Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Risking Money on BBC Chats

How to determine if too much has been paid for a book? If, having bought it, I find my satisfaction in owning it undiminished a year from now, or whenever it presents itself again to my notice, I am content. Doesn't matter if I was made to sweat and shake handing my credit-card over to the clerk, if I threw away the receipt so as
never to look at it again, or if I felt the need to hide the book when I brought it home instead of promised groceries, if I am still agog when I pick the thing up, still astonished at my percipience at finding it amidst the junk in a box or the treasures in a locked case, I am satisfied. If the sight of it pains me and I remember nothing but the price every time I open it, then the purchase of the book was too dear. (When that happens, I'll let you know.) Doesn't much matter if I bought it from a discount bin or from an antiquarian, if I wanted the book, and might afford it -- might -- then I was right to buy it. Doesn't mean I have to keep it. Selling books, after all, may not be as satisfying as buying them, but selling them can provide the means of buying more and better, or at the very least other books.

Now ordering a book, ordering a new book, "special ordering" as it is called in the trade, gives my pause. I do it rarely and usually only when there's a gift required for A. But now and again a book is too expensive to ask my employers to get it in on sufferance just for me. I can not ask to put a $59.95 book into stock when the likelihood is that I will be the only customer ever to ask for it. I have enough sense not to indulge my acquisitiveness at the expense of my employment.

But having ordered such a book, I dread it's arrival. What if the book is bad? This has happened. When I was young and green, and bookstores ran on paper, I ordered a book and waited a month or more to get it. I don't remember the exact price, though I know that at the time I could not have been earning more than six dollars an hours and that the price I paid represented many, many hours labour. I had not by then learned how to hunt in the used books shops as well as I have done since. The Internet was still in its infancy and not yet a source for used books. When that book came, I was elated -- at last! -- until, that is, it was unwrapped. I had ordered what turned out to be a "library reprint:" this is an ugly thing, copied from a no doubt pretty and precious thing on a copier, the copied sheets then gathered up, with no thought to distortion or aesthetics, and bound in stiff boards. It was a hideous, hard and unwieldy thing, and it was mine, at three or four times the price I might then have paid for a first edition, or at least a later better reprint. I don't know that such books for libraries still exist. With books being scanned now and reprinted on computers, the standards for such things can only have improved. I learned a lesson though, if only not to trust the standards of librarians in matters of utility and attractiveness.

So when I ordered a new book, from the University of Missouri Press, I trusted it would not be hideous, but I did not trust, having seen the title only in a catalogue, that it would be worth the money I'd spent. The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster 1929 - 1960: A Selected Edition, edited by no less than three scholars, sounded a very desirable thing. The picture in the catalogue, and the page count, made me think it would be, if not worth the money, worth the gamble.

And so it was. While the editors, in their compulsion, have wasted whole feet of white page on reproducing the original header of each broadcast, down to the studio used for each broadcast, and the exact time of each broadcast (tired yet of seeing the word "broadcast?") they have none the less produced a worthy book.

These short lectures and book reviews were broadcast as instructional and chatty introductions to English literature, rather than formal addresses or criticism. The tone is light, frequently funny, and endearingly careful to never assume anything about the listeners' literacy. The great fun in the book is in getting Forster in a light mood, enthusiastically explaining Auden or Strachey to a very general public. It is all material previously unknown to me, though Forster frequently used the broadcasts as an opportunity to promote the work of friends and younger writers of his acquaintance and many of these opinions will be familiar to reader's of Forster's biography.

I am happy in my purchase, but resolved to not allow this instance to make an example. I need only remember the ugly business of the library reprint of Beerbohm's essays to remind me of the dangers of ordering the unknown.

No comments:

Post a Comment