Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
28 January 2002

I won’t leave my books to Britain

Theodore Dalrympleis outraged to find literary treasures abandoned in Oxfam shops

By Theodore Dalrymple

A couple of weeks ago, I found a book for sale in an Oxfam shop by Sir Charles Bell, the early 19th-century anatomist and surgeon whose name still attaches to the condition he first described, Bell’s palsy, the temporary paralysis of a division of the trigeminal nerve.

His books are much sought after, for Bell was a fine draughtsman, and the plates in his books are of great beauty. The book in Oxfam was in fact two short works bound together: Engravings of Arteries (third edition, 1811) and A Dissertation on Gunshot Wounds (first edition, 1814). As with all Bell’s works, the engravings were of fine artistic quality, and they were in excellent condition. The book had an old-fashioned university label and stamp on its inside cover. I asked the bookshop manager whether she was sure the book had not been stolen: she informed me that the bookshop had duly contacted the university’s chief librarian by letter several months before, giving him exact details of the book, but that he had not replied.

I therefore bought the book – and subsequently discovered that it was worth £5,000-£6,000. I contacted the university library, to try to obtain an explanation of how such a book should have found its way into a charity bookshop. It seemed to me unlikely that anyone had appreciated its worth. Oxfam receives books as donations. If the donor had known the worth of the book, he surely would have brought it to Oxfam’s attention, which implies that he himself had not paid much for it.

The librarian at the university library, horrified by the story, was unable to trace the book in the university records: it is just possible that a librarian with the ability to erase items from the catalogue had stolen and sold it. No satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming; but it is even more alarming that the chief librarian of a university should have evinced no interest whatever in an antiquarian book of some rarity and beauty.

Recently, I have bought a few items from the sale of the historic part of the library at Cambridge University’s anatomy department. All of them are inscribed by the author or the author’s widow, donating them to the library. In the introduction to the bookseller’s catalogue, there appears the following justification for the sale: the organisation of scientific and other information is changing at a dramatic pace; the large historic departmental library seemed less and less relevant to the day-to-day running of the department; a decision was made to cut back to what was actually used, a decision for which there are many precedents.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Well, there are probably precedents for bombing hospitals and art galleries, too, but I see no reason why such precedents should be followed slavishly.

It isn’t only university libraries that are behaving in this philistine fashion. Though not rich, I do from time to time buy moderately expensive antiquarian books that will be of use to me in my writing. I recently acquired, through a respectable bookseller, a copy of P H Gosse’s Omphalos, published in 1857. Gosse was the father in Father and Son, Edmund Gosse’s marvellous account of his childhood. Omphalos was Gosse’s last-ditch attempt, before the publication of The Origin of Species, which he knew was soon to appear, to reconcile the existence of fossils with a strict biblical interpretation of creation (Gosse was both a member of the Plymouth Brethren and a learned naturalist).

Omphalos is quite a rare book. When, for example, Jorge Luis Borges wrote an essay on P H Gosse in 1943, he was unable to locate a copy of Omphalos anywhere in Argentina, even in the National Library, despite the presence of a large anglophone reading public in the country.

The copy of the book that I bought had been the gift of a woman to the people and city of York in the 1880s, a gift she obviously intended the city to keep as long as the book continued physically to exist. Her wishes had not been respected: no doubt a librarian, noting that the book had rarely been consulted in the intervening years, decided that a few videos would be a more “democratic” and “relevant” holding. The woman’s hope of some slight remembrance of her in the fabric of the city was thus dashed.

The practical consequence of the policy of disposing of whatever cultural relics are not immediately relevant to us within the next week or five minutes is that, if we eventually change our minds and decide that such relics are after all of value, it will be too late. The confidence that people can leave their treasures to a public purpose, and that their wishes will be respected, will have been destroyed, never to return. Rather like the economy of a country, the tradition of philanthropy can be smashed up in a few months or years: but it takes decades or even centuries to rebuild it.

For my own part, I have over the years acquired items of some historical interest, some of them unique. It has always been my desire to leave them to the public. But the conduct of our cultural institutions is so cavalier, so utterly disrespectful of the past, so arrogant, that I will not now leave them to any institution in this country. I do not want them to end up in an Oxfam bookshop. From now on, I shall be on the lookout for a country that cherishes cultural relics and artefacts more than this one does. I shall therefore leave nothing rare or valuable in or to Britain – not that anyone will mind or even notice.