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I love books. I love reading them, owning them, collecting them. I take great pride in my book accumulation (I daren’t call it a collection – that implies something too grand, too designed and deliberate, and frankly too costly to describe accurately the several thousand books that line the shelves (and stand in piles on the floor at the moment as well) in every room.

A Commonplace Killing by Sian BusbyRecently I read Sian Busby’s A Commonplace Killing. I was impressed. Impressed with the quality of the writing, the completeness with which Busby recreated post-war London, the credibility of her characters and the relentless drive of the narrative, in some ways a typical police procedural crime story but riven out of the norm by the complexities of a society struggling to come to terms with Victory, towards a climax not revealatory but incredibly sad, satisfying and life-affirming all at the same time. And this dispute the fact that the novel was completed by her husband, the BBC’s Economic Editor, Robert Peston, after cancer had stolen Sian away, with the novel almost, but not quite, complete. (There is a moving and very human introduction by Peston in the edition I read which I would thoroughly recommend reading before turning a page of A Commonplace Killing.)

As I closed the final pages of A Commonplace Killing, I began to wonder what else Busby may have written and, thanks to the wonders of google, soon discovered that she had another novel to her name. McNaughton: A Novel, first published in 2009. So there I am again, adding to my already ridiculously long ‘must read’ list – I’m now looking at needing about five lifetimes to make a small dent in it – but McNaughton makes its entry pretty close to the top. It’s out of print, of course, but a quick visit to Abebooks and I find a nice-sounding, first edition copy, right here in the UK which can be on my doorstep in days.

I revel in my wonderful, little local bookshop, but I also get a lot of books on line, especially secondhand, out of print or collectable ones. The world is a changed place for the compulsive book-buyer since the advent of the internet, and Abebooks in particular. I lost track of the number of books I’ve bought on line over a decade ago – I buy to read, to research, to collect, to impress (yes, I admit it!), I buy books for their beauty, or their weirdness, for their promise of enlightenment, or adventure, or pleasure. You could say I’m pretty much an on-line book connoisseur; and of course I used to make my living selling books on line (and still dabble occasionally), and no many UK on line booksellers either personally or as a regular customer. I like to think I know what I’m doing. I avoid the flash in the pan sellers; I don’t buy from those sellers to try to trick the newcomer in thinking they have found a rare bargain when in fact all they have found is someone more skilled in marketing and data-manipulation than the next man and who is prepared to fleece the niiave; I don’t buy from sellers who can’t describe a book properly or don’t describe it at all, or who think that identifying a first edition is simply a matter of looking at the copyright date. And for the most part when an ordered book arrives, I am pleasantly surprised that it is better condition than the description in the list.

When McNaughton arrived (on time, soundly protected and nicely packaged) I received not so much a book but a lesson in risks of hubris. Yes, I can read the book. But surely that’s not all that matters?

Here’s the description the bookseller gave:

1st edition, hardback, clean and tight, no inscriptions, Very Good / Very Good dustwrapper (not price-clipped).

And here’s my email to the bookseller, sent after a few days of applying my old bookseller skills and trying, but failing, to clean and flatten creases.

I wanted to thank you for sending the book I ordered from you via Abebooks.co.uk on 2nd July so promptly. The book was McNaughton: A Novel by Sian Busby. It arrived in very good time and I congratulate you on your safe and effective packaging – there was no chance of the book being damaged in transit.

I am however disappointed by the condition of the book which to my mind does not correspond with the condition notes provided in your listing. You described both the book and the jacket as being in very good condition. You did not however disclose that the book suffers from mild but significant page tanning, or that there are marks on the lower text block edge, or that there is a disfiguring dent in the binding at the head of the spine, or the fact that there are small starting rust markings on the rear endpapers. The jacket is grubby and soiled all round, with dirt so ingrained at the edges and on the spine that it cannot be removed, even with gentle but determined cleaning, without damaging the paper; the edges are bumped all along the lower edge, and at the head of the spine is dented, corresponding with the dent in the casing.

I dispute your grading of this book as very good/very good but accept that this can be a subject judgement and hard to measure. I am more concerned that you could have described this book as ‘clean’ when so obviously it isn’t – something that anyone who looked closely enough at the book to determine that the jacket wasn’t price clipped must have noticed. I am not seeking to return the book; nor do I wish for a refund – you charged a fair price for the book, one which I would probably have paid even if you had described the book accurately. I am pleased to have it to read as it isn’t particularly easy to get hold of. But I shall have to continue to search for a copy in keepable condition. And I thought you deserved an explanation for my decision never to buy from you again.

With kind regards

A new book should be a bright point in the day, a relief and counterpoint against some of the really sad and troubling events which touch all our lives. But this was, in the end, a bad day for a booklover.  Sadly, McNaughton is not fit to feature against the Twitter hashtag #beautifulbooks.

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