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.
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.