Wednesday 9 May 2012

I Want To Be A Book-Handler...

I have discovered the perfect career – as a Professional Book-Handler. I will offer my services, as recommended by the late, great Flann O’Brien, to make new books looks old. After all, I have had plenty of experience, and am a dab hand at creating dog-eared pages, creased spines, and dubious stains. I have an unlimited supply of bus and train tickets, receipts, and old bills which could be used as bookmarks (I once shook a £5 note out of a library book when I returned it, along with a hairgrip and a piece of ribbon). Crinkles and wrinkles caused by reading in the bath would be no problem, and for a small remuneration scribbled notes could be scrawled in the margins, along with any underlining that may be considered necessary.

For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, Book-Handling (or Bookhandlung) is one of the funniest pieces written by Flann O’Brien in his column in the Irish Times. It is a gloriously zany assault on people who stuff their homes with books they have never read, and probably never will – the kind of wall-to-wall decoration so loved by interior designers. O’ Brien launches straight into the attack

Writer Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien
aka Myles na Gopaleen
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.

But he has a solution. After all, as he says, why should a wealthy person be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all?

Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

O’Brien even comes up with a recommended scale of charges for aging one four-foot shelf at four different levels, starting at £1 7s 6d for ‘'Popular Handling--Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark’.
One of my early efforts at book-handling
Premier would cost £2 17s 6d, but for that the illiterate but wealthy owner could have eight pages in each volume dog-eared, while 25 books could have a passage underlined in red pencil. 'De Luxe Handling would also include treatment with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and the creation of forged signatures of the authors. The suggested price is £7 18s 3d, with ‘dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume’.

I'm too sure what happened here!
The final top-of-the-range class is listed as Le Traitement Superbe (that’s ‘superb treatment’ in plain English) priced at more than £23, but worth every penny because, says O’Brien, it is ‘far cheaper than dirt when you consider the amount of prestige you will gain in the eyes of your ridiculous friends’. Books will be handled by a qualified handler and a master handler, and will be heavily underlined in red ink, with exclamations written in the margins. In addition selected books can have ‘forged messages of affection and gratitude’ from the author, as well as ‘flawless’ forged letters from ‘some well-known humbug who is associated with ballet, verse-mouthing, folk-dancing, wood-cutting, or some other such activity that is sufficiently free from rules to attract the non-brows in their swarms’.

The article was published in several parts over several days, and even included a hilarious account of the lengths some book-handlers would go to in the course of their work.

There will be black sheep in every fold, of course. Some of our handlers have been caught using their boots, and others have been found thrashing inoffensive volumes of poetry with horsewhips, flails, and wooden clubs. Books have been savagely attacked with knives, daggers, knuckle-dusters, hatchets, rubber-piping, razor-blade-potatoes, and every device of assault ever heard of in the underworld. Novice handlers, not realising that tooth-marks on the cover of a book are not accepted as evidence that its owner has read it, have been known to train terriers to worry a book as they would a rat. One man (he is no longer with us) was sent to a house in Kilmainham, and was later discovered in the Zoo handing in his employer's valuable books to Charlie the chimpanzee. A country-born handler 'read' his books beyond all recognition by spreading them out on his employer's lawn and using a horse and harrow on them, subsequently ploughing them in when he realised that he had gone a little bit too far. Moderation, we find, is an extremely difficult thing to get in this country.

Does anyone else write in books?
Isn’t that wonderful? It’s one of the many gems in The Best of Myles, by Flann O’Brien, which was one of the pen names adopted by Brian O’Nolan who, as an Irish civil servant, was unable to publish his work under his own name. He wrote novels (At-Swim-Two-Birds, which I haven’t read, was praised by Samuel Beckett and James Joyce) but is possibly best known for the newspaper column he produced in the Irish Times from 1940 until his death in 1966. Cruiskeen Lawn (apparently it means Little Brimming Jug) appeared almost every day, and was sometimes written in Gaelic, and sometimes in English. The articles were (and still are) very witty, very satirical, and very, very funny – laugh out loud funny, rather than making you smile quietly to yourself.

He enjoyed the absurd, which makes him quirky, but not whimsical, and his love of language shines through – he had an ear for the speech he heard in Dublin’s streets, shops and pubs, and played with words in his own inimitable style, subverting language to his own uses as he debunked hypocrisy in society, culture and religion.

Edited May 10: By the way, .I forgot to mention that over on Vulpes Libris in April last year Hilary wrote a wonderful review of The Best of Myles, with more information about him , and a lovely, clear overview of his work (sorry Hilary). You'll find her post here

I’ve posted this in the Essay Reading Challenge being run by CarrieK at Books and Movies here - I’m not sure if newspaper articles really count as essays in the strictest sense of the word, but I think many modern columnists could be regarded as essayists. And, since Flann, Brian, Myles (call him what you will) is most definitely an Irish writer, I’ve posted it on the Ireland Challenge 2012 which also be organised by CarrieK on this link


  1. Oh Chris I do so love Flann O'Brien, and The Best of Myles never fails to make me laugh -- I've been chuckling aloud over your quotes. At Swim Two Birds is an amazing book and so is The Third Policeman, which is perhaps more accessible. Do give them a go -- it will be so interesting to see what you think of them.

    1. He is wonderful, and I can't understand why he's not better known. I love the pieces featuring The Brother, and The Catechism of Cliche is wonderful - I've been making the kind of noses my father would have described as chortling! I'll hunt out a copy of At Swim Two Birds and see how I get on.

  2. This sounds like a perfectly delightful collection! And absolutely, they count as essays - many newspaper editorials or columns are really simply personal essays. And you can definitely count it for both challenges. Thanks for the review - this one goes on my to-read list!

    1. Carrie,I don't know how easy it is to get hold of where you are - I got mine second hand (and a little dog-eared, which would have pleased Flann, I'm sure!)through abebooks.

  3. When I read the first part of your post I thought "Now there's a job I could do."

    What a funny man and a great article, thanks - I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Michelle - maybe I should set up a company for all us book-handlers who mess books up when we read them!

  4. I'll have to look out for books by Flann O'Brien! I could be a book-handler too - of the less extreme kind!

    1. It would be such an easy job, wouldn't itMargaret! There are people who can read a book and leave it in pristine condition, but I'm not one of them!