Little of us left in the tomes we leave behind
Bookseller Michelle Coxall considers how we live with books, how books live with us, and how only one half of this relationship can live forever
“The world is full of a number of things I think we should all be as happy as kings” — Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses Frank died when he was quite young, somewhere around the age of my own sons now, but he died many years ago, and I never knew him. I have his books before me, tales of mystery and adventure, some with award labels stuck to their endpapers, commemorating his achievements in sport and at school.
He had evidently shown early academic promise, and I imagine the pride his parents must have taken in these modest trophies, each some manifest reassurance of a transition to a distant adult independence.
I am in the secondhand book trade. I deal in the detritus left behind when lives cease, and I understand that the things with which we accoutre our lives, and to which we ascribe such importance and significance, endure beyond us, that we are transient custodians.
I handle many books every day, many harbouring clues to their provenance in the form of inscriptions to past friends and lovers. I have sifted through the belongings of people I have loved and who have died. Insensate objects carry stories, are archeological artifacts resonant of once simple or complex psychologies, but they can rarely be read as such. They are mute, reduced, after our death and when removed from their contexts, to their material value, a value contingent on their apparent beauty, or rarity, or as a relic of a time past that evokes a sense of nostalgia.
I kept, for many years, a plate decorated by my father, a man who built factories and devised the architecture of industry. He had fashioned this object when he was in psychiatric respite. I’m not sure — or perhaps simply don’t want to examine too closely — what this object signified for me. At a later time of cynical purging, possibly after he took his own life, I discarded it. It didn’t possess the requisite signifiers that would have ensured its endurance, once I dis-