Secret Library

Rediscovering the Book as Object: Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Tom Mole’s new book about books … books as physical things, that is

Books, as Stephen King said, are a uniquely portable magic. Or, as Tom Mole puts it in The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words, with equal eloquence, ‘Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.’ Mole’s new book – which is out next Thursday with Elliott & Thompson – is a paean to the book as thing, the object that is the book, the physical, tangible, visible, osmible (to coin a word) assemblage of paper and ink that is the codex or book.

George Gissing was one of many writers before Mole to note the importance of all of the paratextual qualities that make the book so much more than just a collection of marks on paper or vellum: ‘I know every book of mine by its smell,’ he once observed, ‘& I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things.’ Mole is right that books can provide us with a window onto our own pasts, a secret passage to our memories. I still have all of the books I bought for my university degree, and I am always surprised by my students who don’t appear to own any of the books they’re studying, even the ones they like and have chosen to write about. (I suspect that Mole – or, more fully, Professor Tom Mole, Professor of English Literature and Book History at Edinburgh University – could tell similar tales about his own students’ non-book-buying habits.) And The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words is a ‘book about books’ in the most literal sense, concerned with the physical book out there in the world.

Over the course of eight entertaining chapters, Mole considers the book as book, the book as thing, the book as a marker of identity (the bookshelf being a way of revealing not only the book’s self but the self of its owner), the book and relationships, the book and life, the book in the world, the book and technology (cue discussion of the rise of the e-book and whether this poses a threat to the survival of the traditional paper book), and the future of the book. There follows a brief afterword or coda to Mole’s own codex, titled (but of course) ‘Book/End’.

One of the triumphs of this book is that what might come across as stating the obvious is saved from being so by Mole’s nice turns of phrase (as in the example I provided in the opening paragraph of this review) and the fund of irresistible anecdotes and examples he is able to draw upon. The travel writer and WWII hero Patrick Leigh Fermor liked to paste envelopes into the back covers of his books. He would fill these envelopes with letters from friends, newspaper clippings, and other papers which personalised the book as his book. According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great took a volume of Homer with him on his military campaigns. More recently, Ernest Shackleton took a Bible with him on his expedition to Antarctica – a Bible that had been presented to him by Queen Alexandra, widow of King Edward VII. Mole tells us that when Shackleton and his crew were forced to abandon their ship, he tore two pages out of the Bible and jettisoned the rest. One of the two pages he salvaged contained the inscription from the Queen. And it was good to learn that Joseph Conrad’s son Borys took a copy of one of his father’s novels – the short masterpiece The Shadow-Line – with him when he went away to fight in the First World War.

The Secret Life of Books is also full of interesting details pertaining to things like personalised book illustrations. For instance, I hadn’t heard of Grangerising before – the name for adding illustrations of your own to a book you possess – but Mole tells us that the verb was derived from James Granger’s Biographical History of England (1769), many copies of which readers chose to embellish in such a way. I’d also forgotten the wonderful story about Philip Larkin – who famously described himself as an ‘Anglican agnostic’ – installing a lectern in his room so he could read the Bible while shaving of a morning. As Mole goes on to remark, ‘I’m not sure whether this mode of reading influenced his conclusion that the Bible was “absolute balls”.’

The Secret Life of Books, then, is a readable and highly accessible study of the book as a physical object in the world. Mole wears his learning lightly, and draws on personal experience as well as literary anecdotes to illuminate his way as he negotiates the past, present, and future journeys of the book as object.

The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words is out on 19 September from Elliott & Thompson.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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