‘A Bible?’ you might ask. ‘What would a cynical agnostic like you want with a Bible?’
Well, it wasn’t the Bible I wanted; it was the book. It was a very fine book, a big Victorian book bound in old leather, folio size and capable of staying open at any page with consummate ease when laid flat. Modern books don’t generally do that; I gather it’s all to do with the way they’re bound. And so it caught my eye immediately because it had an aura of antique quality about it.
But then I walked over to take a closer look, and guess what was printed on the cover, underneath ‘Holy Bible.’
Gustave Doré! Imagine that. I love the woodcuts of Gustave Doré. I used one of his illustrations to Dante’s Inferno for a project I did when I was learning the techniques of desk top publishing back in the mid nineties. I have a couple on the wall of my office that I lifted from the internet. I mentioned in a recent post that it was just such an illustration which brought my abiding love of the Arthurian romances to fruition when I was but a callow youth. Doré was surely the arch Romantic illustrator. He made Romance live in just the way it should live, and the reproductions in this book were proper illustrations, not electronic facsimiles. They were made with real plates, and they were sumptuous.
The cost of this treasure was £29.99, which the manager told me was half the valuation given by a man who knows about such things. I had a feeling – although I admit to knowing nothing about such things – that in the right bookshop in the right city, say London or New York, it might fetch rather more. But, of course, that wasn’t the point. The point was that here was a thing I wanted for its own sake quite removed from any tawdry pecuniary considerations.
And, of course, I didn’t buy it. The reluctance to buy things simply because they’re nice and I like them is well established and not so easily shaken. It’s been with me a long time, ever since childhood when my mother’s enforced and much practiced frugality meant that I only ever received small gifts, and then only at Christmas, on birthdays, and after a tooth extraction. Besides, I have no bookshelves in this house, and such a book would surely require the right stage on which to star. Keeping it in a box in a cupboard under the stairs would be offensive.
So there you have it. Self-denial is well rooted and continues to flourish, nurtured as it is by the precedent of practical exigency. But I do hope the book gets a home worthy of its ultimately indefinable merit. It bothers me a little that it might at this moment be standing on a shelf in a darkened shop, feeling unwanted. I even wonder whether I should feel guilty.