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Arifa Akbar: Swapping books can be a complex, ego-bound business

The Week in Books
  • @arifa_akbar

Remember the survey that exposed the lie behind our bookshelves? The shame of how we display the books that we'd like to be known for reading rather than the books we've actually read, which lie under our beds or on our eReaders like miniature, fetid, Dorian Gray portraits. So Ulysses on the bookshelf to Harry Potter on the gizmo.

I was reminded of it this week when talking to Scott Pack, publisher of The Friday Project who is, quite separately from his day-job, bringing a new event to Foyles bookshop, in London. It will be a quarterly residency called the Fire Station Book Swap, beginning on 25 March, and it does what it says on the tin (minus the "fire station" bit) – it invites authors and audiences to bring one book that they'd like to swap. They must, over the course of the evening, punt that book and go home with another that they've perhaps been meaning to read for years, or alternately, a hitherto unknown title that they have been beguiled by over the course of the evening.

Little did Mr Pack know what hairy territory he was stepping into when he set up the event a few years ago, which has since become a regular – and apparently over-subscribed – night out for book-lovers in Windsor. He couldn't, when I spoke to him, vouch for how many copies of Ulysses had successfully been swapped, but what he did say was fascinating. There may be an element of disingenuity in what people bring with them, he thought, which corresponds with the bookshelf/eReader equation – so what they'd read versus what they'd like to be seen reading versus what they wouldn't be caught dead reading.

But it is often more complicated, and interesting, than that. The exchange is not equivalent to dumping books you no longer want down the local charity shop. You are there to talk a title up, get its future owner excited about reading. The book is as interesting as its owner, in this respect.The most fought-over book in one of Mr Pack's events was – surprisingly – a collection of Latin poetry with no English translation. "I thought it would be impossible to swap, and then had to fend off offers for it."

The result of a silver-tongued swapper? No-one, he continued, had ever brought 50 Shades along, which is perplexing, given the sales figures, while David Nicholls's bestseller, One Day, has been brought countless times but has never been successfully swapped. There are those who specifically purchase an extra copy of a much-loved book and rave about it all night. Does this defeat the object of the game (to spring clean your bookshelf)? No matter, if these people fall in the "any-chance-to- proselytise" category, then I would probably be among them. But then in swapping a book thus, you are endorsing the worth of a story that has marked you. For this reason, the bookshelf self-consciousness, perhaps.

Others haven't wanted to part with books they love, Mr Pack said, so they have clearly brought along "a book they don't like so much, and it is fun to see them try to pitch it to the audience without letting on that they don't like it". It takes all sorts, I suppose, even those who come with their own two-for-one offers! The best kind, to my mind, have come with personal stories, which both proves the worth of a book as a physical object, and also confirms it is much more than this; its physicality is saturated with other less tangible but meaningful attachments. What would I take? Perhaps a book that would at once massage my ego and undercut it – so my university copy of Ulysses, filled with a storm of bewildered comments and question marks along the margins. It would, I hope, offer both comfort and entertainment to its new owner.

The mystery of the disappearing scrolls at the folio prize party

Each shortlistee at this week's Folio Prize was given a letterpress certificate or "scroll", its design inspired by books produced by The Folio Society. George Saunders received his winners scroll with clear delight. Until he realised that he had lost it. Not just Saunders either.

Another shortlistee, Rachel Kushner, searching for her scroll, realised it had gone missing too. Who had them? Were they already snapped up on eBay? No. When they sat down for dinner later that night, Kushner's missing scroll turned up in Saunders's bag, while his own scroll was handed in to the press office the next day. "To lose one scroll may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness," as Lady Bracknell might have said to them.