Monday, August 7, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It had rained and rained for about three days and we had kept indoors, hugging ourselves in the winter chill and beginning to get cabin fever. And then on the Saturday the sun came out and the sky was a welcome uniform blue.

I said: “Let’s go for a walk while we can.”

She said: “Sure. Let’s walk down to the high school. They’re having a sale of second hand books.”

This seemed a good plan to me. The high school is about helf a mile away, so it would be a healthy mile-long walk.

I vowed that I would buy very little, if anything. God knows, our house is overstuffed with books as it is, and this blog and other reviewing outlets mean that I always have a formidable pile of new books waiting for my attention. But we took a backpack with us anyway. We walked sunlit suburban streets, then scrambled through the muddy tracks of a reserve of native trees and emerged near the high school.

Of course, despite my vow, I bought too much. Could you resist good copies of Maurice Gee’s Ellie and the Shadow Man and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and David Lodge’s A Man of Parts and Thomas Keneally’s A Family Madness and Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, all in excellent condition and each costing only $2? Of course not. And she couldn’t resist all the sheet music to add to her very large collection – classical, jazz, popular sing-songs. You need them all when you teach music. So I carried a heavy backpack as we trudged home up a long hill, avoiding the muddy track of the reserve.

But it was not the exceptional plums that disturbed me, nor even the uneasy sense that it would be a very long time before I got around to reading the books I had bought – and even longer beofre I turned some of them into “Something Olds” on this blog.

What disturbed me was all the stuff between the few plums at the second-hand book sale.

Trestle table after trestle table of formula thrillers, formula romances, formula “historical” novels. Yesterday’s bestsellers now looking tawdry and rather pointless. Danielle Steele. Wilbur Smith. Dan Brown. Bryce Courtenay. Clive Cussler. Jilly Cooper. Who – honestly, who? – would want to read this junk now? Indeed (and at this point you may huff and puff if you will about my elitism and cultural snobbery) who really wanted to read them in the first place? Books inspired only by a publisher’s contract, maybe gaining some populatity by their glib novelty which has now been killed by time. Books that aspire to be movie tie-ins.

Trestle table after trestle table of dated political commentary.

Trestle table after trestle table of dated how-to-get-rich books, targeting people who will never be rich.

Trestle table after trestle table of self-help books which would be resorted to only by those who are congenitally incapable of helping themselves.
And the ghost-written autobiographies of forgotten soap-opera stars or sportspeople. And the showbiz puffery books.

To find my few treasures, I walked slowly up and down all the lines of tables, examining all the spines, and found that this dross dominated by a ratio of about ten to one. I stopped and looked at the whole school hall. Hundreds of books – thousands – that need never have been written in the first place. Square miles of forests that need never have died. Redundancy. Incitements to non-thought.

We had come on the second day of the sale, so it is possible that many books of real worth had already been snapped up before we arrived. Even so, my gut still sang the song that it often sings in large bookshops or at bookfairs.

How many books really need to be written?

If all you desire is formula, why not read the thousands of formula books that have already been written, rather than craving new ones?

Why not send a note to publishers asking them to save their time and just do reissues and reprints?

In fact they could be helped along economically by pulping and recycling the books they have already published.


  1. I have pondered the same circumstances and concluded that 90 per cent of cultural endeavours are middling at best; that fame is hard won and often fleeting; that posterity is cruel to most authors with disregard being their probable fate; and that exceptional works that retain their significance over time are all the more valuable because of this.

  2. Just letting you know I spotted a couple of mistakes... should be 'half a mile' near beginning, and 'before' is spelt wrong prior to you talking about the dross books.
    Not being a smug grammar Nazi, just a friendly heads up. I enjoy reading these pieces every week.

    1. No, dear Anonymous, you are not a grammar Nazi because you have not corrected any of my grammar. You have merely noted two typos - so you must be a SPELLING Nazi.