A Mild Case of Serendipity by Nigel Jarrett

Coming across the unexpected often slots into a wider set of meaningful considerations. While on a pre-pandemic visit to my local hospital for an X-ray – I’d been spluttering for ages after a severe chest infection – I noticed in the Reception area a bookshelf with an accompanying ‘honesty box’. The books were for sale and the money for them intended to support the activities of hospital volunteers.

On offer was the usual medley of titles in paperback and hardcover. I was used to these modest ways of raising cash, and I knew such displays were worth examining. This time, out of around 150 volumes, I chose only two: Peter Taylor’s first novel, A Woman Of Means, and Thoreau’s  A Writer’s Journal, both hardbacks. Having just moved to a smaller place, which involved jettisoning a lot of accumulated ‘stuff’, I’d decided that for every two books that came in henceforth I would take one of their combined width – or two of similar girth –  to a charity shop. The Taylor book was slim, as blurb-writers have it, and the Thoreau of average size, so I took those knowing there was at least one removable book at home of a measure equivalent to those two: a collection of letters written by the British editor Diana Athill to the American poet Edward Field; absorbing in itself but more a taster for Athill’s acclaimed volumes of autobiography.

Both hospital purchases were first editions and ex-library, not that the former status has ever had any bearing on my wanting to read a book; I’ve never been a collector, more an ‘accumulator’. The Thoreau, initially published as a re-print in 1961, so a de facto ‘first’,  and edited by Laurence Stapleton, was related to a series of biographies, also from the publisher Heinemann and superintended by Carl Bode under the heading The Young Rebel In American Literature and including one on Thoreau written by him. (The others, by divers hands, were about Whitman, Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald, H L Mencken, Steinbeck, and Faulkner.) Though old, the copy of Taylor’s novel was a tad misshapen but had that almost-pristine feel of rarely having been borrowed.

 As often happens with books come across by chance, vandals employed by public libraries had retained the dust covers but emasculated them in the interest of protection from wear. Wrapping in cellophane meant cutting the front fold and pasting it on the inside back cover. Thus, apart from the library stamps, does the first edition value plummet to nought. I had to tear carefully the amputated portion and glue it back, a difficult job since there was little front edge to play with and the dust cover fold was along the line of the reinstatement. I imagined myself relating all this to Taylor in the hope that, as a quid pro quo of his disarmingly conversational style of writing, he would listen without demur in the same way that his readers ‘listen’ to him. (I wondered if he’d ever known benefactors Dennis and Mary Butts, referred to in Biro on the inside front cover of his book by someone at the Rappahannock Regional Library, Fredericksburg, as ‘outstanding contributors to the British tradition’, whatever that is understood to be in Virginia.)

The Taylor volume, and to a marginally lesser extent the Thoreau, seemed arcane on a shelf that also included a book of fish recipes by Rick Stein and something called the ‘official’ autobiography of Elton John (I wondered what an ‘unofficial’ autobiography of Elton John would be – one in which he’d failed to concentrate, perhaps, or had sent to the publisher in the belief that it was the correct draft before jetting off on tour and letting his editor and printer get on with it in his absence). But it was the shelf’s diversity that amused me, an illustration of the nation’s reading habits, which are sifted more or less into ‘escapist’ and ‘serious’, or ‘entertaining’ and ‘literary’. Unhelpful categories to me, especially as lovers of the serious are among the funniest and most entertaining people I know.

Anyway, the surgery’s done. The wrapper design of the Thoreau book, a masterpiece of emblazoned typography (no contextual pictures), is by Donald Green. I wonder who he is or was. The vandalism wasn’t local: stripping the sticker from the bottom of the spine resulted in removal of two of Green’s letters, so that the title viewed in front of the shelf is A Writer’s Journ. I should have steamed it off. Given the location of their late appearance as commodities, the books, having undergone rescue and refurbishing, are now ready to offer succour once more in the world of the fit. My X-ray picture proved to be without blemish.

About the contributor

Nigel Jarrett won the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. His story collection, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and elsewhere. He's written a novel, a poetry collection, and two further collections of short fiction. In 2019, Templar published A Gloucester Trilogy.

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