I was in one of the second hand bookshops on Mill Road this afternoon, the blue-painted one for the animal charity. Cats or dogs – I forget which. In the shop, I found a paperback copy of Robert Harris’s new novel Conclave. I was pleased, as I had wanted to read it but had been waiting for the paperback to be released in May 2017. Without giving it too much thought, I assumed that this book was a proof version or review copy (a common find in Cambridge charity shops) and bought it straight away.
Walking around for the rest of the afternoon, trying to get my baby to sleep in his pram, my thoughts kept returning to the book in my bag. It was not labelled as a proof copy. They are usually labelled. And if it was a review copy, would it not have been in hardback? Was it a pirate copy? A fake? What if it wasn’t the book I thought it was at all – had I inadvertently picked up something else? Stopping in a cafe for a hot chocolate, I got the book out to have a look. No marks, no signs, no clues as to its origins. It was large, for a paperback, larger than they usually are. The text was larger too, with wide margins. It didn’t look, or feel, like a ‘normal’ book.
I felt paranoid. How could I know that the text inside the book was Robert Harris’s text? What if it was something else? What if there were sentences, or paragraphs, or whole chapters missing? How could I find out whether this book matched the ‘real’ version on sale in Waterstones? Did I know anyone who had the hardback version, so we could compare? Could I look up the ISBN and identify it?
I found all of this thought-provoking enough to want to write about it (the first time this has happened since I went on maternity leave four months ago). First, I was interested because – as an early modern historian – this made me realise how people might have thought about books 500 years ago. Perhaps it was always a risk, buying a book; perhaps you were never quite sure what you were getting. How did you know that the words on the pages were written by the author whose name appeared on the title page? How did you know that some of the pages were not missing? Especially if the pages were bought unbound, or from a seller you didn’t know. Or if the cover looked a bit dodgy. How could you verify your copy?
But I also found that this linked in to conversations that we are having at the moment about the problem of fake news. Websites such as Facebook are being criticised for presenting ‘news’ stories from various unreliable sources, without making clear where they come from, or indicating which are credible and which are not. People are being exposed to misinformation. Internet readers are becoming trapped in echo chambers, only reading things they are already inclined to agree with. In a way, this seems obvious. We always tell our students not to rely on web sources: we urge them to use the library, to consult books and printed newspapers, and peer-reviewed journals. These texts are stable, they are reliable, they can be cited and checked and verified. Books are for real: the news you find on social media is untrustworthy, even dangerous.
But of course this problem is not new, and of course books are not stable. Books can be counterfeited. We know this, but it is not something that we need to confront very often. My own discovery of a strange book has sent me on a journey that I found enjoyable and inspiring. I’m not saying my copy of Conclave is a great mystery – it’s surely a review copy. No big deal.* But it prompted me to question, to reflect, to ponder the nature of texts both now and in the past. It made me feel like a historian again, and not just a mum.
I bloody love books.
*just found out from @onslies about airport books. It’s an airport book. Ignore all of the above.