Paper Tigers

By Toby Howden

Martial arts and misadventure in Japan

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Art of Shelf-digging: Obsessive Book Collecting in the Digital Age

While browsing a local second-hand bookshop recently, it occurred to me that I enjoy the process of searching for books as much as the end result of finding something to read. If I'm honest, occasionally I will even buy books knowing full well I’ll probably never get round to reading them. Of course I could save myself the hassle and simply order online, get a tablet, use my phone, it's never been easier. In this dustless digital age, where owning a book has arguably become an obsolete inconvenience, the very notion of possession and collecting has changed. Why would anyone give up the time and space to hoarding antiquated slabs of paper anymore? Well, for me, it’s all about the crate-digging- meaning searching for obscure vinyl, but which I am now re-appropriating to describe the joy of rediscovering old books. (perhaps shelf-digging is a better description?) I love rummaging through overlooked boxes, systematically trawling shelves for the curious and eye-catching. There are forgotten masterpieces out there that have slipped through the homogenising net of digitisation. Archaic dust covers, hilarious raunchy 70’s cover designs, disposable 60’s paperbacks, arrogant pre-war academia, sombre Victorian hardbacks - it’s all out there for the taking and cannot be found online.  It's the hunt, the thrill of the chase, albeit quite a slow methodical chase. I find the whole process weirdly relaxing. It’s a tactile, physical discipline, hard on the knees, but good for the soul. The archaeological adventure of unearthing something long forgotten. Perhaps an out of print classic, not necessarily of any financial value, but it must be interesting, unusual or beautiful. Maybe it's the environment that's so evocative, the musty smell and sepia sunlight of endangered independent bookshops, book-barns, flea markets, junk shops, even friends' bookshelves. It's the transcendental calming ambience of a mindful peruse, the joy of salvaging voices from the past, snatched back from the ravages of time, plucked from piles of mildewed dreams.  Sometimes shelf-digging just feels better than staring at a computer screen. 


My own bookshelves are a slightly insane work of art. A shrine to my passions and obsessions. Organised in secret categories that only make sense to me, and could never be condensed into a mere list or desktop folder. There are books I consider beautiful, books that are fascinatingly old and dilapidated, books from emotional times in my life that are imbued with meanings I can't let go of. Lucky books, enlightening books, books that I love but am not proud of loving (they live on the lower shelves obviously).  Books I really ought to read (I never will and neither will you - War & Peace etc.). Books I’ve bought several times because I keep giving them away to friends with the time-honoured instruction 'You absolutely must read this'. There is a constant thirst to add to my groaning shelves, but not just any celebrity cookbook enters the hallowed stacks. They must be unique, meaningful in some way (to me at least), and always a good read. My particular niche collection focuses on The Orient, and Biggles-era exploration and adventure. Oh, and of course, it contains the obligatory book all men for some reason must own - the SAS Survival Handbook.  


To a certain extent, a preoccupation with books has always been in my family. My grandfather was an English lecturer; my mother a librarian, my stepfather a teacher and masterful hunter-gather of books. He couldn't leave the house without returning with a fresh pile of paperbacks. Growing up, our dining table always had several stacks of the week’s new arrivals. I swear there were actual bookshops that didn't have the turnover of stock our house did. But that was the fun of it; I got to browse random subjects I never would have ordered in a pre-meditated way online. It wasn’t about reading something cover-to-cover, it was passive snippets of knowledge digested in the quiet empty spaces of day-to-day life, while waiting for the kettle to boil. Even now, whenever I’m left to my own devices, I don a pair of comfortable cords and sneak off like a poacher, returning after dusk with a pile of “essential” purchases stuffed into a rucksack like plump juicy pheasants.  For me, actual reading in any format will always surpass collecting, but shelf digging is an art form and I remain dedicated to the joyful pursuit of interesting and unusual books. Perhaps I should take a leaf from the story of the Zen monk who, upon finally inheriting the revered Zen manual from his wise old master (I’m guessing it was a lovely Folio first edition) immediately perceived its true value and threw it straight on the fire to keep warm. If only he’d owned a copy of the SAS Survival Handbook.


A quick update on the status of my book Paper Tigers. We are pretty much ready to go and just awaiting the return of the cover design. Unbound have told me they are looking at a release date in August/September, which is very exciting. Thank you for all your continuing patience and support.

To find out more, read an extract and pre-order a copy go to:

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