Last month I bought a copy of Pliny’s Natural History at a library book sale. Now I know at least a dozen things that I hadn’t known before. For example, if I am having trouble with excess phlegm, I should kiss “only the little hairy muzzle of a mouse.” That will make the phlegm go away. If I am eating bread and a crumb gets lodged in my throat, I need to take two pieces from the same loaf and place them in my ears. That will dislodge the crumb. If I have the same trouble with fish, the cure is to take bones from the fish and put them on my head.
To give birth to a black-eyed child, eat a rat. To heal a cancerous sore of the gums, administer powdered sheep dags. The “black liquor” found in cuttlefish, if burned in a lamp, will “make all those in the room to look like blackamoors or Aethyopians.” Blackamoor isn’t Pliny’s word, of course. The Natural History I bought was a reprint of the 1601 translation by Philemon Holland, Doctor in Physic. A wonderful book. It cost 50 cents.
Our largest local library, a 20-minute walk away, has one of these book sales every month. The Friends of the Library lay out tables and boxes of books, they man the grey tin box in which money is kept, they offer help to people who are struggling with armloads. They can be frosty if crossed. All are named Joyce.
Normal prices range from 50 cents to a dollar. The larger books are set aside and individually priced: three dollars, five dollars, depending on the book. For two months running they had a special price, five paperbacks for a dollar. That’s Trainspotting, Women in Love, all four of Colette’s Claudine stories, A Spy in the House of Love, an autobiographical Michael Ondaatje, and so on, all for 20 cents each. They’re good for gloating, library book sales.
I hoover up stacks of books and retreat into a corner by the men’s toilets to sort them out into piles which I mentally label ‘Keep’ and ‘Put back.’ At least one person will come and hover wistfully over my pile. Occasionally they try to steal a book. “Sorry,” they say when I fix them with my glowering eye and frowning brow. (To darken the eyebrows rub them with ant eggs, writes Pliny.) “I didn’t realise that was yours.” I believe them; they didn’t. They’re so flustered. A middle-aged Chinese woman once trailed me around the room, lusting after my Bacon.
“He is a very good writer,” she said. “The book is a very good book. I wish I had found it.”
She was right, he is, but I wasn’t going to give him up. Is it strange to wonder why a Chinese woman with hesitant English should be so in love with to Bacon’s essays? Well, I once found a copy of Paradise Lost in a Japanese library with Japanese annotations hand-written in the margins from beginning to end — translations of words like “glozed” and “virtuosest” — so why shouldn’t she be? How many English-speaking readers finish Paradise Lost, never mind Japanese-speaking ones? Who wrote those annotations? And what were they doing in Mito, a middle-sized administrative town known for fermented beans and a dead aristocrat? Lord Misukuni Tokugawa was an author, though: he started a series of history books, the Dainishonshi. There is a copy of this series in the Mito City Museum, another wonderful place, dark inside, full of glass cases and stuffed animals and insects in dioramas. The museum in Melbourne used to be like that before they built a new one and rehoused the dusty animals (the tiger with its glazed and gleaming teeth; the native fauna staring glassily) in a series of well-lit, open spaces that stole away their mystery and made them seem tatty.
There’s territoriality at book sales. People shove. If confronted, they apologise in pale, blushing voices. They do not shout. The only person who raises his voice is a bearded man who comes along every month and declaims at the Joyces. In an ideal world he would be a Dickensian figure, a dotty Mr Dick, fixated but loved. In reality he is self-important and bossy and he irritates them. He never seems to notice. Pliny does not give a solution to the problem of deluded men with beards. But did you know that “malefactors or suspected persons” can be made to tell the truth if they consume the herb Achaemenis in wine? “For in the night following they shall be so haunted with spirits and tormented with sundry fancies that and horrible visions, that they shall be driven perforce to tell all”? Do the people at Guantanamo Bay know about this? It sounds a little quicker than the current system.