The Social Lives Of Books

Retail Manager Janey Thornton explores the life of the book as a socially weighted and meaningful object

In a world increasingly obsessed with categorisation and order, Bookbarn can be an interesting place to work. The scale and volume of the books we receive on a daily basis can mean the discovery of real gems in the places we least expect them.

The most recent example is a signed copy of Winston Churchill’s ‘The World in Crisis’, which was found by a member of our staff in a banana crate at the back of our warehouse just a month ago. The book went for auction yesterday and sold for £2,000. This got me thinking about the role of books in our lives and their meaning as cultural objects.

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Before coming to Bookbarn, I worked as a bookseller at Waterstones for two years. Needless to say, these kinds of discoveries were far less common. The world of secondhand books is as rich as it is because such books have acquired their own histories already. Each has been printed, sold, read (or not read!), gifted, forgotten about or cherished, and then, finally – passed on, lost or sold again. These books contain ticket stubs, paychecks, photos and letters. They have what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called their own social lives – and there are social and political mechanisms in place which regulate our taste, trade and desire in certain books as the years go on. Books published years ago tell us a lot about the society of that time. They are relics of the past which not only contain stories but tell their own merely through existing. Think of the first editions of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, for example – printed privately in Florence in 1928 and selling today for anywhere between £16,000 – £20,000. The full text could not be published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960. These books reflect the society in which they were published in a way many other objects simply aren’t capable of doing.

Image result for lady chatterley's lover first edition

This is often why secondhand and antiquarian books are often treated with a kind of reverence newly published books are not. These books are retired but they have a plethora of stories to tell their younger counterparts do not. They’ve been used to stoke the fire of new romances, to mend fragmented friendships, to help bridge the gap between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons who perhaps have wildly different perspectives. Virginia Woolf described secondhand books as ‘wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.’

I think fondly of Bookbarn as the kind of ‘vast flock’ of books Woolf describes. We do not have the order of the bookshop chain, the suaveness or style of Waterstones or Foyles. But what we can offer is a tapestry of hidden pleasures and delights – swathes of wise and wild books to be found and enjoyed amongst the stacks and read in front of our log fire. You never know what you might find here!

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