It has been said, by no end of nincompoops, that Johannes Speyer ‘did not treat books well’. One idiot, who shall remain nameless, went so far as to label him ‘the greatest abuser of books since Jari Süzen’. Süzen, for those who don’t recall, was the infamous ‘Bookshop Arsonist of Budapest’, who spent a large portion of the 1970s burning down Hungarian libraries and book depositories on the grounds that ‘literature had eaten his soul’.
To put Speyer in the same camp is clearly a crime of the highest order. Speyer loved books: this is the bottom line. He considered a book a precious object of the highest order. Why, then, has he been classified as an abuser of books?
The answer is a relatively simple one. It is precisely because he loved books that he chose to ‘abuse’ them. Before expanding on this, let us define ‘abuse’. We are not talking about destruction here. Speyer never burned a book. He never ripped out pages. He never attacked one out of sheer frustration (although he did once throw a book at a bird). If he ever harmed a book, he did so out of respect for its precious status. The words, always, were to remain unscathed. Everything else was just the container. The book cover, the spine, the margins: they might suffer no end of torture, so that the words, the wonderful words, might live.
‘A book needs to be bruised,’ he once said to me. ‘How else will it reveal its secret flavours? No book ever released a secret sitting on a shelf. I tell you again: a book needs to be bruised’.
Bruised, yes. But buried? Surely this was a step too far? On this point I challenged him:
‘A book buried, it seems to me,’ said I, ‘is not unlike a book sitting on a shelf. Both are stationary and largely undisturbed. What good does lying in the ground do to a book? One is very likely to lose books this way, that is all’.
Speyer listened closely to my words. ‘I never said the scheme was perfect,’ he replied, after a long pause: ‘Who knows what a book wants?’ When I pressed him further he denied that he had ever buried a book.