Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tempted by second-hand books

My Lynders cousins in Portrane ... the best sales team in Ireland

Patrick Comerford

I am constantly amazed at and amused by the books people buy in bulk.

I spent the August Bank Holiday weekend in marquee, working on the second-hand bookstall at the Great Sale organised by my Lynders cousins at The Quay in Portrane. This great sale is held annually in aid of Hand-to-Heart and its projects in Romania and each year attracts a loyal band of helpers and supporters.

Despite the threat of showery weather, the rain kept off this year, and the sale raised over €25,000 over the three-day holiday weekend. As consumer spending is down about 20 per cent this year, you could say this sale is holding its own against figures for the previous years.

The donors and buyers of second-hand books reveal a lot about themselves. Blockbusters by writers like John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell were donated in great numbers and snapped up quickly in great numbers. But the same can be said too about travel books, cookery books, children’s books and – to my surprise – foreign language dictionaries.

Old classics like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm – in their original orange and white Penguin paperback covers – reminded me of my very enthusiastic and inspiring English teacher in Gormanston in the 1960s. Older favourites, such as the Beano annual, reminded me of even younger days.

I find it very difficult to give away my own books, an equally difficult to resist the temptation to buy books at a sale like this.

Some of the books that I am pleased to have bought over the weekend include:

Penelope FitzGerald, The Gate of Angels (1990); Saint Angelicus is the smallest college in Cambridge, but does it exist at all? It was founded by Pope Benedict XIII, but after many years of argument, everyone agreed that Benedict had never been pope at all. This book is a delightful way to recall pleasant days in Cambridge this summer and last.

Victor Jackson, The Monuments in St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin (1987): Even if some of you may think I’m a pillar of the Church, I have no intention of ending my days as a monument in a cathedral. But this book is a delightful catalogue.

The descriptions go beyond monuments. There are windows, organ dedications, regimental flags and banners. The names of archbishops, bishops, deans and pioneering missionaries are recalled, as well as the Knights of the Order of Saint Patrick. There are memorials for Huguenot refugees and their descendants and for men who fought in China, India, Burma, Egypt, Crimea, South Africa, and the two world wars.

The book also describes: the monument to Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland; Sydney Lady Morgan’s tribute to the composer Carolan; the marble bust of the patriot John Philpot Curran; a monument to Robert Emmet’s brother, Thomas Addis Emmet, that originally stood in Saint Peter’s Church in Aungier Street, which closed in 1975; George Ogle, MP for Wexford and controversial loyalist during the 1798 Revolution; and a description of parchment scroll marking the admission of Jonathan Swift to the Freedom of Dublin in 1730, and the chair used when he was dean.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves: first published 1960, this book was referred to constantly by all the speakers at this year’s summer school at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. Lewis spent his last days as Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. In this classic of 20th century spirituality, he distinguishes between the four loves – Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity – but also sees how each merges into another, how one can even become another, without losing sight of the necessary differentiation between them.

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956): I was very embarrassed a few years ago when I was lent this book by a student, and then promptly mislaid it. It came to light only a few days ago in my rumble-tumble study, but I was able to buy my own copy in Portrane yesterday.

Anthony Burgess has placed this book “among the twenty best novels of the [20th] century.” It tells the story of a High Church Anglican mission to Turkey led by the narrator, her Aunt Dot, Father Chantry-Pigg and a Turkish feminist. As Sir Compton Mackenzie wrote, this is a book that blends beauty, wisdom, humour, lunacy and love to produce a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass of modern life.

Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth: first published in 1951, this book is the Trappist mystic’s commentary on the works of Saint John of the Cross – the 16th century Carmelite mystic, poet and theologian who became a Doctor of the Church – drawing in particular on his image of the “dark night of the soul.” In this book, Thomas Merton writes: “The only thing that can save the world from complete moral collapse is a spiritual revolution. Christianity, by its very nature, demands such a revolution.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality: this is one of the most revolutionary documents to have come out of 18th century Europe, and is probably the most influential of all Rousseau’s works. The political and social arguments he outlined in this book in 1755 and in a revised edition in 1782 made it a classic denunciation of the social conditions at the time.

And finally I bought a sumptuously produced colourful guide to the Monasteries and Churches of Romania, published last year in Bucharest. Here are the painted monasteries of Bucovina, and the Antim Monastery and Stavropoleos Church in Bucharest.

For three days I was on my feet. It was a tough task, given by diagnoses of sarcoidosis and Vitamin B 12 deficiency. I spent his morning back in hospital for a session with my consultant, lung tests, an X-Ray and another round of blood tests. But the past three days have been exhilarating, and I feel I have got more than I have given.

This morning’s Guardian tells how Oxfam shops, with their cheap but high quality second-hand books, are threatening second-hand bookshops throughout England. I don’t think I could ever run a second-hand bookshop – I would be a bad buyer and I would be too amused at and amazed by other people’s tastes. Who else would have bought what I bought over the last few days.

But already my appetite has been whetted for a visit next week to my favourite second-hand bookshop in England, the Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield.

If you missed the sale, you can still send donations to “Heart to Hand,” c/o Mrs Mary Lynders, the Quay, Portrane, Co Dublin. You can read more about “Heart to Hand” at www.hearttohand.net, where there is more information about the charity and its story.