Saturday, October 11, 2014

THE NAMING OF THE ROWS – A Note upon the Esoteric Art of Booksellers’ Nomenclature

Anyone who prowls around second hand bookshops for very long soon becomes a connoisseur of the way that the bookshelves are dedicated and organised: the occult art of the Naming of the Rows. Libraries have for long had their own clear categories for grouping books together, but those who run second hand bookshops are naturally unpersuaded by such orthodoxy and rarely follow any such system.

It is true that some categories are common to most of them: Fiction; Topography (though that is sometimes Travel); History (though rarely Geography – see under Topography, or Travel); Science (usually all together, without distinction between its different branches, no doubt because most bookshop owners have more enthusiasm for the arts and humanities); Children’s; Nature (sometimes also Countryside); Theology and so on.

Theology is often the section banished to the dustiest or least accessible corner. But it is worth more than a glance, because sometimes unexpected books turn up there. I admit I am in any case always looking for tracts upon Apocalypse, divagations upon the Tribulations, and predictions upon the coming End of All Things, so these shelves would draw me anyway. And there is always a chance that some such book as Arthur Machen’s War and the Christian Faith, or his Grail romance The Great Return, from the religious publisher The Faith Press, might find its way there, or the arcane studies of Eastern liturgies issued by that curious imprint Cope & Fenwick, about whom I shall have more to say in another place.

Yet I have also found here Paul Jordan-Smith’s amiable and elegant volume of bookish enthusiasms, On Strange Altars, that last sacred word of its title evidently misleading the bookseller. Perhaps he supposed it was the memoir of a missionary who had celebrated Mass in strange lands, in Ophir, say, or Samarkand. Come to think of it, that might indeed make for an interesting memoir: but this wasn’t it. Here too was Arthur Symons’ Studies in Strange Souls, and it would have amused that venerable decadent to find himself in the company of so many Improving Works, I am sure. Once I also disinterred from Theology a choice volume of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Buriall, which it is true had an aspect of the prayer-book about it, and whose prose also has the arcane solemnity of a missal.

However broad its church, at least we usually know where and what Theology will be. But there are two areas of my own interest where the nomenclature of booksellers is at its most idiosyncratic. The first of these is in that part of Literature that is not Fiction, Poetry or Plays (or Drama). This is a not inconsiderable domain. Possibly that particular vein of writing is less encountered now than it once was: but most writers of consequence issued at least a volume, sometimes many, of discursive prose, and these are sometimes amongst their most joyous work. Most often such literature is grouped as Essays, sometimes under General Literature, and even (here we may detect a certain weariness in the bookseller’s labours), Miscellaneous. The best label I have seen is Belles-Lettres, a phrase I wish was encountered more often.

Yet even this is a fairly easily recognisable category, whatever it happens to be called, that is neat and comprehensible compared to the other area I have in mind, which I have seen designated by some at least of the following terms in my forays among second hand bookshops: Paranormal, The Unexplained, New Age, Alternative, Esoteric, Occult and Folklore.

Arthur Machen himself, in his days as a young man living in a garret in London, subsisting on dry bread, green tea and strong tobacco, once thought he was fortunate indeed to be given a job sorting and describing just such a jumble of books of arcane literature, and became the author of a very diverting list, the Catalogue of the Literature of Occultism and Archaeology, issued by George Redway, and itself now a very rare and elusive object.

“It was as odd a library as any man could desire to see,” he wrote in the first chapter of Things Near and Far, the second volume of his autobiography: “Occultism in one sense or another was the subject of most of the books. There were the principal and the more obscure treatises on Alchemy, on Astrology, on Magic; old Latin volumes most of them. Here were books about Witchcraft, Diabolical Possession, “Fascination”, or the Evil Eye; here comments on the Kabbala. Ghosts and Apparitions were a large family, Secret Societies of all sorts hung on the skirts of the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and so found a place in the collection. Then the semi-religious, semi-philosophical sects and schools were represented; we dealt in Gnostics and Mithraists, we harboured the Neoplatonists, we conversed with the Quietists and the Swedenborgians. These were the ancients; and beside them were the modern throng of Diviners and Stargazers and Psychometrists and Animal Magnetists and Mesmerists and Spiritualists and Psychic Researchers. In a word, the collection in the Catherine Street garret represented thoroughly enough that inclination of the human mind which may be a survival from the rites of the black swamp and the cave – or an anticipation of a wisdom and a knowledge that are to come, transcending all the science of our day.”

As well as those Machen lists, we may today find Flying Saucers, Yetis, Atlantis, Shangri La, Pyramids, Obelisks (if one is very fortunate, though books on obelisks are elusive), Giants, Ley Lines, Terrestrial Zodiacs, Tarot, Palmistry, Phrenology (though that is still sometimes admitted by the more antediluvian bookseller under Science), Conspiracies, Healing, Herbalism, Albigensians, Theosophy, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Yoga, the Wisdom of the East, that misty region known as Celtic, and books of Myths and Legends, where King Arthur and Robin Hood, and Scheherazade and Bladud keep strange but eternal company.

The seeker after supernatural fiction may sometimes find it has strayed in here, shelved with avowedly veridical accounts of hauntings; and the savant of the obscurest works of the fantastic in literature must also look in this region, which is always an outpost of all that is the most outré.

In the days before faiths became jealous of one another, it was not uncommon to find in the houses of the civilised oratories and shrines devoted impartially to many gods: Orpheus, Serapis, Buddha, Hermes and the Good Shepherd might be found together, each in their own niche garlanded with rosemary, each blessed from the same aspergillum, all illuminated by oil lamps, and spiralled by violet fumes from censers, lit by the same impartial hands. And so, in bookshops, the Temple of Many Names is also a place worthy of our devotions.

Mark Valentine


  1. I came across The Living Buddha, a thriller by Roy Horniman, author of Israel Rank, in a theology section. What always disappoints me is the Popular Fiction section. There's never a corresponding Unpopular Fiction section, though I'm sure that would be much more interesting.

  2. That's a great find, Roger. Roy Horniman often wrote somewhat unusual work. Unpopular Fiction would be an excellent category, provided it was hidden away from profane eyes.


  3. There used to be a used book store near me with the esoteric section labeled: "Occult and Other Weird Crap". It closed years ago.

  4. I have found that, more often than not, once a good bookseller has determined the proper combination of eccentricity and financial solvency in a regular customer, the books kept under the counter often comprise a rewarding section all their own.
    On the subject of the result of Genre Confusion Disorder in book shops, I once found a copy of "With Rod and Whip: A History of Flagellation Among Different Nations" on a shelf of fly-fishing books in a section labeled "Outdoor Sports."

  5. That was some top-notch writing, Mark Valentine.

  6. What a crap and pointless article.

  7. To Anonymous at 9:44 AM, there is a book you will love, always found in the juvenile section of book shops(never misplaced): Doris and the Trolls, published by Rand McNally in 1931.
    Mark Valentine writes highly entertaining and very informative little posts about rare book collecting and book shops from time to time. Not nearly enough, in my selfish opinion. I am a book collector who often finances my collecting by book scouting, so this "crap and pointless article" is quite the reverse. I now have another list of books to seek out where they don't belong but very well may be. The concept of finding something in the wrong place does happen. Your absolute balderdash comment as Exhibit A.
    These comments are screened, so I acknowledge the gentlemanly good nature of Mr. Valentine in posting such stuff and nonsense. I am not trying to be surly, but odd and obscure books are the sacred cows of many of us who come here for bibliographic comradeship.
    For heaven's sake, Anon 9:44, this is not the Daily Mail. Widen your audience and stomp on over to those ample troll fields.

    1. For heaven's sake, Anon 9:44, go to Mark 9:44.

  8. I have a section called 'General Weirdness' in my bookshop. People seem to like it. I also have shelf marked 'Medium Rare', for books which are, well, medium rare, but I'll confess I nicked that shamelessly from Any Amount of Books in the Charing Cross Road.

  9. The idiosyncrasy of naming of rows breeds unexpected pleasures and delightful finds......for example...a superior copy of Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter, found under 'Nature' rather than in 'Fiction' and the wondrous book on Dewponds by Pugsley, found under 'Fiction' rather than 'Nature'. Book shelves breed mystery and wonder and are a 'lore' unto themselves. Long may this continue.

    Jean du Bois