Even literary travel writing should make you want to travel, not read. Take Alain de Botton’s recent The Art of Travel. Relying on the able guidance of Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, and Charles Baudelaire, de Botton tours the Sinai desert, England’s Lake District, and Mauritius and offers meditative aphorisms like “Travel is the handmaid of thought” to send you on your own journey to the . . . library. Paul Collins’s version of the genre, on the other hand, makes you want to hit the road yourself. He may lose his passport and blurt out things like “I will admit to a real fondness for the Victorians, because they amuse me,” but he never makes travel sound like homework. Collins also invokes the literature of the past, but his taste runs toward less obvious titles, including such forgotten classics as Walter Wilkinson’s Puppets Through America (1938), Elinor Wylie’s The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925), and Freak Brothers (the 1970s comic book heroes, not Henry and William James).
De Botton takes his reader all over the travel shelf; Collins takes his family to Wales. Hay-on-Wye, the book town of the title, hosts more than 40 used bookstores and attracts scholars and collectors from all over the world. Richard Booth, the enterprising “King of Hay,” opened the first shop in 1962 and went on to put the village on the map by buying massive lots of unwanted books from America and putting them up for sale as fast as the local lads could hammer shelves together. Collins, his wife, and their baby relocate here from San Francisco while awaiting the publication of his first book, Banvard’s Folly (2001), and much of the present volume finds the Collinses house hunting and growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Booth hires Collins to sort out his American literature, a collection of books that probably outdistances the Strand’s by a good five miles.
Full of enthusiasm for the new life he is incompetently trying to assemble, Collins lights on any possible symptom of the relative superiority of a touristy hamlet on the fringes of a dead empire. Game show prizes over here are modest! Game show hosts have real opinions on issues like whether Britain should return the Elgin Marbles to Greece! Envelopes are brown! Sure, the water pressure sucks, but they build houses out of real stone! Even when Collins admits, “Many British pubs really are not much fun at all,” you get the feeling that he likes it that way. For every Seinfeldesque observation, there’s a digression on some nugget of forgotten literature.
Collins isn’t in Wales for the cider; he’s there for the books, and as a freshman author, bibliophile, and curator of the McSweeney’s imprint Collins Library, which revives out-of-print gems (the only title issued so far is the accidentally brilliant phrasebook English as She Is Spoke), he has something to say about what books mean and what our society’s treatment of books says about us. Sixpence House begins with Collins’s editor telling him to be glad Banvard’s Folly wasn’t supposed to come out at the same time as the fourth Harry Potter novel, because the plucky young wizard had tied up virtually all of the available paper at both of the industry’s two suppliers. This depresses the author, not because he’s a snob but because he’s a pluralist. He recognizes that adventure books, celebrity memoirs, disaster pictorials, and how-to manuals have value both for their intended readers and for browsers in later centuries curious to learn how, for example, they used to make doorknobs out of sawdust and cattle blood.
Collins summarizes his attitude toward books (not to mention something of his attitude toward fatherhood) with a striking simile: “For a writer with a book coming to press, to work here—why? It is like a pregnant woman taking a job at the morgue.” Books have a life beyond their creators and never come out quite exactly how they were planned. Their own short lives come to an end, though that eventuality must be shrugged off during the act of creation. Like people, books can die in more than one way: scathing review, lack of publicity, remaindering, fire, or slow suffocation under a pile of other books in a pile in Hay. The simile is also inexact in exactly the right place, for some books, unlike children, do attain something like immortality, a goal that has impelled more than one hack, though Collins never supposes that Banvard’s Folly has any chance of joining Goethe and Milton on the five-foot shelf of classics.
Death won’t catch up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for a couple decades, but it’s gaining on the books Collins wants to rescue. His list includes the likes of Gail Hamilton’s Country Living and Country Thinking (1862), which argues against the 19th century’s version of disposable culture, and Andrew Boyd’s Recreations of a Country Parson (1861), which describes the pleasures of reading how-to guides about activities that you’ll never even try. If these are real books, and I think they are, then they probably would have “died” if he weren’t here to revive them, at least for as long as Sixpence House lives. His work as a writer and editor make him a sort of one-man World Wildlife Fund for the out-of-print, the more threatened with extinction the better. His favorites “leave your hands and the front of your shirt covered in reddish brown smudges.” A visit to the local bookbinder prompts him to wonder about the unlucky volumes that never made it this far. He even frets about the fate of all the great passages and descriptions trapped in mediocre books. (In the almanac at collinslibrary.com, you can survey some of the lines he’s busy saving.)
The obsession with the death of literature leads to what could arguably be regarded as the climax of this largely plotless tale, the moment when Collins accidentally drops his own manuscript in the toilet and accidentally pisses on it. One recalls with horror Samuel Beckett’s remark about giving birth astride a grave, or Oscar Wilde’s on destroying what you love. Or perhaps the composer Cornelius Cardew’s observation that “everyone’s failing; our entire experience is this side of perfection.”
Yet Collins is uncharacteristically pragmatic when confronted by the spectacle of his yellowing manuscript. He fishes it out and patiently holds the pages up to the hand dryer, managing to save all of them except the first. Not bad, and illustrative of an important lesson: Quoting only takes you so far. Eventually you have to learn to say it—or do it—for yourself.