I don’t so much inhabit a house, as a book repository. My visitor cast a glance around the place, and said, “Gosh, have you read them all?”
“Every word.” She laughed.
From time to time, things get out of hand and there are books strewn across every surface. Then I have to buy another bookcase. It happened last week. I got a modest four-tier flat-pack from B & Q. I used to struggle to put these things up, get into a lather, lose my temper, and inflict damage on the structure. I despised these parsimonious instruction leaflets comprising a series of diagrams devoid of explanatory text. You would have thought a bookcase, of all things, would have predicated a literary explanation of its own construction. The thing is, these components, these slabs of wood manufactured by robots with precisely located indentations for the screws provided, have “chirality”, or handedness. They need to be orientated correctly, otherwise you end up with a bookcase half of which is upside down and the other half back to front. If you are flat-pack naïve, you can sense the instructions sneering at your gauche trials and errors. You are not collegiate; you need to bloody yourself before being admitted to fellowship of the flat-pack “mistery”. But I’m definitely getting better and indeed this time I constructed the edifice expeditiously and without hassle. Then I chose a nook within my bijou cottage – there wasn’t much choice – stacked the shelves with all the orphan books, turned the whole thing through ninety degrees so that the titles might beguile my visitor, marvelled at the relative tidiness of the place, gave myself a pat on the back, and phoned a relative.
“The books are stacked.” It might have been a cryptic message from the BBC to Pierre in Cherbourg in early June 1944. “Les livres sont empilés.”
“Aye. For now.”
And there’s the rub. I am a bibliophile. I cannot walk past a bookshop, just as some people can’t resist a tobacconist’s, or a pub. I like to think my addiction is less self-destructive but that may be a delusion. There’s no reason to suppose the latest flat-pack will curb my acquisitive tendencies. Why not get a Kindle, I hear you ask, and buy on-line? Well, I have a Kindle. I bought it so that I could have the experience of downloading the electronic edition of my own first published book, Click, Double-Click. I did so, recognised my own composition on the tablet, switched it off, and never switched it on again. I relished more the experience of taking my own book, in its material form, from the shelf at Waterstone’s, and buying it. The book sellers often engage me in conversation about my choices, and as a I approached the desk I didn’t know if I was going to remain incognito or own up to the authorship. But on this occasion we concluded the transaction sans parley. To me, printed paper is infinitely preferable to the electronic screen because reading is a tactile experience, and a book should be a thing of beauty, to be caressed. Was not the lure that brought us as children into the world of books their physical attraction? When I see old copies of children’s adventure books in second-hand bookshops, with their colourful dust jackets, I can still conjure that sense of wonder at the possibilities of exploring new worlds, through books. I hold such a book in my hands now, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, OUP 1958, well preserved with an immaculate dust jacket in dark greens showing Tom in pyjamas and Hattie in pinafore under a Victorian pile in the midnight garden.
Books have an aroma. I can remember as a child on wet summer’s days rummaging in the cupboard under the stairs of boarding houses, amongst the chess and draughts sets, the Scrabble and Monopoly, to discover well-thumbed books about Biggles and Jennings and the Famous Five, and Nevil Shute books describing a world that has ceased to exist, all having that musty-musky, deeply comforting papery scent. At the other end of the spectrum is the heady fragrance of glossy, sheeny magazine paper. When I open a brand new magazine the first thing I do is smell it. It’s unseemly, really. My addiction is not merely cerebral, but visual, tactile, and olfactory.
Apart from bookcases, I have another strategy for attempting to keep my book habit under control, and that is to move books on. Last week I offloaded a pile of paperbacks in a local charity shop. Mostly they were “intelligent thrillers” by Robert Harris. Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, The Ghost, The Fear Index, An Officer and a Spy, Conclave and Munich. All went. I kept Imperium because I haven’t finished it yet. Not that I have anything against Robert Harris. Quite the contrary; his books are page-turners and he is a master of pace. The plots are very clever, the twist on the last page can be – at least to me – completely unexpected, and the research and level of historical accuracy afford the books an authenticity. An Officer and a Spy, which concerns nineteenth century France and the notorious Dreyfus case, is perhaps his most substantial work. It won Harris the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction. The Ghost is a professional ghost-writer who writes the autobiography of an ex-British Prime Minister who sounds awfully like Tony Blair. It is full of subtlety, not least the realisation on the last page – if it isn’t too much of a spoiler – that you have been reading a communiqué from a ghost. And The Fear Index is a truly nightmarish vision of what might happen if IT systems are allowed to take over.
Yet I gave them away because I knew I would never read them again. I’ve done the same with the books of Ian McEwan, another writer I greatly admire. I’ve kept Nutshell, a hardback first edition signed by the author, so that McEwan is represented on my shelves. I dare say the fault is mine and I read these books too quickly. I look forward to the next publications from both Harris and McEwan.
Yet, when I cast an eye around my shelves, I realise there are books here that I will keep for ever. What is it about these books? They must have a quality that makes me want to revisit them, over and over. Reference books, of course. Dictionaries in English, Latin, French, German, and Gaelic – Chambers (20th and 21st century editions), Bloomsbury, Shorter Oxford, Churchill’s Medical Dictionary and, definitively – bit of an oddity – the complete Oxford English Dictionary in a single volume with accompanying magnifying glass. I’ve also got a complete Encyclopaedia Britannica which is now about 25 years old. I suppose it would be more sensible to download Encyc Brit and the OED or access them in the cloud or whatever, but I like to turn the pages, and I frequently do.
Then there are volumes of a certain sentimental value – gifts and heirlooms, school prizes and so on. Roget’s Thesaurus, Aldous Huxley novels published by Chatto & Windus in their beautiful russet covers, Joyce’s Ulysses, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed in the Constance Garnett translation, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Patrick White’s Voss. Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics in the elegant three volume commemorative issue. Classics like Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen. RLS complete. Buchan on Scott and Scott on Napoleon. The Richard Hannay yarns. Special interests: first editions of Ian Fleming and Graeme Greene. Bernard Levin’s Enthusiasms, and The Pendulum Years. Churchilliana. C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures which I mischievously shelve contiguous with F. R. Leavis’ Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow. Music – Arnold Bax’s Farewell, My Youth, and Lewis Foreman’s biography and study of Bax. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Scarne on Cards. G. Wilson Knight The Wheel of Fire. Vansittart in Office by Ian Colvin. South Col, signed by the author, Wilfred Noyes. Lorimer’s New Testament in Scots. Wilfred Owen’s Letters. The Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Definitive Edition. James McNeish – The Man from Nowhere, and Lovelock. Medical texts: Gray’s Anatomy, 40th edition; Mattox, Feliciano and Moore – Trauma; the New Zealand First Aid Manual which I had the honour to edit. I reread Ganong’s Medical Physiology the way people used to paint the Forth Rail Bridge; the tenth edition of Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System which the pharmaceutical company Boehringer-Ingelheim gave me when I provided some case studies for a meeting they sponsored. Books that have altered my world view, like Kafka’s The Trial. Books that have fallen out of the sky like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This is just a snapshot. More music and musicians, shed-loads of sheet music for piano and viola. Poetry, history, biography…
You see my problem.