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.