“It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
- Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
In the mountains of the south, wedged between inbreeding and agriculture, lays the Graveyard of Irish Books. This is where your unwanted paperbacks come to await final verdict. The purgatory of the printed word.
Where did you imagine all the books you donated to charity shops ended up? Where did you think your deceased fathers book collection, which he painstakingly assembled over decades, relocate to after you callously called in the house clearance crew? Where do the countless unsold local histories, vanity published memoirs or experimental novels finish their days?
The great unspoken secret of the bookselling world is the existence of the Graveyard of Irish Books. It is from here that Geoffrey Ryan sends his World Book minions to hoover up the cast-offs of civilisation, and send them back to his industrial book sorting plants in the UK. This is just another front of the rampant colonialism subjugating bookselling and literary creation in our times, reducing the most extraordinary magic ever materialised by human beings to nothing more than mere units to shift.
But before that crocodile skin belt wearing bastard Geoffrey Ryan gets his fat fingers on the literary legacy of the state, the last remaining book dealers, the ones with the stomach and nerve to, the uncultured savages, go book diving in this twilight land of discarded literature.
I can’t fully describe the Graveyard of Irish Books to you, dear reader. It has to be seen, to be waded through, to be fully immersed within, to truly understand. To do this, one must travel into the netherworld of lost potentials and wasted culture.
Into the very heart of darkness.
From the outside, it resembles just another abandoned IDA industrial estate. Corroded galvanised sheeting, unpainted concrete walls, empty broken parking lots, slowly being recolonised by gorse bushes and hogweed. A hollowed out 1988 hiace van sits on concrete blocks near the gate, concealing an elderly obese German Shepard, the guardian of this alien landscape.
The German Shepard, known only as the manager, is the guardian of this book purgatory. He may seem feeble and fat but he can still sneakily bite a man on the ankle and infect him with rabies in the blink of an eye.
What madman would ever venture into this hellish landscape?
But this is all a ruse. A clever disguise to keep out readers. Within all the camouflage, lays a sea of books, tidal waves of paperbacks and towering volcanic islands of bulky hardbacks. Inside the heavy set steel door, someone has scrawled a message in red spray paint on the bare concrete wall. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Inside is an overgrown jungle of lost books, pierced by flowing rivers of epic paperbacks and tundra’s of hard-covered histories and philosophical enquiries, enticing you into the darkest centre.
Immediately your footing, sense of space and time, and normal bodily desires are lost as you are engulfed in this eden of books. The smell, ah the smell. Wonderous. And the incredible finds. The textures. Sensory overload.
I wade through the rivers, sometimes knee high, more times up to my neck. Once I was completely submerged, swimming through darkened dry waters, enveloped by billions of words. I thought, how nice it might be to slip away here, compressed by Hesse, Nabokov, Balzac, the Bronte sisters and Tolstoy. Drowned by Joyce, Bulgakov and Anis Nin. Lost in the sea of modernism, post modernism, expressionism, surrealism, symbolism....so many beautiful isms.
And then an arm reaches down, wraps around my throat and drags me to the surface. “What do you think you’re at?” he cries. “I’m not insured to have you dying in here.”
Kurtz regards me with contempt. It is he who grants some of us access into this realm, without the knowledge of Geoffrey Ryan, allowing us to be the Oskar Shindlers of books, saving some, dismissing others to a fate worse than obscurity, and he takes his job incredibly serious.
“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.”
“What are you doing here again Wally? This isn’t your day.”
“I was in the area,” I lie.
“No one is ever in this area. This area is remote to keep people like you out.”
“Sure what harm? You’re getting a few euro, I’m getting stock and it’s not like they’ll be any shortage for those who see fit to rape our literary estate.”
Kurtz snorts. He is one of the biggest book wholesalers in the state and deals with booksellers everyday. He’s heard all the excuses. “Rape our literary estate? You’re an over dramatic charlatan. I just can’t risk having you in here. You lose the run of yourself when you see all these books. It intoxicates you. It’s like letting a mouse run free in a cheddar plant.”
No one knows for sure how long Kurtz has been out here, lost in this dark interior of lexicons, octavos, compendiums and forgotten treatises. There are rumours that he was once like me, a simple bookseller. A noble savage. But then he saw what might be. What he could make of this age-old profession. And he embarked on a journey into the isolated reaches of uber-bookselling where, maybe, he was forced to come face to face with his own soul.
Or maybe there was just more money to be made in wholesaling to the retail trade.
“His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain -- why he did not instantly disappear.”
“Have you found anything then?” he asks, annoyance evident in his harsh Germanic tones. “Or are you just wasting my time as usual?”
Inside my box is a nearly full set of the Chronicles of Narnia, Kipling’s two volume set of the Irish Guards in the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front, Ulysses minus half a cover, Catch 22 minus a dust jacket, a ragtag assembly of small paperback Asimovs, Blytons, Greenes, Hardys and Mcbains, and a biography of Bill Cosby.
Refugees of literature.
“You aren’t saving them you know,” Kurtz sneers. “You should only pick the ones that sell fast. The rest? Destroy the brutes.”
“The best book for a bookseller is a book that sells.”
“You say that but then you grab Boswells life of Johnson and bloody George Elliot.”
“I didn’t say it. A bookseller called B. Andre said it in 1778.”
“Oh yeah? And where’s B. Andre now?”
“Well, he’s dead obviously,” I reply.
“Exactly. And so will you be if you keep filling your shelves with unsellable books. You gotta be more like the elite of bookselling. People like Mr Ryan and Boswell, the personal bookseller to Bob Geldof.”
“Call them what you like but, bottom-line, they make money, you don’t. They attract A-list customers. You attract the mentally ill and homeless. They are sustainable. You are on extinction watch.”
“Did you ever consider motivational speaking?”
“I’m giving you a free business lesson,” He snaps. “I should be charging. I’ve been in this game all my life.”
Maybe Kurtz had lost himself out here, in a desolate landscape of books that had never been read or would never again be browsed. He drags me aboard a makeshift raft, seemingly engineered from old Irish-English dictionaries and glossy atlases.
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness”
“Don’t you think there’s more to a bookshop than profits?” I ask him at last.
“Enough of the romantic notions. Bookselling is still selling. It’s business but asymmetrical business, especially today. Its guerrilla bookselling. If you show any weakness, like hopeless romanticism or charity, then you’re brown bread mate.”
We drift further into the dark centre, our view obscured by towering shelves of art books and thick academic monographs. Twisted vines of dislodged pages, wound together for eternity, reach out to us.
“Eventually bookshops, the real ones anyway, will be so rare that they’ll be deemed exclusive arenas, where only the very wealthy may congregate,” Kurtz whispers. “Only the very best books will be kept on minimalist display shelves and exclusivity will save the industry.”
“That sounds bloody dreadful Kurtz.”
“More dreadful than competing with kindle offers and charity banquets while in a constant state of poverty? There can be no other possible outcome other than complete eradication of physical bookshops.”
I notice a beautiful hardened edition of Conrad float past us and manage to barely wrestle it onto our raft. It’s cover is faded from sunlight and its pages dented from over indulgent reading, but it is undeniable and elegant.
Kurtz regards it with antipathy, a barely concealed malevolence spreading across his hardened face. “Racist filth,” he mutters.
The book flips open and draws our eyes in unison to a seemingly random passage.
“What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”
“Bookselling,” I suggest. “As an idea. An ideal. That passion will not be extinguished.”
Kurtz looks slightly offended and shakes his head. “Didn’t he also say something about not liking work?”
“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
“He should have stopped with the first four words. Only truthful thing that old Pole ever wrote.”
“I think there’s much truth in it.”
“You would,” he retorts.
Our raft floats into a circular clearing, embanked in all directions by rising cliffs of worn cardboard boxes, densely packed with books of every variety. I imagine I see movement in those cliffs. Epic literary battles, characters living lives beyond their narrative, whole imagined worlds left to go wild without a readers overview.
“People will always want to read books Kurtz. because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage. Books raise us to another level. They connect us with other worlds and other ages. They show us our generation is not alone in humanity.”
“And yet, here is a graveyard for unwanted books,” he murmurs. For a moment, his cynicism seems overcome by real emotion.
“What is it with books Kurtz? There’s more than a little eccentricity involved. I think all of us are a little unhinged.”
“Speak for yourself.” A shadow has engulfed him, muffling his words and aging him beyond possibility.
“Do you think all booksellers are mad?”
“Only the good ones,” I think I hear him reply.
Our raft begins to fight the current on its own account, our time in this twilight world no doubt ran out, and we begin for the tiny crack of natural light coming through, as the manager begins to howl in the distance.
“Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”