One of my fantasies – and let me stop you there. No. Although it probably does have the virtue of being more recondite than, say, getting tied up and molested by somebody dressed as a Nazi (after P. J. O’Rourke), probably it will be familiar to half of the people troubling themselves to read these lines – yes, you too. I can see the twitching from here. The fantasy is this: a single Billy.
At a guesstimate, I’d say I own something upward of a thousand books, say around 1,200. That’s only 200 more than Montaigne, though I will assume the great man struggled on without the benefit of Fior, Son of the King (Scripture Union, 1981), The Windlesham/Rampton Report on ‘Death on the Rock’, or the April 1975 edition of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The inability to get rid of books is not uncommon, and is of long standing, to judge from Carl Spitzweg’s painting The Bookworm, in which the eponymous figure is not only confronted with more volumes than he’s ever going to read, but more than he can physically handle.
Not everyone suffers like this. When Gavin Maxwell set up at Camusfearna, he made a bookcase out of bricks and a few planks. For some reason the image is never far from mind. What were the books, and how did he choose them, and crucially, how many did he have? A couple of dozen? As many as a hundred? Whereas a friend’s uncle never has more than three books in the house, though he reads widely, and every day. Whenever a book is finished he passes it on at once – ‘so as’, he says, ‘not to deprive anyone else of the same pleasure.’ A book sitting on his shelves is a dead book, and can do no good, seems to be his philosophy.
I envy that man. I am trying to winnow books to sell, pass on, fob off or give away from books to keep – so far, the proportions are about one-third chaff to two-thirds wheat – but after a couple of hours I begin to feel like (spoiler alert) Sean Connery at the end of The Name of the Rose, as the library burns around him and he is forced to make desperate, impossible choices. What’s worse, the mental image is quite attractive, and I begin throwing flirtatious glances at the matches.
The only certainty is that the labour involved, the depth of thought and degree of consideration – alright, the agonising and prevaricating – is totally disproportionate to the result, and there can be no certainty that the choice in total is the right one. The extremes are comparatively easy. A first positive sift would result in books I love which I’ve already read (and in all likelihood will read again, or at least refer to) plus a smattering of classics which I hope to get around to, one day. A negative one has resulted in a mere 87 books being cut loose – and some of those decisions were pretty hard-fought.
The problem lies in the considerable middle ground. Who’s to say that something read once, twenty years ago, sort-of enjoyed at the time and barely remembered now – Trevor Royle’s War Report, for example – might not yield riches on a second reading? Isn’t it worth being reminded that the Crimean War was not necessarily worse than the Napoleonic Wars, but that the perception of it changed because of the way it was reported by William Howard Russell, or that Henty was a war correspondent before he became a Boy’s Own writer, or that Harmsworth had a deciding influence on jingo sentiment in the years before WWI? Also, one knows more these days, and things begin to join up in a way which was impossible before: to be told that Henry Crabb Robinson, one of the earliest war correspondents, was a friend of Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb actually means something involving personages and not faceless DWMs. And now, dammit, after the best part of an hour spent dipping into it, War Report is here to stay.
How much is any of this labour worth? Well, if nothing else, it proves that one cannot even make a definitive choice of books for oneself – no more than a consensus can be reached about what belongs in the Western canon, or what constitutes science-fiction. That’s not to say one shouldn’t try, as interesting things emerge from the attempt: in this case, a set of shelves which are a little clearer in their connections and juxtapositions, and certainly a whole lot tidier. Hopefully this means they’ll get used more often.
And how much is it worth in the grander scheme of things? Do all these pages matter? Aren’t they simply an indulgence, an evening comfort for Biedermeiers?
No small thing. Most of human existence has involved or still involves striving towards a place where one can think about something other than security, shelter and food. It’s a universal desire to pass time in ease and comfort, telling and listening to whatever stories we please – whether they matter intensely or merely divert.
That simple freedom is always the first one to come under attack from barbarity or despotism, which are only ever interested in one kind of story. Not an untopical thought, given the recent news from Paris. Variety, rather than unity, should be our response.