World-historical thinkers are often known by their most enduring idea. Plato’s ideal forms, Descartes’ famous phrase cogito ergo sum, or I think therefore I am, Freud’s notion of the unconscious mind, all of these could be said to represent the pinnacle of the respective writers’ work. Where these ideas started their lives would require painstaking intellectual detective work, but it is not always necessary to delve too far into a thinker’s past to discover what seed sprang into life as their indelible legacy. In one case, the most enduring philosophy of one young Austrian man began its life as a result of something all of us do almost every day; shopping.
While at university in 1865, Friedrich Nietzsche entered a second-hand bookstore in Leipzig, and what he found there was to have a profound effect on both his life and his work. He picked up a copy of a book unknown to him, The World as Will and Representation (also translated as The World as Will and Idea) by Arthur Schopenhauer. Years later, Nietzsche was to write that ‘I don’t what daimon whispered to me, “Take this home...” But take it home he did, where “I threw myself into the corner of a sofa with my new treasure, and began to let that dismal genius work on me.”
It is clear that Schopenhauer’s central notion of ‘will to life’ (Wille zum Leben) is intimately related to Nietzsche’s central concept of ‘will to power’ (Wille zur Machen). Schopenhauer, for all Nietzsche’s disagreements with him, remained a crucial influence throughout his life after the momentous visit to the Leipzig second-hand bookshop. Nietzsche would go on to write an essay praising his intellectual mentor, Schopenhauer as Educator.
So much for Nietzsche’s fortunate shopping expedition. Is there a chance that we might have the same kind of luck? We shop, broadly, in two different ways. The first is targeted. If we want a power drill, we go to a shop that sells them and buy a power drill, probably having sourced the one we prefer online previously. We may pick up some odds and ends in addition, but it is a power drill we went to buy and that is what we expect to take home.
Shopping for clothes, however, may exhibit a different psychology. We – I am addressing gentlemen, here - may be interminently aware that we need some more socks or a pair of trousers for work, but there is often an element of browsing involved in clothes shopping. You don’t know what you want, to a certain extent, until you see it. Women are different, obviously. Clothes shopping utilises a dragnet approach.
Book shopping fits into the first, or targeted category, particularly in the days of Amazon. We discover the existence of a book and wish to read it. A few clicks later, and it is winging its way towards our home or, if we are feeling quaint, we stroll to the bookshop and see if they have it in stock. What we probably wouldn’t do is visit our local charity shop – thrift stores in the USA - on the off-chance they have the book there. So much for individual books we wish to read. What if we simply want something to read and have no particular book in mind? What if we crave literature but, like Chuck Berry, have no particular place to go?
Some of the greatest books I have ever read have come from chance acquisitions in second-hand stores. The UK is alive with charity shops, and they always have books. A small sample of the booty I have retrieved – for minimal outlay – in British charity shops: Mark Z. Danielewski’s chilling House of Leaves; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the 1,000-page abridged edition, I should add.); Roberto Bolaño’s mystifyingly brilliant 2666; The very first of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, essential kit for any Englishman. The list is a long one, and I shan’t bore you. That little lot cost me less than the price of a pint of chemical lager in a London Bridge chain bar.
And what if I were to tell you that there was something a little transgressive about book-shopping off-piste, away from the big publishers and their drones? What if I told you there was an air of naughtiness about buying a tattered book for 50p in 1981 and still owning it almost 40 years later, a hint of the sense of dissidence about shopping in the dark lanes, the scent of a rat-eared trove that could change your life, a whiff of brimstone…
The modern publishing industry increasingly seems to be the provisional wing of some sinister cabal who wish to enforce the anti-book, anti-reading sub-plots of Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In Zemyatin’s We, an acknowledged major influence on Orwell’s prophetic novel, the Benefactor of the One State issues a decree to writers;
‘Everyone who feels capable of doing so must compose tracts, odes, manifestoes, poems, or other works extolling the beauty and grandeur of the One State’.
Well, quite. Every book publisher from Sloane Street to Manhattan will have read that with approval. They have ‘sensitivity readers’ now. Look it up. Dorothy Parker stopped writing for The New Yorker on the grounds, as she described them, that ‘everyone’s stories were about their childhood in India’.
As for books and education, I advocate what we call in Britain DIY; Do it yourself. Were I a sociologist – a breed who should be run out of academia quicker than pick-pockets from a horse-racing track – I would love to take a dozen British 10-year-olds, and have half of them go through the British education system to their 18th year, and the rest of the control spend an equivalent amount of money buying books from the charming retail outlets I have described. And actually reading them. I bet I know who would be more employable.
In Evelyn Waugh’s haunted and haunting novel Brideshead Revisited – guess where I bought my floppy copy, chums? For 75p. – the character of Rex Mottram, engaged to Sebastian’s sister Julia (sexiest woman in Eng. Lit, BTW…) is a blustering but debonnaire American with new money who wishes to align himself with the British aristocracy, and he has this to say about university. It’s fine, and all that, but, if you attend, ‘it just means you start life three years behind the other fellow’.
Don’t be like the other fellow. Take your small purse to a second-hand store. Books, as British novelist Anthony Powell wrote, do furnish a room. They also furnish a mind.