Thursday, April 7, 2011

the second-hand book

At Wits University, wedged between a parking lot and the wide green lawns is a great library that houses row upon row of Africana (i.e. books by Africans of various descriptions). It is called the William Cullen Library and was the first library to be built on campus. There are high ceilings and book-cases set against the walls that you have to climb up stairs to get to. It reminds me a little of the beautiful Port Elizabeth library with the statue of Queen Victoria that still holds her position in front of it (I can't say it welcomes you. Queen Victoria is very severe).

Back to William Cullen: there is a brightly-coloured painting spanning almost the whole of one wall that depicts a kind of magic-realist South Africa. Colonisers arrive in strange masks, and animals people the landscape, larger than the ships sailing in from the horizon. The trees are abundant with fruit, and the San and Khoi mingle with the settlers, who seem very settled already in this surreal landscape. There is night on one side of the painting and day on the other with the ocean surrounding the land on both sides. I hope many people studying at the long tables have happened to glance up and notice this singular artwork.

One of my (other) favourite things about this library is the bathroom. The Wartenweiler Library (which is now the main library) has chip-board cubicles and basins set so close to the cubicle doors that it's really difficult to move in there. It is also windowless and has that distinctively unpleasant closed-in public bathroom smell.

When I step into William Cullen, it is as though I have stepped into another world because it is so old. The fittings are all made of thick porcelain and are cleanly white and solid-looking. The doors are made of varnished wood and the windows let dappled sunlight into the airy room. There is even a a long, dark-wood table set into the wall with chairs in front of it. I feel like I should adjust my hair net and hat and perhaps touch up on my lipstick while having a good gossip with similarly attired friends, rather than adjust my backpack and twenty-first century jeans.

What really entrances me is that they have a small selection of books for sale: all R5. I am a compulsive book buyer, and I had sorted through them for weeks (finding Dame Edna Everage's Bedside Book amusing but not necessary) before I came across one that caught my eye and generated a tumult of conflicting thoughts. The first is called "Readings in South African English Prose", compiled by A.C. Partridge of the University of Pretoria and it was published by Van Schaik in 1941. It is a first-edition and looks impeccable, but more importantly, it was a present: "To dear Dad Love from Marj, Xmas 1944".

Second-hand books with inscriptions, (particularly old-fashioned, spidery ones in that good-quality black ink) make the cockles of my heart warm (I've been reading Dickens recently, can you tell?). The pages are thick and yellowing, and the preface is cringingly full of terms like "native mind" and phrases like "For whilst it is no doubt true that all good literature is universal". Nevertheless, it was someone believing in the literature of the country enough to compile a book about it. All the writers are white (Sol Plaaitjie was clearly not English enough)but there are a host of names I had never heard before along with other more familiar ones. Olive Schreiner, C. Louis Leipoldt, Lady Anne Barnard, Thomas Pringle and Kingsley Fairbridge among others are included.

The inscription was what decided me to buy it: "To South Africa, and all its people of both races, this book is dedicated, in the hope that enlightened co-operation may soon be at hand".

An academic from Pretoria (never a city with a reputation for housing liberals) produced a book - in 1941 - with an inscription like that. It made me really excited and yet at the same time made me a feel desperately sad for wasted potential. Just seven years later, all those hopes were dashed for almost fifty years with the introduction of institutionalised apartheid. I wondered if A.C. Partridge had lived to see the end of apartheid, and what he was doing so that his hopes about "enlightened co-operation" may be realised.

Then, I thought a little more and read a little more into the book. He says "both races". Back then, the all-inclusive term "black" had not come into usage to describe everyone who was not white. So, there are then several races in South Africa. Why does he say "both"? I then realised (in this collection of "South African English" prose that proves the English are as South African as their Boer counterparts) that there are two white races. Is he talking about less enmity among whites in a new white super-era? I mean there is a section in this book titled "Native Sketches". But the ANC was originally titled "South African Native National Congress", so in the past, even black people called themselves "natives". In what year did this term become questionable? Have I purchased a questionable book?

And then I relaxed and gave myself a mental slap on the wrist. I was reminded of my trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford when I confronted the curator with the fact that the labels on the anthropological artefacts were completely outdated, "Native Rhodesian Drum" for example. She smiled patiently and explained to me that the labels (made by the curators or explorers at the time the object was found) are historical and anthropological objects in themselves. They reflect a part of history that should not be forgotten.

Being politically correct can lead to missed opportunities for knowledge and a more complete understanding of the subtlties of the past. I think I will learn as much by reading the prejudices and baby steps towards understanding of the compiler as I will about the decades of South African English engagement that have been compiled. Perhaps I will even breathe in something of the spirit of the man who received it as a present in 1944. And I could never get such an experience from between the matt-finish covers of a new book from the morally fortified shelves of a new bookshop.

Nor could I buy it for R5. Reading (and buying) second-hand books really is an affordable education.


  1. Could anyone please tell me if the William Cullen Library is named after the Scottish Doctor/Chemist (1710-1790)?

  2. It is indeed. I went to check with the dear librarian today. The library is named after him because he helped collect books for the "new" Wits Library because the old one was gutted by a fire in central block.