Outside the Strand bookstore in New York. Photo: Kathleen Tyler Conklin on Flickr via CC
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The crack of the spine: why do we find wear and tear in books so comforting?

Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years and having done some hard work to get there.

For about fifteen years now I have been keeping a notebook, or multiple notebooks actually, ostensibly with the intention of jotting down ideas or thoughts before they escape off into the ether. Occasionally these thoughts result in something concrete but more often than not the scribblings are promptly forgotten about, never to be reread or pored over for long-lost inspiration.

In reality, this incessant note-taking is just another form of procrastination, no different nor more tangibly constructive than the 47,000 or so tweets that I have managed to post over a much shorter period of time. Dozens of the notebooks are piled in a drawer at home, ranging from neat little Moleskines to cheap spiral-bound jotters that I can’t remember buying. There are even some loose pages that were posted  back to me by a conscientious thief who ripped them out and kept the rest of the book (upon later recovering the bag they were in and which had been left on the Metro, I found the same thief had ignored a number of valuable items but took a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and a Paris A-Z – it was as if I had been robbed by a latter-day Raymond Queneau). 

They bear the marks of occupational carelessness – crumpled or worn covers, smudged ink, coffee and wine stains – contain fragments of stories, lists, recipes, potted film reviews, heartfelt confessionals after bad break-ups, the occasional bad poem, ill-informed first impressions of whatever city or country I happened to be travelling in at the time. Everything is written in my cursive handwriting, which has got smaller and increasingly illegible as the years have progressed (some entries also bear the clear imprint of drunkenness). The writing is in a variety of coloured inks, of varying thickness, sometimes in pencil, of varying degrees of sharpness. A couple of the early ones even have an index system, dating from a time when I seriously thought these scribblings would constitute a corpus from which my future work might be drawn.

The notebooks are of little literary value and, even to myself, of limited interest. Yet I would be loth to ever lose them. Because they represent my most sustained bout of writing. However inconsequential this accrued graphomania might be, it is physical testimony to years of efforts to try and turn idle musings into something resembling literature.

This is one of the attractions of wear and tear. Objects that feel lived in give us a comforting feeling of having come a long way, of having been through the years (or months, as it might be). There is also the sense of having done some work. Even reading a book can be denoted by the physical mark you leave on it – the cracking of a spine, its progressive warping as you work your way to the end. Occasionally when reading a secondhand paperback, a bookmark or a dog-eared page shows you where the last owner gave up – you feel momentarily like Amundsen discovering Scott’s encampment.

If you’re up for a proper mental workout, you can annotate it as you read, notes that, unless you are an academic or a professional critic, you are probably never going to return to. These annotations will however provide delight and amusement for future owners: the American writer David Markson famously bequeathed his library to the Strand bookstore in the East Village and his dyspeptic marginalia regularly surface online. Even if one is not a heavyweight annotator, like Joyce editor Danis Rose or art dealer Tony Shafrazi, a written comment in a book is always worth stopping to read. One of a number of copies of Moby Dick I own is an old Dover Thrift edition, in which some diligent student has scribbled in the margin of page 100: “Ahab is obsessed by the whale” (though, to be fair, my own college annotations of Paradise Lost are not any more sophisticated). I always wonder if the loving dedication written on the flyleaf of my secondhand copy of Goethe’s Italian Journey enchanted or scared off the Japanese man to whom it was addressed in July 1993. The book certainly wasn’t deemed to be of lasting sentimental importance.

Physical deterioration though is more welcome in some contexts than in others. You might be perfectly happy to wear a frayed pair of jeans or a faded torn t-shirt but the tattered lining of an overcoat is likely to put you out a lot more. Similarly, people are less likely to annotate first editions or more expensive hardback books (though if you happen to have small children around the house, they will invariably take care of that for you).

The more valuable the artefact the less compelling the charm of wear and tear: restorers spend their entire careers trying to reverse the effects of time on antique artworks. It is no surprise that over the past 100 years, the word “pristine”, which for centuries meant “in its original condition” has taken on the additional meaning of “spotless”. And while we might have organic decomposition to thank for the joys of beer, wine and smelly cheeses, only a select few are able to stomach the extreme putridness of the Icelandic fermented shark, Hákarl, or the rotted Swedish herring, Surströmming. 

There are those who try to accelerate the process of deterioration, for aesthetic effect, most notably the forgers of the Hitler diaries, who doused the pages in tea to make them look decades old. Paul Thomas Anderson makes use of heat-damaged film in his Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice to get the requisite 70s look. Robert Wise and Mark Robson, editors of Citizen Kane, dragged film across the floor of the cutting room to make the newsreel sequences look credible. There are also people who buy “ready-worn” jeans brand new. It will surely be only a matter of time before someone actually markets Flann O’Brien’s Buchhandlung service, which offered to appropriately scuff the libraries of those who just don’t have the time to read.

But real wear and tear takes a long time, and patience too. You’re not going to make your brand new copy of The Magic Mountain look read without working your way steadily through it. The adjective “well-thumbed” tends to suggest a certain monomania regarding a text but in many cases it can be a virtuous one. And there is something thrilling in seeing great writers in manuscript form, the crabbed minuscule handwriting of Walter Benjamin or Robert Walser or Nabokov’s index cards. There you get both the human imprint of the writer, which is normally obscured by the uniformity of print, and the sense of their toil, the crossed out words, the revisions, the messiness of creation, something that even multiple drafts typed up on a computer can’t convey. 

James Joyce, almost blinded by glaucoma in later life, composed Finnegans Wake in thick blue crayon, some of it on sheets of wallpaper. That is probably the ultimate physical embodiment of a writer’s labour, the rudest totem of all that effort and all those years of work.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon