Flann O’Brien was a pen name of Brian O’Nolan, an Irish author who is most famous for three novels, At Swim Two Birds, The Third Policeman and the Dalkey Archive.
He also wrote a column for the Irish Times from 1940 to 1966 full of wild imaginings.
I once read an anthology of his Irish Times pieces and one thing I have never forgotten is his proposal for a service which he called “Book Handling”. Even in this electronic age it could still be useful. Here are some extracts to show his thinking:
A visit that I paid to the house of a newly-married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. When he had set about buying bedsteads, tables, chairs and what-not, it occurred to him to buy also a library. Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty for observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting. I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact. ’When I get settled down properly,’ said the fool, ‘I’ll have to catch up on my reading.’ This is what set me thinking. Why should a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.
Let me explain exactly what I mean. The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy’s Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary. Similarly with our non-brow who wants his friends to infer from a glancing around his house that he is a high-brow. He buys an enormous book on the Russian ballet, written possibly in the language of that distant but beautiful land. Our problem is to alter the book in a reasonably short time so that anybody looking at it will conclude that its owner has practically lived, supped and slept with it for many months
He then goes on to propose that there should be four different categories of Book Handling.
Popular Handling–Each volume to be well and truly handled, four leaves in each to be dog-eared, and a tram ticket, cloak-room docket or other comparable article inserted in each as a forgotten book-mark. Say, £1 7s 6d. Five per cent discount for civil servants.
Premier Handling – Each volume to be thoroughly handled, eight leaves in each to be dog-eared, a suitable passage in not less than 25 volumes to be underlined in red pencil, and a leaflet in French on the works of Victor Hugo to be inserted as a forgotten book-mark in each. Say, £2 17s 6d. Five per cent discount for literary university students, civil servants and lady social workers.’
De Luxe Handling–Each volume to be mauled savagely, the spines of the smaller volumes to be damaged in a manner that will give the impression that they have been carried around in pockets, a passage in every volume to be underlined in red pencil with an exclamation or interrogation mark inserted in the margin opposite, an old Gate Theatre programme to be inserted in each volume as a forgotten book-mark (3 per cent dis-count if old Abbey programmes are accepted), not less than 30 volumes to be treated with old coffee, tea, porter or whiskey stains, and not less than five volumes to be inscribed with forged signatures of the authors. Five per cent discount for bank managers, county surveyors and the heads of business houses employing not less than 35 hands. Dog-ears extra and inserted according to instructions, twopence per half dozen per volume. Quotations for alternative old Paris theatre programmes on demand. This service available for a limited time only, nett, £7 18s 3d.’
‘Le Traitement Superbe’
Every volume to be well and truly handled, first by a qualified handler and subsequently by a master-handler who shall have to his credit not less than 550 handling hours; suitable passages in not less than fifty per cent of the books to be underlined in good-quality red ink and an appropriate phrase from the following list inserted in the margin, viz:
How true, how true!
I don’t agree at all.
Yes, but cf. Homer, Od., iii, 151.
Well, well, well. Quite, but Boussuet in his Discours sur l’histoire Universelle has already established the same point and given much more forceful explanations.
A point well taken!
But why in heaven’s name?
I remember poor Joyce saying the very same thing to me.
Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work, e.g.,
‘To my old friend and fellow-writer, A.B., in affectionate remembrance, from George Moore.’
‘In grateful recognition of your great kindness to me, dear A.B., I send you this copy of The Crock of Gold. Your old friend, James Stephens.’
‘Well, A.B., both of us are getting on. I am supposed to be a good writer now, but I am not old enough to forget the infinite patience you displayed in the old days when guiding my young feet on the path of literature. Accept this further book, poor as it may be, and please believe that I remain, as ever, your friend and admirer, G. Bernard Shaw.’
‘From your devoted friend and follower, K. Marx.’
‘Dear A.B.,-Your invaluable suggestions and assistance, not to mention your kindness, in entirely re-writing chapter 3, entitles you, surely, to this first copy of “Tess”. From your old friend T. Hardy.’