Tuesday, May 22, 2007


A visit I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their house. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.

I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.

'When I get settled down properly,' said the fool, 'I'll have to catch up on my reading.'

This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Dog ears four-a-penny

Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months. You can, if you like, talk about designing a machine driven by a small but efficient petrol motor that would 'read' any book in five minutes, the equivalent of five years or ten years' 'reading' being obtained merely by turning a knob. This, however, is the cheap soulless approach of the times we live in. No machine can do the same work as the soft human fingers. The trained and experienced book-handler is the only real solution of this contemporary social problem. What does he do? How does he work? What would he charge? How many types of handling would there be?

These questions and many more I will answer the day after tomorrow.

* * *

The World of Books

Yes, this question of book-handling. The other day I had a word to say about the necessity of the professional book-handler, a person who will maul the books of illiterate, but wealthy, upstarts so that the books will look as if they have been read and re-read by their owners. How many uses of mauling would there be? Without giving the matter much thought, I should say four. Supposing an experienced handler is asked to quote for the handling of one shelf of books four feet in length. He would quote thus under four heads: --

'Popular Handling -- each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.'

'Premier Handling -- Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.'

A Rate to Suit all Purses

The great thing about this graduated scale is that no person need appear ignorant or unlettered merely because he or she is poor. Not every vulgar person, remember, is wealthy, although I could name...

But no matter. Let us get on to the more expensive grades of handling> The next is well worth the extra money.

'De Luxe Handling -- each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 per cent discount if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. Five per cent discount for bank managers, country surveyors and the heads of business houses employing not less than 35 hands. Dog-ears extra and inserted accrding to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume. Quotations for alternative old Paris theatre programmes on demand. This service available for a limited time only, nett, £7 18s 3d.'

Order Your Copy Now

The fourth class is the Handling Superb, although it is not called that -- Le Traitement Superbe being the more usual title. It is so superb that I have no space for it today. It will appear here on Monday next, and, in honour of the occasion, the Irish Times on that day will be printed on hand-scutched antique interwoven demidevilled superfine Dutch paper, each copy to be signed by myself and to be accompanied by an exquisite picture in tri-colour lithograph of the Old House in College Green. The least you can do is to order your copy in advance.

And one more word. It is not sufficient just to order your copy. Order it in advance.

* * *

It will be remembered (how, in Heaven's name, could it be forgotten) that I was discoursing on Friday last on the subject of book-handling, my new service, which enables ignorant people who want to be suspected of reading books to have their books handled and mauled in a manner that will give the impression that their owner is very devoted to them. I described three grades of handling and promised to explain what you get under Class Four -- the Superb Handling, or the Traitement Superbe, as we lads who spent our honeymoon in Paris prefer to call it. It is the dearest of them all, of course, but far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends. Here are the details:

'Le Traitement Superbe'. Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently be a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours; suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
Yes, indeed!
How true, how true!
I don't agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od. iii, 151.
Well, well, well.
Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l'histoire Universellehas already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
Nonsense, nonsense!
A point well taken!
But why in heaven's name?
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.
Need I say that a special quotation may be obtained at any time for the supply of Special and Exclusive Phrases? The extra charge is not very much, really.


That, of course, is not all. Listen to this:

'Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,
'To my old friend and fellow-writer, A.B., in affectionate remembrance, from George Moore.'

'In grateful recognition of your great kindness to me, dear A.B., I send you this copy of The Crock of Gold. Your old friend, James Stephens.'

'Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but i am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.'

'From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.;

'Dear A.B., -- Your invaulable suggestions and assistance, not to mention yoyr kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you, surely, to this first copy of "Tess". From your old friend T. Hardy.'

'Short of the great pleasure of seeing you personally, I can only send you, A.B., this copy of "The Nigger". I miss your company more than I can say . . . (signature indecipherable).'
Under the last inscription, the moron who owns the book will be asked to write (and shown how if necessary) the phrase 'Poor old Conrad was not the worst.'

All this has taken me longer to say than I thought. there is far more than this to be had for the paltry £32 7s 6d that the Superb Handling will cost you. In a day or two I hope to explain about the old letters which are inserted in some of the books by way of forgotten book-marks, every one of them an exquisite piece of forgery. Order your copy now!

* * *

Book Handling

I promised to say a little more about the fourth, or Superb, grade of book handling.

The price I quoted includes the insertion in not less than ten volumes of certain old letters, apparently used at one time as bookmarks, and forgotten. Each letter will bear the purported signature of some well-known humbug who is associated with ballet, verse-mouthing, folk-dancing, wood-cutting, or some other such activity that is sufficiently free from rules to attract the non-brows in their swarms. Each of the letters will be a flawless forgery and will thank A.B., the owner of the book, for his 'very kind interest in our work', refer to his 'invaluable advice and guidance', his unrivalled knowledge' ofthe lep-as-lep-can game, his 'patient and skilful direction of the corps on Monday night', thank him for his very generous - too geneorous - subscription of two hundred guineas, 'which is appreciated more than I can say'. As an up-to-the-minute inducement, an extra letter will be included free of charge. it will be signed (or purport to be signed) by one or other of the noisier young non-nationals who are honouring our beautiful land with their presence. This will satisfy the half-ambition of the majority of respectable vulgarians to maintain a second establishment in that somewhat congested thoroughfare, Queer Street.

The gentlemen who are associated with me in the Dublin WAAMA League have realised that this is the off-season for harvesting the cash of simple people through the medium of the art-infected begging letter, and have turned their attention to fresh fields and impostures new. The latest racket we have on hands is the Myles na gCopaleen Book Club. You join this and are spared the nerve-racking bother of choosing your own books. We do the choosing for you, and when you get the book, it is ready-rubbed, ie, subjected free of charge to our expert handlers. You are spared the trouble of soiling and mauling it to give your friends the impression that you can read. An odd banned book will be slipped in for those who like conversation such as: --
'I say, did you read this, old man?'
'I'm not terribly certain that i did, really.'
'It's banned, you know, old boy.'
There is no nonsense about completing a form, asking for a brochure, or any other such irritation. You just send in your guinea and you immediately partipate in this great cultural uprising of the Irish people.

- Flann O'Brien, The Best of Myles, 17-23.

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