Spinal Columns

Nicholas Royle – White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector (Salt, 2021)

Passion is contagious. Stamp collections, train rides, K-Pop, motorbike engines, pop-up books, knitting: all things I have zero interest in myself, but have I sat, listening, rapt, while an enthusiast explains them.

Nicholas Royle’s new book, White Spines, falls into this category of experience. I read, yes, and enjoy a well-made book, but Royle’s Sisyphean effort to curate the perfect Picador collection is as alien to me as a long weekend spent trainspotting.

But this is why we read books, right? To see through other people’s eyes.

The small text in Picadors doesn’t bother Royle, as he feels no requirement to actually read the books. The white spines that I find so dull and uniform are transformed, on his white bookcase, into a perfect collection; a marble column, memorialising his persistent efforts.

White Spines recounts his book hunt with all the meticulous attention to detail one would expect from a true collector.

He professes his love for the nouveau roman, which is suitable, as, for example, the chapter listing all the inscriptions he has found in second-hand Picadors would not be out of place in a Robbe-Grillet. Le voyeur (des livres)

Stories are entwined with the collecting. Second-hand book shops make regular appearances; their grumpy owners and pretentious clientele. Friends and fellow-writers are also recalled.

Adrian Slatcher (a review of whose book appears in this issue) confirms his Mancunian omnipresence by appearing in Didsbury Oxfam. Other regulars include Helen Derby, David Gaffney and the other Nicholas Royle (the literary theory one).

Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley of the Didsbury Book Shop, behind the Art of Tea, is charmingly remembered, from his singing to his sky-high prices. Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, and author of Confessions of a Bookseller, makes an appearance too.

Chorlton Oxfam, New Mills’ High Street Books, Scrivener’s in Buxton, Abacus in Altringham, Stockport Record and Book Fair; they’re all here.

One of Royle’s self-imposed rules is that he can only hunt his Picadors in the wild – meaning second hand book shops. No Amazon. No Abebooks.

Although of course, like every book-buyer, Royle breaks his own rules quite often, driven by that bizarre compulsion we all recognise. The Book Gods soon punish him though, as the internet routinely sells him wrong editions; close enough for a reader perhaps, but not for a collector.

There is something antiquarian about this collecting, then. A commitment to a diminishing set of objects (Picador no longer produce the white spine editions; the decision to drop the classic layout is much lamented) sourced from establishments that are themselves rapidly diminishing in number.

A tragic scene towards the end shows us Chorlton Oxfam under Covid conditions. The robotic repetition of the girl on the door:

“Do you want to take a basket? Just so we know how many people are in the shop. Anything you pick up and don’t buy put in the box. Do you want to take a basket? Just so we…”

I remember that scene. I left straight away, went to the bakery over the road and was told off there for walking in “the wrong side of the door”. I’ve not been to another physical shop since then, and won’t be doing until everything is lifted.

Royle won’t be put off by a few Covidbots, however. He is unstoppable in his search. Lockdown might have enforced a brief hiatus, but he has used the downtime to interview former Picador editors and the illustrators responsible for their iconic covers. Then he wrote this book.

As the author of Quiz Night – a book recreating my weekly pub quiz – I recognise all the same bittersweet enthusiasm in White Spines.

Nostalgia as an antidote to despair. To continue in the imagination pleasures now banned in practice.

To label this a book for book collectors is to miss the point. I came out of it no more interested in collecting than when I went in (although, I admit, it has given me a new appreciation for Picador covers).

Instead, it’s a book about passion. About everyday compulsions. About our strange worlds, and the joys that make them habitable.

It’s also entrancingly written. Light, breezy, and impossible to put down. It’s a beautifully made book, replicating the classic Picador style (a brave move from Salt!). All of which makes it a book that’s well worth collecting.

Joe Darlington

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