Browsing the miserable book section of the Vinnies opposite my shop is usually a recipe for disappointment. But on one day last year I saw a staff member unpacking a large box of yellowing old Penguins and marking each one with a $2 sticker. Curious, I hung about to browse through the collection.
They were all from about the 1950s and early 60s, mostly by authors I was unfamiliar with, but a few were recognisable and sparked my interest. A Gunter Grass, a Daphne du Maurier, Tom Jones of all things. I chose a few to buy and that night began to read one. It was a beautiful read, so I decided to go back the next day, to have another look and perhaps buy a few more. I soon realised that these were all from one collection, many had the owner’s signature (in fountain pen of course) and were probably from a deceased estate or from someone going into care.
Perhaps the person had much the same taste in literature as I have, I wondered? There was also a sentimental desire to keep his or her books together a while longer, just as I hope that my collection of books will stay as a family for as long as possible. So, on a whim, I asked the lady to box all of them up again as I wanted to buy the lot. They have lived in that box, dusty and unread since then. When I passed by the box occasionally I wondered why I invested in those grubby, yellowed volumes with an economic value well under what I had paid, $2 each was a rip-off in that condition!
But recently, after an extension and renovation of my loungeroom, these little guys finally earned a spot on the enlarged bookshelves, though they certainly looked down at heel compared to their peers. They have come to live together on their own Penguin shelf, not yet quite accepted by their cleaner, glossier and more fragrant brothers and sisters.
But what a treasure trove they have proved to be, introducing me to Nadine Gordimer, in a book written before she won the Nobel for Literature, to Giorgio Bassani, before he came to fame with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and reminding me of the great talents of Joan Didion and Margaret Drabble. I will try to mix them in alternately with my other reading, but this week I couldn’t resist enjoying two in a row.
I have been thinking of how I would love to meet their previous owner, who bought these as new editions, in a very different world to the one we live in. An afternoon having cups of tea and discussing our favourites would be a thrill.
But the best thing of all is that there are still 52 of them unread.