the owner of the books was too dead and cremated to give his permission. The woman in the kaftan and I both scuttled away, me carrying an armful of rescued books, the woman carrying the bookcase on one shoulder, like a female Jesus bearing his cross.

That night, I returned to the crime scene, but the skip had been replaced by a near-empty one. No books in it; they’d been taken to the landfill site. But I did rescue a lovely wooden box that seemed to have once held jars of ink or paint. It’s sitting in my shed at the moment, waiting for a free moment when I can clean it up and give it a good lick of linseed oil to bring out the grain.

I can’t bear to think about the books I didn’t manage to rescue are, though. Would the taciturn historian be watching over them from wherever he is? And, as they slowly disintegrated in the rain and the frost, their precious words erased forever by the elements, would he be shedding an afterlife tear at the dawning of an age when his beloved books count for so little? I hope so, for as I look at my own books, safe on their shelves for at least as long as I live, I am reminded of thought provoking line from Cleopatra. As Elizabeth Taylor in the title role watches the flames engulf the once famous library of Alexandria, she screams at Caesar: Neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!"

Thanks to Saviour Pirotta for permission to post his story.


  1. The shame is that we so frequently don't recognise that what is rubbish to one person, is treasure to so many more. The fate of the books Saviour missed is very sad to think about and if the collector who died is watching then just PERHAPS, that's why we are having so many wet summers from the tears he must be shedding.

  2. I'm amazed no one thought to give the historian's books to charity. Dumped in a skip is a barbaric fate for someone's book collection.

    This is a moving story, but it could also be the basis of a new book -- a novel about death, chance and a lost treasure of words.

  3. Sadly people think that books are indestructible, and once something is written, it'll survive forever. It's often not the case. A lot of books have very short print runs. Unsold stock is pulped. Library copies fall apart. It used to be that publishers had to donate a copy of every book they produced to the British Library. I believe rules where changed when the conservative government slashed the BL's funding in the 80s and some genres were deemed expendable.

  4. I'm reminded of that scene in HG Wells' The Time Machine, where the only books (which, in the future, no-one can read) crumble to dust in the time traveller's hands.

    Thanks everyone for posting and commenting.