Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Battered Books No 1 - Lost England

Some book collectors always strive to find the titles they want in the most perfect condition possible. I like nicely kept books too, but I also enjoy battered books marked by the exigencies of time: the wear, damage, bumping of corners, fraying of edges, the blots, stains, blemishes, the fading from sunlight, the darkening from grime, the greying of dust and the blurring from hands upon the grain. They seem to me to have character, and to tell a story aside from the one told on their pages.

In a few cases, the effect almost begins to look like a work of abstract art. I have volumes whose curious colouring and strange markings I can look at for many moments, like regarding the dark light in a pool of rainwater, or the creeping stains of ochre and lichen upon a stone, or the sea’s pale chisellings on driftwood. Such books may only be found by looking and touching, by the physical quest in dim corners and crumpled boxes, by attention to the shunned, and the semi-discarded. Here is one of them, Lost England, The Story of Our Submerged Coasts by Beckles Wilson, revised by W.J. Wiltshire, B.A., published by Hodder & Stoughton in the Useful Knowledge series.

The book is about the lost lands and submerged settlements of the English shoreline, and ironically it has also suffered depredations. There is a scoop taken out of the bottom of the pages, and the friable paper is chipped and crumbling, almost as if it were meant as an image of the waves taking bites out of the coast. Moreover, there is a scorchmark on the back board, an archipelago of stains, and the cover, once perhaps a bright aquamarine, has become the slate-blue of the sea under winter skies.

There is an ownership signature in browned ink inside: E H Marsh (Horsham Station) 25/3/1916. The date makes me wonder what the book and its owner went through.

Mark Valentine

1 comment:

  1. The books I collect tend to be rather expensive in lovely condition, so I have many flawed copies on my shelves. Buying the much less expensive "reading copies" bothered me at first, but then I realized it was the reading that gave me more pleasure than a shelf of pristine and expensive books.
    I have many volumes of Machen's works in the mustard-yellow Knopf editions from the twenties. They vary in color from Coleman's mustard to daffodil to a very pale and creamy yellow. The paper labels, almost all, are so stained with grime that it is nearly impossible to read the title. But there they sit in a long golden row and look comforting in their coats of use and familiarity. My favorite battered book is one by M.R. James. The spine is chipped, but the boards are decorated with bats and at one point in the past someone spilled a blotch of red ink on the cover conveying a far more sinister appearance. I love it all the more for its wound of readership.