Hazel McHaffie

A Book-Handling Service

How about this for a brilliantly amusing idea?

And yes, it was actually once proposed by a satirist called Flann O’Brien in the Irish Times. Noticing that wealthy men acquired vast libraries as a status symbol, but the books were clearly not read, and some of the owners were indeed actually illiterate, he conjured up a scheme to give them more credibility: a Book-handling Service. It’s beautifully outlined in this post.

In a nutshell, it was designed to make the owners of the said impressive libraries look erudite and knowledgeable. There were four levels of service.

Popular Handling:
Books to be well handled, four leaves in each volume to be dog-eared and things like tram tickets and cloakroom dockets inserted at strategic points as forgotten bookmarks.

Premier Handling:
Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight pages to be dog-eared, significant passages to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French to be inserted as a bookmark.

De Luxe handling:
Each tome to be mauled savagely, spines damaged, passages underlined in red pencil, with exclamations and interrogations inserted in the margins. Theatre programmes to be inserted as forgotten bookmarks. As least thirty volumes to be stained with beverages ranging from coffee to whiskey. No less than five to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors.

Le Traitemente Superbe:
Every volume to be loused up by expert handlers. Underlining of significant passages in quality red ink, with comments in the margins such as ‘How true, how true!’, ‘I don’t agree at all’, ‘Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151‘. Affectionate inscriptions and expressions of gratitude supposedly from the author to appear in at least six volumes.

Hilarious concept, huh? As absurd as it is ostentatious and sacrilegious.

Reminds me a little of the practice that emerged early on in the pandemic where people could buy books by the yard to put behind them onscreen to make them look studious and well-read.

For us today, of course, literate, and with ample access to affordable books, the value of the contents of our bookshelves lies not in how worn the physical book appears, nor how we acquired it, but the way the words inside made us think and feel. And that’s the magic for me. One person (the author) covers the pages with little black squiggles; the other person (the reader) absorbs the meaning and significance of those little squiggles, and lo and behold, the experience can influence attitudes, understanding and lives, without the two parties ever meeting or exchanging a single verbal word. And the best books do indeed change us – writer and reader both.


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