Searching for Spinoza

by David Pullar

7 October 2008


There’s a funny scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s classic Joy In The Morning, in which Bertie Wooster tries to find a copy of Spinoza in a bookshop.  On asking the bookshop employee, he’s met with blank incomprehension.

`You do not mean “The Spinning Wheel”?’


`It would not be “The Poisoned Pin”?’

`It would not.’

`Or “With Gun and Camera in Little Known Borneo”?’ he queried, trying a long shot.
`Spinoza,’ I repeated firmly. That was my story, and I intended to stick to it.
He sighed a bit, like one who feels that the situation has got beyond him.

I think of this story a lot when dealing with the staff in bookshops.  To be honest, I’ve never had much use for them.  These days I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m looking for in the way of books.  I’ve got my magazines and newspapers and websites that give me tips.  Sometimes I just want to browse and I’m pretty sure that I can read a blurb unaided.  I need someone to scan my selection and take my money, but that’s about the extent of it.

Sure, the presence of staff can help you out with identifying the location of a book—particularly something that’s difficult to classify.  Even this isn’t strictly necessary in some branches of Borders, with their library-style computer terminals.

Getting advice and recommendations, though, is another matter.  There are thousands and thousands of books in the world—who’s to say that the taste of a random person in a bookstore is anything like yours?  How can they be expected to be even aware of the kind of book you might be after?

For all that, I have a certain affection for the “Staff recommendations” that some shops attach on cardboard under the shelves.  At the very least, it’s interesting to see how they line up with my favourite books.  I get a small feeling of companionship with the staff when I see a glowing referral for the works of Kazuo Ishiguro or Vikram Seth or Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

There’s an element of snobbery at work.  I’m inclined to think that I’m the expert when it comes to the kind of book that I’ll enjoy.  Maybe I’m underrating the taste and discernment of the average bookshop clerk.

My feeling of superiority did take a beating recently while in the George St, Sydney branch of Dymocks and was looking for the next volume of Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time.  Now, I never expected to get through the first volume and it sat unread on my shelves for five years.  The fact that I read it and enjoyed it still astonishes me.  I picture the kind of people who read and enjoy Proust as being grey-haired and wise-looking—English professors at the end of a long and distinguished career.

So picture my surprise when a young-looking employee with an American accent came up behind me and intoned, “Ahh, Marcel Proust.  That was my favourite volume.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, only half processing what he had said to me.

“Yeah.  I really enjoyed the next one, The Guermantes Way, too but I thought it went downhill after that.  You know, he only edited the first couple of volumes in his lifetime.  The rest were done by his brother or something.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  A guy about my brother’s age had apparently read all the volumes of a gigantic work of French literature and had a favourite volume.

My friend Tim was unsurprised by this story.  He used to work at that very bookstore and said more than half of the staff were completing postgrad studies in literature.  Tim was the marketing student who read Robert Ludlum.

So maybe there’s a role for them after all, at least the staff who have read the later volumes of massive novels and can save you the trouble.

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