So, the Summer School is over for another year. This year it was bigger than ever, and I think, more successful too. It was clear on Friday that none of us wanted to leave and the bookish talk went on long after our normal finishing time. I had to call a halt in the end just so that the person whose house we were meeting in could have her living room back. The enthusiasm surprised me rather, because two of the titles chosen as part of the theme of books that take place in bookshops didn’t meet with universal approval.
Almost everyone had enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. Most of us could remember the time period in which it was set and a number were familiar with the setting. And, it is, of course, superbly written; there isn’t a word out of place nor a word too many. I used Monday’s discussion of the novel to set up what I hoped would become a running theme throughout the week: why do we value books; by what criteria do we account their worth? This manifests itself in The Bookshop through the question of whether or not to stock Lolita, where the issue would be the quality of the writing. It was the only time last week when that was the criteria in question. More pertinent to the way in which our discussion would develop was Mrs Gamart’s attitude towards the Arts in general. Fitzgerald makes it very clear that she wishes to replace the bookshop with an Arts Centre only to add to her own aggrandisement. The intrinsic worth of the act of creation itself meant nothing to her.
This attitude was developed in respect of books in our second discussion on Sheridan Hay’s novel, The Secret of Lost Things. This book, set for the most part in The Arcade, a large used bookstore in New York, met with less enthusiasm. Our general feeling was that it had needed much tighter editing and was to some extent self-indulgent on the part of the writer. However, it does present an interesting contrast between books loved for their content and those which are valued simply for their rarity, regardless of whether or not they are actually worth reading. The prices commanded by the volumes in Mr Mitchell’s Rare Books Department when compared with what was being paid in the basement for secondhand review copies of modern novels makes it clear that it is the specific artefact that is valued, not the story that it contains. Central to the narrative is the possible discovery of a lost work by Herman Melville, a work which had been rejected by his publisher. The price offered for this would pay for my new flat several time over and yet presumably the story itself wasn’t particularly good. It is the manuscript’s rarity value that attracts attention; that and the fact that the buyer wishes to keep the book completely to himself.
Exclusivity of ownership in relation to pirated ebooks is just one of the themes that we tackled on Friday when we discussed our third novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I expected that some of the group would be challenged by this book and indeed one or two had found the discussion of Google and the internet difficult to follow, however, it was actually more popular than I had anticipated. Again, we thought that for coherence sake a stronger editorial hand would have been beneficial but it certainly brought our discussion as to what it is about a book that we value into very sharp focus. For me this novel reinforces something that I realised earlier this year. A book is the means by which a story is transmitted to a reader, and while I can appreciate a book as a beautiful artefact it is the story that it contains that actually matters to me. It is the words on the page, however those words and the page are created. When I realised my move meant that I was going to have to pass eighty percent of my books on to charity shops, my criterion was simple. If I could get a replacement copy as an ebook then the hard copy could go.
All in all, then, an excellent week of discussion. And already I’ve started to turn my mind towards next year’s topics. With so many current examples, I rather fancy a week discussing novels that are modern day retelling of Homer. Now there’s a collection of stories that over the centuries have been transmitted in all sorts of different ways. Any suggestions as to what I might include?