Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Noble Sport of Book Hunting

A strange title, you may think. Perhaps you might even consider it a pompous description attributing delusions of grandeur to a banal occupation. However, I can conjure no finer way to describe the pastime, which so many people embrace with nothing less than an all-consuming passion.

‘Book-collecting’ simply will not do, for that gives the impression of an indiscriminate process; a matter of the gathering together, or harvesting, of literary material regardless of its genre, appearance, age, edition, and so forth. No, to the book aficionado, the acquisition of an addition to his prized collection is a process akin to the hunter pursuing the next trophy specimen. A prize which, once captured, will be mounted, in all its glory, on a mahogany plaque for all to wonder over; except that, in this case, the mahogany is in the form of elegant shelving rather than wall-mounted shields. Moreover, ‘noble’ the sport most certainly is. How else to define an activity so lofty in its ideals, so morally elevated, so quintessentially sublime?

If you are already one of the converted, with your life-membership fully paid, then you will have skipped through the last paragraph, as none of it will be in the least bit surprising to you. You will have immediately recognised the description of the process and will have imagined many rows of your own favoured specimens. Your pulse rate may even have quickened at the thought of fresh quarry and you may, even now, be reaching for the local papers lest there be a Book Fair listed for your locality this forthcoming weekend. However, for those of you who are new to the sport, allow me to describe the procedure and introduce to you some of the rules and etiquette of the game.

One of the greatest privileges of book hunting is that there is no closed season. To the book hunter, the ‘glorious twelfth’ translates into the ‘glorious twelve’, for all twelve months of the year can be declared open season, with no restriction apart from fiscal limitations (although credit cards are often acceptable if ammunition such as notes in pounds sterling are in short supply). However, beware, for there are often one or two local by-laws governing the precise length of this open season and it as always wise to check that the few weeks prior to Christmas or birthdays are not subject to temporary book hunting prohibitions. One’s spouse is often the most knowledgeable person to consult in this regard.

Equally so, there is no legislative requirement for a book hunting licence. However, as with the times of temporary prohibitions, it is always wise to have some idea as to what constitutes an acceptable bag. Returning home after a day’s hunting with just one book is usually okay, although I personally find a brace far more satisfying and it is usually possible to go through the ‘nothing to declare’ entrance to the house without anything more than a cursory glance from the powers that be. Anything above two books may result in the extraction of a small hunting charge. This is usually payable to one’s spouse. Whilst the level of the fee may be as small as lunch at the local pub, it can be as high as dinner at an expensive restaurant, a day’s shopping trip, a weekend in London or even an expensive piece of jewellery, depending on the number of books and their relative value.

One word of warning here, however, as sometimes it is possible to exceed even the most lenient of hunting quotas. I can well remember an occasion many years ago when I successfully caught the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, all in leather bindings and in pristine condition. They were a remarkable sight, and still adorn the shelves of my library to this very day. The only problem at the time was that ammunition was in very short supply and I used something in the region of £1,000’s worth to capture these much-desired literary works. That in itself would not have been quite so bad, as membership of some hunting syndicates (such as the Folio Society) can turn out to be quite expensive in the longer term. The main problem was that the house was badly in need of renovation and we did not have much in the way of furniture. I was duly charged with wanton excess, summarily found guilty without so much as a panel of bibliophiles to hear my case, and sentenced to a lifetime penalty, to be paid in instalments, including compound interest, and at the whim of my partner. To ensure that the penalty was extracted in full, my partner was subsequently appointed my wife. This of course, in turn means that, although I am now let out on parole for good behaviour, the only way to have the sentence discharged is by the payment of a very large lump sum, whereby I would be able to retain the entire catch of that particular hunt, but would be otherwise destitute. So, be warned, there are pitfalls within this sport.

The matter of clothing and accessories can be quickly dealt with, for there are no particular rules. Naturally, a good pair of spectacles allows for easier identification of the prey. As a guide, it is worthwhile wearing comfortable clothing, with plenty of room for stretching the arms above one’s head. Equally, the trousers should be capable of withstanding much in the way of bending and crouching, so should not be over tight. Many book hunting grounds are cold, so attention to a suitable jumper or jacket is sensible. Ideally, the jacket should have plenty of pockets for accommodating wads of ammunition and the smaller of catches. That said, it is wise not to dress in one’s best. Booksellers are not easily parted from their charges at a discounted rate. If the hunter looks too affluent, then the hunt will be harder and more ammunition used than would otherwise be necessary. Finally, food, drink and ice-creams are strictly banned on all book hunting expeditions, although an adjournment to a local hostelry at the end of the hunt can be a convivial way to finish the day’s sport, giving, as it does, the chance to mull over the catch and to attract the approving eye of any hunt followers.

Whilst it is helpful to have an idea as to one or two sought after tomes, as this often acts as a guide when deciding on a plan for stalking the rows of a book shop or fair, a firm idea as to the object of your hunt is not always necessary or, indeed, desirable. One of the greatest pleasures of book hunting is the flushing out of an unexpected volume which, once its position is given away, jumps at you from the shelves as though challenging you to even dare consider going home without it. Breathless with the excitement of such a discovery, you will be spurred on to greater endeavours, often resorting to kneeling on the floor to gaze into the lowest nooks and crannies, or requisitioning the bookseller’s stepladders to enable you to scale the highest peaks, where so often the most exquisite of species lurk. (A word of warning in respect to the latter. When aloft, it is so easy to forget the heights to which you have climbed and many a book hunter, when eye-level to the tantalising titles on display, has reached out to the next shelf only to step off into midair. If such misfortune should occur to you - and even the most seasoned of hunters such as myself has had many near-misses - then do not despair, for the recovery time required will usually offer the unexpected bonus of free time for reading.)

The question of hunt followers has already been touched upon. However, the subject is worthy of further discussion. Book hunts are usually solitary affairs, stalking being the art of the hunt. However, occasionally two hunters will work together, albeit with different prey in mind. This means that there are usually only one or two hunt followers present, with one being the rule. It is sometimes possible to seat the hunt follower in a corner of the bookshop, where she (and they are usually female) can observe the process without disturbing the concentration of the hunter. This is an arrangement that works well for the shorter of forays. However, for a hunt likely to last for several hours, then it is better to ensure that the hunt follower is distracted by the charms of a day’s shopping of her own; otherwise, her goodwill can all too easily be exhausted. Under such circumstances, she quickly turns into a hunt saboteur, resulting in a very unsatisfactory day’s hunting.

Why go book hunting in the first place? I am asked this question most often by those not converted to the sport. It is an easy one to answer, for the pleasure of book hunting works on many different levels. First, there is the anticipatory planning of the hunt, the build up to the day and the frisson of excitement as one arrives at the chosen hunting ground. The hunt itself may last for a few minutes to many hours, but usually results in a satisfactory outcome. Sometimes it is such that a much sought after specimen is spotted and, after a degree of sporting with the bookseller, bagged for the minimum of ammunition. This prized book is then transported home with a sense of elation. Once home, it can be carefully fondled, sniffed (always smell a book, for their bouquet is often quite exquisite, especially if leather bound) and leafed through in anticipation of the day of reading. It is then gently placed on a shelf in view of the hunter, so that he can feast his eyes upon it from time to time, taking pleasure in its presence and fondly remembering the hunt itself. The tome continues to give happiness as it quietly sits on display, allowing the hunter to savour the day he will read it. That particular day is a joy unto itself and cannot easily be described in just a few words here. All I can say is that it is addictive and, once started, becomes a lifelong habit without a known cure. Once temporarily sated, the hunter then has the great pleasure of again observing the book on his shelves, recollecting how marvellous a read it was and imagining the pure delight of having the time to read it again. Therefore, you see, to the converted, a life without book hunting is simply a pale imitation of the glorious existence that book hunting brings.

Finally, a word of warning: NEVER LEND A BOOK. Books have a tendency to roam unless great attention is paid to their whereabouts. Once free of your shelves, they will frequently opt to stay on the shelves of the borrower, from where no amount of cajoling will elicit their return. On the odd occasion that they are returned, it will be because they have been ill-cared for, and will come home in a sorry state, jackets torn or missing, page corners turned and, worse, written in! No, it is far better to direct the would-be borrower to a hunting ground of his own or, alternatively, catch a specimen solely to be made as a gift to him. Peace and equanimity will thus be maintained.

I finish with the words of Lady Clementine Churchill, who was a great book hunter in her own right: ‘If books cannot be your friends, then at least let them be your acquaintances'.

Quite so.

Happy hunting!

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