Dalrymple’s new essay at the New English Review is about a subject of great (and obvious) personal importance to him: books and bookshops.
In 1936, George Orwell published a little essay entitled Bookshop Memories. In it, he recalled his time as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop, a time that was happy only when viewed through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia. Irony might be defined as disgust recalled in tranquillity, and Orwell’s essay is nothing if not full of irony. He was glad to have had the experience, no doubt, but more glad that it was over.
Not much has changed in the three quarters of a century that have elapsed since Orwell’s experience as a bookseller. Second-hand bookshops the world over still tend to be inadequately heated places, Orwell says because the owners fear condensation in the windows, but also because profits are small and heating bills would be large. There is a peculiar chill, quite unlike any other, to be experienced between the stacks of second-hand bookshops.