Happiness writes white, wrote Motherlant, in a quotation that borders on cliché, so often is it used. The white spines of Picador Books make Nick Royle very happy indeed. He is their foremost collector and their most knowledgeable owner, guarding them in white IKEA bookshelves. This book is many things: a travelogue, a guide book, a history of a significant imprint, and a slender autobiography.
For people of a certain age Picador was the coolest imprint of them all. Burroughs, Hesse, Kafka to name but three authors and the rotating shop displays, were as much a part of the Seventies as Athena prints (often in the same shops), another step along the way for high culture for the masses, proof, in the words of Raymond Williams, that culture is ordinary. For many students they were the alternative curriculum.
How obsessive can you be? Nick has reserve collections of Picador books that are either the wrong size or colour, the B and C list. A trainspotter of the earlier meaning, Nick is obsessed with recording his acquisitions. But he is not interested in monetary gain from his collecting. He is a keeper-collector, a hoarder of the tribe. If he can buy a book in London for £2 and save £6 he will. He knows the meaning of thrift. No-one becomes wealthy through his love of white spines. His is the love of the book as art object.
The covers of his Knut Hamsun’s lead into reflections on art and publishing. He is as happy explaining how key figures, such as Sonny Mehta and Peter Straus worked with the Picador imprint, as finding a new bookshop or a book that he didn’t know was a white spine. He delights in the messages that he finds within his books from previous owners. They lead him towards a kind of micro-fiction where a story or a life is just glimpsed in passing.
If you like digressions Nick is your man, think Harold Absolon or Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, or Charles Lamb, or Laurence Sterne, or that man concentrating whilst he reads on the Fallowfield Loop. The one who nearly walked into a horse near Barnoldswick or Burnley. He might be Nick but he could be his namesake or someone else altogether. It could be another book.
Now it would be possible to accumulate white spines through Abe books online but we’d miss out on the overheard conversations in the bookshops, the warm comments on most of the bookshop owners, the garlic of Paramount books in Manchester ( a reward for a purchase!), and Nicholas Royle’s self-deprecating prose. He is a polymath on the quiet. His love of surrealism, Paul Delvaux, most of all, emerges in strange dream comments.
As bookselling has become overshadowed by Waterstones, Nick reminds us that second hand bookshops are an important part of our literary culture and that an affordable library is not out of the reach of anyone. The last couple of pages include a defence of fiction that is as surprising as it is profound, worth the price of the book alone.
Any Cop?: I would like to read a book on his Orange Spines and Green Spines next. I have a feeling that there may be more to come. Buy, read, and collect this book. It might camouflage itself amongst your white spines as Nick and Salt Books would have hoped. It wouldn’t be out of place in that company.