Once Upon a Tome
The following text is reproduced with permission from former antiquarian bookseller Oliver Darkshire‘s debut book Once Upon a Tome, detailing the eccentricities of life in Sotherans, one of the world’s oldest bookshops. To order a copy, visit Penguin.
The Sotheran tradition of cursed books begins with The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. This is the name given to the English translation of a selection of quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam, known as ‘the Astronomer-Poet of Persia’. This book is one of those texts which has been republished more times than anyone cares to count – some collectors boast entire libraries consisting only of copies of the Rubaiyat. At the start of the twentieth century, Sotheran’s (suffering from an unusual and characteristically transitory surplus of cash) took it upon themselves to commission a particularly decadent copy of the book from the talented bookbinders Sangorski and Sutcliffe, who had made a name for themselves with their resurrection of jewel-encrusted bookbinding. Supposedly, Sotheran’s told the binders that the cost was to be ‘no object’, and so it was that the most expensive book ever created came into being. In a misunderstanding largely founded in Sangorski’s ignorance of folklore, the binders decorated the covers on both sides with a lavish peacock design, conventionally considered bad luck due to its abundance of ‘evil eyes’.
Sotheran’s, afflicted by hubris, found the book impossible to sell. So much so, in fact, that in 1911 the book was shipped to New York, where the hope was that it would find a buyer at a newer, much lower price. Alas, when the book reached New York customs they levied a fee which Sotheran’s refused to pay (having spent all their money on a jewel-encrusted book). Thus, it made a return trip across the ocean all the way back to London, where it was put into an auction and sold for a miserable price . . . to an American by the name of Gabriel Wells. This time the book missed its intended ship, and was instead safely entrusted to a luxury ocean liner making its maiden voyage, the Titanic. It remains at the bottom of the ocean. In a further fit of disaster, the visionary bookbinder Sangorksi drowned several weeks after the book did. In the absence of his partner, Sutcliffe attempted to recreate the book, which was stored in a secure bank vault and bombed to smithereens during a German air raid.
The point of this story is that the only people who say it’s not possible for a book to be cursed are people who haven’t stumbled across one yet.
The Sotheran tradition of selling cursed books remains strong to this day. Recently, for example, in one of his non-gourd-related spending fits, Andrew acquired a stunning book which fell into the category of Fine Bindings, leatherclad bricks where the value of the book largely resides in the skill of the bookbinder. With its lavish fine binding dripping with unnecessary gold ornaments, the copy of Fanny Hill was a decadent piece which demanded attention. As I am sure you can imagine, it became an albatross around our neck. Andrew spent more time than I am sure he would have liked trying to find someone to take it, and its continued presence on the shelves began to feel like a bad luck charm.
The book stood out at a distance. You couldn’t put it on the shelves with the general literature because it turned any dignified display of books into a carnival attraction. If you placed it on its own, then it drew curious passers-by like moths to a flame, which was unfortunate because at a glance the illustrations gave a very good idea of what the story was about. I doubt most of the people who picked up Fanny knew what they were in for, and some of them learned a few new things into the bargain before blushing and putting it back where they found it. Someone would ask to look at it several times a week, which meant standing there in discomfort as the unfortunate stranger had an unasked-for encounter with eighteenth-century English sensuality. The wretched book was included in every catalogue, which only made us look as desperate as we were beginning to feel. A year after we bought it, a wealthy Smaug ordered it with a stack of other fine literature, only to return it, on account of how uncomfortable it made him. He’s dead now. Later, a second client placed an order, and then vanished into thin air before it could be sent, never to be heard from again. A third client ordered it, only to return it with damage to the spine that he (of course) denied any knowledge of.
As a bookseller, you grow used to encountering cursed tomes every now and then. The regrettable part is that no one you inform about this will hold your claim credible, and it’s very difficult to explain to your Accounts department, or the board of directors in their annual review, that a certain portion of the stock isn’t really saleable because it keeps killing the customers who try to buy it.
Oliver Darkshire is 28, and his life as a struggling bookseller and writer is exactly what his careers instructor warned him would happen if he didn’t pay attention. He lives in Manchester with his husband and a house full of books he actively tried not to collect.
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