“Losing Moby Dick”

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Books are, for many people, precious things. They become host not only to the words within them, but to individual history and memory, thoughts and feelings. So when Jack finds he has lost his old copy of “Moby Dick” he is suddenly knocked off-balance. He knows that it should not really matter that much – but it had ‘associations’…

So Jack determines to replace it – and not with a pristine copy, but if he can, with an old second-hand volume from the very bookshop at which he acquired his original.

A simple enough proposition you might think. But then Jack discovers that in the intervening years many things have changed, and Twerton’s bookshop is not what it was. It is much, much different…


It wasn’t such a big thing, not in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t as if he had been looking for it in the first place. Quite the opposite in fact; he had been looking for something else (though, having been knocked sideways, what that had been he was now unable to recollect). His eyes had scanned the shelves with the kind of automatic glancing that arose from familiarity. How often for example, do we cease truly looking at something because we have seen it so often that we are certain we know what it looks like? The parade of shops in the High Street; the church at the end of the road; the neighbour’s dog; our own faces in the mirror. After a time – and after a very short time! – we stop examining, searching, defining; we take things for-granted, assuming they will be there, in their place, and will always be the same. Perhaps that’s why it comes as such a shock on the day when, for once, we do actually look at our faces in the bathroom mirror and then suddenly realise that we have grown old, or grey, or that we have jowls where taut skin used to be.

And so it was that standing before the bookshelves in the back room, searching for something for which the motivation was now lost, his eyes had made their way through the alphabet beyond ‘L’ to be suddenly brought up short by a book that should have been there but was not. Had he, for some inexplicable reason, suddenly started looking again instead of scanning? Had he – unconsciously of course – actually been looking hard all the time? Or was it inexplicable? Whichever of these, the simple fact of the matter was that his old, orange-spined, Penguin paperback copy of ‘Moby Dick’ was absent. It should have been one side or the other of ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’, his only other Melville; but nestling against ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’ were just interlopers: two books, Malory and Milne. And ‘Moby Dick’ was thick; too big to miss. As he asked himself the obvious questions to which he knew the answers – “were these all his books?”, “were they all in alphabetical order?”; “yes” to both – he moved the sole Melville to check that ‘Moby Dick’ had not fallen behind the others (even though the shallow depth of the shelves themselves made this impossible).

He stood back, two paces, and tried to take in the whole expanse of books, as if the missing volume might leap out at him somehow. And then – now really looking – he went back to ‘A’ and slowly, painstakingly, and with a growing sense of confusion and loss, actually read each spine one-by-one. Alphabetically the authors responded to him, all the way up to ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’ – no, he had not missed it – and beyond. And then Wyndham, Young, Zola – and after Zola there was just the wall. Where was it? And – more profoundly – what had he done with it, and why couldn’t he remember? He hadn’t even liked ‘Moby Dick’, so it wasn’t as if there were an emotional attachment to the story. He had read it under duress (there was an essay that had to be submitted), and he had found it long and boring – a little like his essay, which had scored poorly. The novel had not been all drama; it had not been Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart. It had been dry (so unlike the sea!); a dull polemic on industrialisation in America. Or at least, that was how he recalled it now, sitting back in his desk chair like a boxer in his corner winded after a tough third round. But for all that, the book had been his. He had written his name in it; there would have been his pencil marks and annotations in the margins, folds he had made in some of the corners; the spine would have been imperfect, creased the way that large paperback books’ spines crease because you have to force them open to get at the words right on the inside. That had been the attachment. It had been – as with all his books, good and bad – a bond created by their interaction; generated by the fact that he had read them, and that they had given him something (though some more than others, clearly). In a way they had given each other a sliver of identity. ‘Moby Dick’ – for all its faults – had made a small contribution to making him what he was; the totality of him.

So where had it gone?

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