All about books

A friend of mine lent me ‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader ‘ by Anne Fadiman. And I will be forever in her debt.

Lending books – something Fadiman doesn’t have a chapter on in her wonderfully erudite and obsessive and mesmerisingly enjoyable book. I’m sure she does lend books to friends but books are for her, as they are for me, about ownership. Norma will get her book back – and I’ll buy my own copy.

One problem when you borrow a book: you can’t annotate – scrawl untidily in the margins. For Fadiman a well-annotated book is better than a clean one – so much better a used and loved and cherished book than a virgin tome, maybe even (sacrilege) with pages still uncut.

She loves typos, as we all do, especially if we’ve been editors. And I started my publishing life as a Penguin copyeditor. She quotes a prize find from a friend of hers, a sentence in a manuscript sent to a San Francisco publisher:

‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity led to the development of the Big Band Theory.’ (Could, I wonder, E be for Ellington and M for Miller?)

She’s also wonderful on plagiarism, and I fully acknowledge my source. Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman.

‘One day when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow’s blood, and captured the sentence.’

I like this and would like to replicate it, out on one of my walks, or long-distance runs, but I don’t hunt, and I don’t think I’d be too keen on plucking a dead crow. Writing in blood? Maybe. To establish an undying bond, over a dead crow? Maybe not. But there are sentences which occur, phrases, at the wrong moment, with no pen or pencil to hand, and typing into ‘notes’ on my iPhone seems a bit feeble. So what to do? I could carry a catapult and practise my skills, in the manner of David, with a stone or two. But I might kill a Philistine and miss the bird…

Fadiman having put aside a much-loved pen now uses a word processor. And she does what I do, she ‘moves the rejected phrases to the bottom of the screen, where they are continuously pushed ahead of the text in progress like an ever-burgeoning mound of snow by a plough’.

Great, but snow hardly describes my mis-spellings and mis-statements. I’ve used the same ploy writing serious e-mails, pushing rejected text to the bottom just in case it’s useful. Then forgetting it’s there and sending the e-mail with gibberish attached.

Both Fadiman’s parents were writers. A distinct advantage, if you as the offspring are also that way inclined. If not I guess you take up pogo-stick dancing, or similar, and pretend that’s your passion. It’s not just in the blood that books are found. They’re also out there, on the shelves, in your library, your attic. (‘No way will we have books in the dining-room,’ I remember being told.)

My problem is that while the shelves are bespoke and individual shelf heights can be adjusted, that means removing all the books from one section of my library, adjusting the shelves, and then discovering that, yes, you can now display your art books upright, but you’ve no longer room for those awkward over-sized B-format Penguins. I can cope with the Adeles (A-format), it’s the Emperors that cause the problem.

Fadiman quotes from three-times prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s inspired and obsessive 29-page tome ‘On Books And The Housing Of Them’. He fantasised about library shelves on (tram)rails, so the shelves can be pushed together, and pulled out as need be. But maybe not in my sitting room, which doubles as my main library. (The Benedictines at Douai Abbey spent £1/2million on doing just that, building a wonderfully compact library containing tens of thousands of volumes from the libraries of now defunct and monkless monasteries. The books had nowhere else to go. How often are they consulted, I wonder? Theology I guess does go on forever.)

They read aloud a lot in the Fadiman household. Not least bedtime reading, when she and her husband read aloud to each other. She approves of the poet Heine, who ‘read Don Quixote to the trees and flowers in the Palace Garden of Dusseldorf’. That’s the kind of snippet I like. Not just any book, or any place. And not just quoting or murmuring, but reading aloud to the trees and flowers.

There were empty benches in the Parks in Oxford this afternoon. The sun was shining. I had my book with me, I could have sat down – and read aloud. I had trees and flowers all around me.

Books do get squashed between other books, and if they’re thin and almost spineless, they’re forgotten. A problem I recognise. But worse for me is having to tuck books behind, in a second rank, as a necessity, being the only way I can house all my books. (Yes, I have thought of buying a large house in the country, or a small house, with one very big room. Two can share a single bed, and we all had galley kitchens once.)

My Penguins, hundreds of them (once a Penguin always a Penguin), already on an unreachable top shelf, have a front and a back row. (The back row isn’t happy.) I’ve catalogued them all, so I know what’s there, but sometimes it seems almost quicker to go out and by a new book.

But, one big advantage – surprise. ‘I never knew I had that,’ I’ve exclaimed a few times.

Gladstone believed that his shelving system might ‘prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded into the surrounding waters by the extent of their own libraries’. Maybe he imagined a future where we’d all be literate, and we’d put away all trivial pursuits, and buy books, and read – but instead we have our televisions, and our computers. We and our surrounding waters are safe…

I’m on the side of libraries, but say that to almost anyone these days and they look askance, they look amazed. Serious bibliophiles who mull and mutter through endless happy hours in libraries were then and are even more now a breed apart.

I will continue to mull and mutter.

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