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The account of Monte Cristo

2nd May 2011 - Emily Best

Photo of' Lady C sold out' sign at Foyles in 1960When the UK ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover was finally lifted in 1960, Foyles sold its 300 copies within 15 minutes. There were a further 3000 orders for the book, then 3s 6d, that day alone.

The other week, I took an urgent order for the same book - 55 copies for a single company distributing it to their clients. The book may no longer carry the same taboo, but in taking that order I felt a little nervous. I have no objection, moral or otherwise, to the content of the book, but I couldn't help noticing the process of commodification that I was party to.

It seems daft to take issue with this: selling any book is, I suppose, a commodification of its content, but it is all too easy to be cynical when a corporate customer is buying 55 copies of a book - will each one really be read?

On reflection, though, I warmed to the idea. Of course, the person on the front end of the order might not be reading that book. Nor, perhaps, might the recipient. But in that single order, Foyles released 55 copies of a book that, but for an assembly of earnest defendants including Dame Rebecca West and EM Forster, might never have been released at all. Fifty-five more people - at least - will, one day, read Lady C. And that's the strange beauty of the bulk-order process that the Commercial Accounts department at Foyles offers.

When businesses and schools buy vast collections of books - often assorted, often not) - it's nigh impossible to put a face to the reader. But the prospective dissemination of knowledge that comes as a result of sending a library of literature, whether it's the complete works of Nabokov or two dozen books on SQL Servers, brings its own gratification.

There's also an element of curatorial responsibility that can be very satisfying. Customers will frequently know the books they are looking for, but not always. And the further removed the reader, the stronger the obligation of the bookseller to think on their behalf.

When, for example, my colleague and I put together a library for a school in Africa last summer, we set to thinking what, if we were15, would we want to read? The selection didn't just extend to fiction: what we sent varied from a history of the Olympics to an Introduction to Perfumery. The reader may be hundreds of miles away, and chances are they don't yet know they're the reader, but bookshop services like this constitute a literary lifeline for those that may not otherwise have access to the range that can be found in a shop like Foyles.

A colleague once said to me that bookselling is the only industry in the world where you can be asked about absolutely anything and be expected to be an expert. I'd say our to-do list this morning proved that theory: a book on lactation to a pharmacy in the West Country, books on syphilis in early-modern Venice to a university in West Africa and a collection of books about wedding planning to a florist in Colombia.

It would be easy to be pessimistic about bulk and corporate book-buying. People like to have a story behind their books - as I write this, I have beside me a paperback Everyman's Roget's Thesaurus, inscribed 'To David, from Daddy, 1975', that I bought a month ago from a book exchange in Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland, with the two pounds paid going in an honesty box that my uncle built - but I'd say there's as much of a story in the curious requests of our global clients, and the journeys of their books from the moment they leave us, as there is in those hidden gems in dusty bookshops: we're just at a much earlier chapter.


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