La petite mort

Posted by Wally O Neill on

“An entire life spent reading would have fulfilled my every desire; I already knew that at the age of seven. The texture of the world is painful, inadequate; unalterable, or so it seems to me. Really, I believe that an entire life spent reading would have suited me best. Such a life has not been granted me...”
- Michel Houellebecq, Whatever

The French have an expression called ‘La petite mort’ – the little death. In the modern age, it has come to be an expression for an orgasm. It can also mean an event that leaves a person feeling that a part of them has died.

To a bookseller, La petite mort is a dreaded moment, always laying somewhere unexpectedly over the horizon. The moment when we open another freshly acquired box of books, full of endless possibilities, and feel…. nothing. That emptiness will signify the end of the game for any bookseller.

There are three ways a bookseller can cease to be – death or debilitating illness, financial ruin (always a very nearing reality) and La petite mort – the decay of interest.

From my earliest memories, a book was a magical object inferred with the utmost respect and sanctity by those around me. This little bundle of pressed paper could always make my heart race. What curiosity that something so uniform could relay the thoughts and hearts and total knowledge of humanity to those who took the time to look between its pages. What wonder that it could inspire such devotion.

But everyday we handle hundreds of books – literally. On a Conservative estimate, more than 140,000 books have passed directly through my hands over the past twelve months. Those are books that I have held, that I have priced, that I have skimmed, that I have categorised (not always very well), and that I have bought, swapped and sold.

That level of indulgence has to erode away even the most stringent ideals. I’m one of the lucky ones. I still see a book as being more than a commodity. I still see it as being part of another plane, worthy of protection and exaltation. I know many booksellers who don’t even read and judge a books merit on condition, age and the trends in online bookclubs. No doubt they are far superior businesspeople to me.

I still receive a jolting thrill up my spine when I see another bookshop, when I enter its threshold and breath in its bookaroma. I still feel the beat of the hunt, but rarely now, sadly, can I find something that I haven’t seen or handled before, that doesn’t seem fake or contrived, or throwaway market floss.

Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave—a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.

Booklovers actively engaging in an activity which threatens their very desire for books is surely a form of insanity and perhaps that is why eccentricity passes easily and without reproach among booksellers.

In the town of books there are tens of thousands of books divided between thirty booksellers, all navigating the fringes of pleasant society. Among the narrow corridors between banana box towers filled with paperbacks and artisan wooden bookshelves, swiftly move the stealth bookdealers, those who come to buy, accumulate and speculate rather than just sell. Most are hybrid collectors or bookshop owners searching for stock, but a few are ninja bookdealers, unwilling or unable to gain access as a seller and unceremoniously drifting like haunted spectres through the book miasma.

The Sheriff of Nottingham wears a dramatically fashioned long overcoat, its arms patched with leather and its pockets bulging with ephemera. A scarf blows from his rotating neck despite the absence of a breeze and a pair of dickensian spectacles hang on the end of an engorged red nose.

“How much will you sell me these few for?” he asks the Book Buddha, who is busy counting out rows of shiny five cent coins.

“The prices are on them Sheriff.”

“What about me discount?”

“What discount?”

“Me trade discount,” the Sheriff of Nottingham snaps.”

“Are you trading? When was the last time you sold a book? Or returned accounts to the tax office?”

“Twenty percent discount for trade. Surely another ten for bulk purchases and maybe fifteen more for friends rates.”

“Forty five percent of a discount? Are you mad or what Sheriff?”

The Sheriff mutters something almost inaudible under his breath and drifts away like a bargain basement Doctor Who.

Ho Chi O’ Leary moves rapidly through the town of books. His style is less book ninja and more tet offensive. He’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. He’ll pop up from behind a box of Mills&Boons suddenly and deliver a mantra.

“I’ll replace ten books for every one they take. The odds are stacked with the guerilla booksellers.”

And then he’ll disappear down behind the box again.

You’ll see him racing up the road, pushing a shopping trolley laden down with fine bindings and he’ll cry out, “Eyes must look far ahead, and thoughts be deeply pondered. Be bold and unremitting in attack.”

At the end of the day, as weary beaten down booksellers take to the bar, Ho Chi O’ Leary will be holding court in the corner, surrounded by crusties and yuppies, downing lager and hissing loudly, “Come the right moment, a pawn can bring you victory.”

The great survivor takes a high stool beside me, placing a briefcase crammed with pristine twenty-euro notes on the counter.

“I’m very disappointed Richard,” he tells me, “I’ve made so much money today that I think I’ve damaged my back carrying it. I barely had time to drink my oxtale soup.”

The great survivor calls everyone Richard. I try to hide my own disappointment and feelings of inadequacy as Ho Chi O’ Leary screams another revolutionary message across the bar.

“When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out!”

The great survivor rummages through his briefcase, finally emerging with a particularly crisp twenty. He orders a brandy from the young barmaid, who he calls Richard.

“Bookselling is not what it used to be Richard. I remember queues four deep trying to look at my west Cork poetry pamphlets. Now people don’t seem to care.”

“You did well,” I say.

“Yes, I did. I had a marvellous day, even though I’m so tired from taking money and handing out change all day long. I barely had time to eat my gormet ploughman’s sandwich Richard. How did you do?”

“Ok,” I concede.

“Mmmm, lot of the dealers are only selling rubbish Richard. Auld paperbacks. I don’t know how they keep going.”

“I like paperbacks.”

“I know.”

At the end of the counter, Ho Chi O’ Leary swings wildly on his stool, roaring at random passersby.
“Booksellers of the world unite! All booksellers are equal but some are just twats.”

Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant.