Buying Books: The Perils of Nabokov

To the tune of: April March – Poor Lola

You are browsing the second-hand books in a small town’s famous covered market, waiting for the other reader to finish whatever the other reader is finishing, when you happen across a book. It is amongst the Books You Normally Read and The Books You Like The Cover Of, a most fortuitous placing, and it is a Book You Always Wanted To Read as well as a Book You’re Ashamed You’ve Never Read, and possibly a Book You Pretend You’ve Read.

It is Lolita, a book you are so familar with that you can trip the first three syllables of the book off your tongue, Lo-lee-ta, in a self-pleasing parody of the book’s first line which, again, you’ve never read. You’re excited, because you’re a fan of Nabokov, and you’ve never found this in a second-hand bookshop – whether through the prurience of proprieters or the retention of readers, you don’t know.

However, and there’s always a however in your Calvino mental life, there’s a reason you’ve not gone out of your way to buy this book in the past, though you’ve always been interested in buying it. That’s because, even though this is a classic work of literature by the greatest writer of the 20th Century, since the pornographers degraded the name Lolita and since the advent of a frothing, scare-mongered disgust in your country regarding the book’s subject, you wouldn’t want to be seen with the book in public. Especially if you’re a funny-looking person relative to the people around you, you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the Humbert brush.

But, here, the book has practically fallen into your hands. And you know it’s a great book, and he’s a great author, and you know your own reticence is silly and irrational. It’s just a book, with a plain cover and small text. You’re treating it like Mein Kampf. You’ll just wander over to the bookseller’s office, buy it quickly, and be done with this overthinking. Or perhaps you should pick up another book or two, to hide it?

You look up. The nearest Mac-wearing bookseller has already noticed your hesitation and she is a she, and is pursing her lips at you curiously, while you been stood there lost in thought. If you’d actually been browsing the book that wouldn’t have been a problem, but you’ve been standing, lost in thought,  and partially blocking the isle with your bags (I neglected to mention how weighed down you are with the accoutrements of two people, so that your every move is a collecting-heaving-shuffling-dropping motion). Now she’s caught your eye and smiles welcoming. In a moment she’s going to ask you if you need any help.

The moment is at hand. Before she can speak you collect and heave and shuffle and drop so you’re next to her, book in hand, asking politely for this one please. She smiles, glances at the book’s title, and changes her expression as she asks for the money. The smile’s still there, but you can’t tell if there’s confusion or disgust behind it, for the moment, as you hand over a note. By the time she has shuffled into the small office, found your change and extended her arm through the door, her smile has gone completely to be replaced with a intense stare with the bowed eyebrows you think are associated with curiosity. You leave, rapidly, and wait elsewhere for the other reader.

It has been three months. You’ve still not opened the book.

Introduction by analogy.

I remember that Rouseeau used to drone on about the great library in Alexandria, y’know the world’s ultimate repository of knowledge, lost for millenia: just another one of those great creations of mankind that are meant to be floating around somewhere.

Anyway his version of the story was that when the turks or the ottomans or whoever invaded egypt and captured the city, the great general, let’s call him Pashmina, messaged his boss, the Sultan, asking what to do with the library, it being the end of all ends, magnificent jewel of orient, etc. The sultan (let’s call him Mohair – this story needs a little life), Mohair says, has this library got anything more than the Koran in it? And has it got anything less than the Koran in it?

“Of course” Pashmina goes, “yes, of course it does: It’s gotta have one or the other, basic logic innit, me ol’ cocka sparra.” (Sorry about the cockney accent but in my experience most pashminas are seen in the east end)

‘Ah’ says Mohair

“Ah?” says Pashmina “guv?” (continuity of character – that’s what I admire in a two-thousand year-old turk. Oh, and a respect for personal space.)

“Well, if the library contains anything beyond the Koran, it must be burnt as blasphemous” says Mohair,

“I think I can see where this is going” says Pashmina “do you mind if I pop to the loo while you finish the story?”

“Not at all. And if it contains anything less than the koran…”

“ah…yes..?”, says Pash’s voice, echoing slightly from his position in the porcelain tabernacle

“…there’s no point keeping it: waste is a sin, and paper makes a good fire.”

“right.” Pasmina says, as he emerges from the land of ablutions, tugging tight his drawstring pants “you weren’t one of those kids who used to use magnifying glasses on crickets were you?”

“Off with your head” says Sultan Mohair

“You can’t chop off my head! I’m merely an illustrative tool used by a 21st century layabout to represent the thought processes of a seventeenth century philosophe” Sez Pashmina, fading back into the ether…

The point is, Rousseau said, this is all academic, the sultan was completely wrong, the library should have been preserved for future generations, it belongs in a museum, etc.

But Rousseau said also said that if they’d been talking about the bible, the sultan would have been spot on.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is my blog. It’s meant to hold all my thoughts, feelings, etc. (though at this rate I may have to build an extension). Values are malleable, they’re individual, and you and I have gotta accept that there’s no right and wrong in them. I just hope that accepting that, you also manage to enjoy my exegesis a little more than most.

Oh by the way: