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Posts Tagged ‘sage of grasmere’

parcelI know this traditional bookshop where they still wrap things with brown paper and string. Here, you’ll find a vast collection of second hand books, all neatly categorised and arrayed in labyrinthine rows on three creaky floors. It’s been there for generations, catering for the full spectrum of tastes, from the pre Socratic philosophers to the latest Fifty Shades. It’s a rare, book-scented treasure house, a bastion of colour and pattern and calm in an increasingly bland world.

I don’t always buy a book when I go there. At least half the pleasure in visiting this place is in browsing with no particular aim other than the search for something inspirational. My choices are therefore driven as much by mood as by the titles. My price limit also varies widely according to mood, and for all I know the cycles of the moon as well. I once parted with £25.00 for a copy of Jung’s Mysterium, a book much revered by psychoanalysts – and which I have not the Latin to decipher. At other times I am loathe to part with £5.00 and come away empty handed, dejected that nothing has taken my eye. To be sure, bookshops like this are mysterious places.

Last Saturday it was Wordsworth – well, not so much him as an idea inspired by him. I’d been revisiting the Romantics, thinking back on things I’ve written about Romanticism – most of it rubbish, but some of it still holding the test of time. And there it was, lurking upon a shelf of rather lack-lustre books, pressed a little to the back as if shy of the limelight: Wordsworth’s collected poems, dated 1868.

It was a handsome little volume – red cloth binding, the pages gilded, and the backing boards beautifully bevelled so the book turned smoothly in my hands like a bar of silky soap. Inside, among the familiar poems, there were engravings – intricate drawings, each protected by its own little insert of tissue paper. It was delightful. It might have been placed there only recently – or been there for twenty years, always escaping my eye until now. Only now did it speak to me. But what was it saying? Here are the poems of William Wordsworth, Michael? Read them? No, I already own a copy of his collected works. It wasn’t that I needed another. There was more going on here. All I know is I wanted it.

An expensive book, I feared, but no – £4.50 was its considered worth, which placed it within the means of my capricious and, of late, austerity-conscious pocket. It could be mine. It would be mine.

I am not a book dealer or a collector. I do not browse these shelves for unknown money-treasures in order to sell them on. The vendor is, after all, an antiquarian dealer of some renown, so I presume the real collectors’ items have already been filtered out of this very public domain – leaving only the dross, where treasure is to be found only in sentiment. I was under no illusions then; to a dealer in books this book, pretty thought it was, was worthless.

Was it really only sentiment then that drew my eye? Could sentiment take my breath away like this and fill me with a such possessive craving for a thing that was otherwise of no use nor value to me? Perhaps it was simply its great age and the fact I have a track record in collecting old and useless things. The Sage of Grasmere had not been 20 years dead when this book was issued, and here it was, still in marvelous condition –  a little frayed at the top and bottom of the spine, but otherwise pristine. Clearly it had been respected throughout its life, and was that not reason enough to earn my own respect now? Or was it that the book lain neglected behind the glass of some unfrequented country house library, untouched by sticky fingers – and now at last had come its chance to be handled, to be loved. Is that why is spoke to me?

It was a mystery, but one I was clearly in a mood to ponder in slower time. For now the priority was merely to rescue it, to possess it.

I took my prize downstairs to the lady at the till and she looked upon it with a genuine delight. She ran her long pale hands over the cover as I had done a moment ago, and in doing so shared with me the loveliness of it.  Her actions, unconsciously sensual and simple enough on her part, were to my romantic eye like holy devotions and they amplified an already growing numinosity. Then she wrapped it carefully, folding the paper with a neat, practised precision, deft fingers twisting the knot, an enchantress sealing in the spell of that afternoon – an afternoon possessed suddenly of a richness and a fertility I had not known in such a long, long time.

I emerged from the shop tingling with something that ran far deeper than the mere purchase of an old book. But what was it?

I’ve had that book for four days now and you might think it curious but  it rests upon my  desk, still in its tight little wrapping. I do not want to open it in case the magic of that afternoon evaporates. While I keep it wrapped, you see, the spell remains intact and only good things can happen from now on. The glass will for ever be half full,… never again half empty. But such an obsessive devotion as this is stretching things, even for me, and I realise it’s in my little foible – some might say my weakness – the mystery of that afternoon is revealed.

One cannot really capture a moment like that, any more than one can capture its essence in a photograph. All you’re really left with at the moment of capture is a dead thing. As I’ve written before, and keep telling myself, as if for the first time anew, the moment comes from within and cannot be contained in any “thing”. Curiosity will eventually overcome my obsessive Romantic sentiment, and I will snip open that package to discover all that lies inside is just a worthless old book, a little more world-worn and weary than I remember it.

The real power lies always in the moment and it will always be erased by time until we can find a way of staying in the moment all the time. If we can do that then every moment becomes imbued with a mysterious presence, a presence that has the power to inspire and elevate us beyond the mundane. There we discover that the meaning of our lives – the meaning we might have searched for all our lives – was never really lost. Nor was it such a big secret anyway, nor less a thing to be toiled at, nor pondered over with our heads in our hands, nor winkled out of the dusty tomes of several millenia’s worth of arcane spiritual teachings. It was there all the time; the numinous, the sheer pullulating exuberance of life.

You do not find it in work or wealth or learning, but in random moments of spontaneous inner realisation, like with me on that Saturday afternoon, browsing the hushed labyrinth of an antiquarian bookshop. But we’ve all had moments like this, and perhaps the only secret is that we should allow ourselves to recognise their intrinsic sacredness, then trust the mind, or whatever greater consciousness lies behind it, will grant us the presence to realise them more often.

Of course a more skilled pilgrim than I would have admired that book for what it was and, without losing a fraction of the meaning in that moment, simply left it on the shelf for someone else to find.

Pass me those scissor’s will you?

Thanks for listening.

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