Attending a recent occult soiree, I was offered the chance to acquire one of those deluxe, bound-in-vellum, limited edition, “this isn’t just a book, it’s a talisman” offerings which seem so popular nowadays. This led to an interesting conversation, touching on medieval European attitudes to books as talismans – which could end up with the “talismanic book” being completely shredded and used as an ingredient in spells and so forth, and a brief exchange about the worship of books in some strains of Tibetan tantra. I did ask the obvious (although slightly taking-the-piss) questions about whether having the book present on my coffee table (which at the moment would mean actually having to buy a coffee table) would render me more effective, attractive, or cause my bank to suddenly offer me a better mortgage rate and was informed that it wasn’t that sort of talisman. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t just an ordinary sales pitch, that I was being offered an entry, of sorts, into a sort of exclusive club – a person whom the publisher deemed to be of sufficient “seriousness” to be worthy of appreciating this hallowed tome in all its glory (subtext: we don’t offer this sort of thing to yer average Joe Bloggs occultist – only to special people) and the publisher was quite taken aback that I wasn’t responding appropriately. Some specialist presses – Xoanon for example, actually make a point of saying that they’ll only sell their books to “suitable people”:
Given the nature of our publishing we reserve the right to offer specific non-public titles to customers of good report. We likewise reserve the right to remove individuals from the list or withhold our works from the unsuitable. It is our hope that by such means we may attempt the placement of our works in the hands of an honourable and appreciative readership. Xoanon Sales Protocol, accessed 19th May, 2010
“Isn’t it a beautiful production?” said the publisher. It was, I agreed, quite beautiful – and thereby hangs one of the problems I have with this whole notion of “talismanic books”. Generally, I buy books because of the content. Presentation is a secondary consideration, although this does mean that I do end up buying some quite lovely books inadvertantly after previewing their contents on Google Books. These “talismanic books” need handling carefully though (like mint condition comics) which means, I think, that one doesn’t leave them in the bathroom, take them to the pub, skin up on them or read them whilst eating spaghetti. Which for me, means that they’ll never actually get read. As opposed to say, my copy of The Book of Thoth, one of the few surviving books I have from the 1980s, which despite being a mere paperback bears the proud stains of coffee, beer, absinthe and the effects of it being used as an all-purpose ‘table’ as I hitch-hiked around the UK. It’s a book that’s lived – and doubtless has a complicated life of its own on the dim lower shelf in the study where the few occult books I still have huddle together against the next impending cull. The Book of Thoth is safe though – not because I still read it, but because we’ve shared so many good times together, and picking it up, I recall the night I spent squatting in a bus shelter outside Darlington, balancing a tin of self-heating beans on top of it, then reading bits of it by torchlight afterwards.
Of course, one can always buy two copies of a treasured book – one to to read, and one to keep in mint condition. I used to know a bloke who did this – and went to great lengths to preserve the integrity of his Kenneth Grant collection – barely opening them so as not to crack the spines, and on occasion, wearing surgical gloves so as not to leave sweaty fingermarks on the pristine pages. He’d paid vast prices for these tomes, and I think was quietly appalled when I told him I’d bought my first copy of Nightside of Eden from WH Smiths’ remaindered books bin for less than two quid – where anyone might happen upon it – even people who are “unsuitable” – who are quite likely to draw spectacles and mustaches on all the art plates.
With all other appeals failing, my deluxe-publishing acquaintance turns to the content of the tome itself – “look, this is real cutting-edge, revolutionary, hardcore stuff- it’s “real occultism” – you won’t find this kind of thing in mass-market paperbacks”.
“Oh. Like the books I’ve published, I suppose”. And on that note, I take my leave.