My first job was teaching games and Eng. lit in a Hampshire school. The class knew by heart 'The Lady of Shalott' and could explain [to my satisfaction] what Robert Browning had in mind when he wrote 'Karshich, the picker-up of Lemming's crumbs onEpistle.' I awaited a first inspection of my labours with a quiet confidence.
The Headmaster picked up the book. 'Ah! he said, 'A book! Turn to page (i).' They turned to Page One.
'Ah, no' he said patiently, 'Not Page One. Page (i) And tell me who are Faber & Faber. Is he, they, one man or two men or perhaps Mrs & Mr Faber? Is he or they this book's author? And is a person who makes a book a bookmaker? What does I S B N mean and how should I say it? Is © a friend of the author? Is the book dedicated to him? Who are Butler & Tanner of Frome? What is a preface, an epigraph? This Foreword . . . need I read it? Can only William Shakespeare own a folio. Does a quire have a conductor? Can one catch a colophon by too heavy reading late at night? And spell it.'
He went on and on: my class's ignorance was utter. Finally, he pronounced sentence. 'You don't seem to know much about this book. And I haven't got as far as Page One . . .' My pupils looked reproachfully at me. Until that unnerving day I had supposed a book was a cosy arrangement between writer and reader.
And, of course, the brute was infuriatingly right. Books concerns printers, publishers, sales reps, booksellers, proof-readers, professors, illustraters, indexers, critics, text editors, literary editors, librarians, book-reviewers and bookbinders and book-keepers, translators, typographers, Oxfam fundraisers, whole university departments of soothsayers, manufacturers of thread and glue, auctioneers lumberjacks, starving mice, wolves howling at the doors of authors of first-novels, the Post Offices book-bashing machine minder, religious bonfire fuel suppliers and libel-lawyers.
And that this army is
camped upon billeted upon one man or one woman gnawing a pen is neither here nor there.
So, by and large, this is what this book is about. It tries to answer Mrs Widmerpool's sister's alarming enquiry at George Harpole's trial, 'What are books? Where do they come from?'
Her 'where do they go to?' is unnanswerable . . . except, quite often - to the head.