Inheriting a library

Inheriting books – that sets up a whole further range of problems. Problems I’m delighted to have but I’m also inheriting a responsibility. To a great aunt, who I knew well, but now I know her library – and I wish I’d known her better. Her books which take me through from 1910 to her death in the late 1990s are the story of her life – the intellectual, literary story. She read English at Oxford in the 1920s, but never worked, other than as a companion to a fierce-looking great-grandmother of mine, who I never knew.

When I downsized from house to flat I threw away some of the cheap novels (Everyman’s Library and the like) which had been her everyday reading staple – many duplicating books where I already owned copies, and others by authors hardly ever read today. But – for a few years now I’ve felt guilty. They were a mini-library, a personal story, and I wish we hadn’t parted company. I do sometimes imagine her up there, Auntie Frances, with a stern look and a gently wagging finger.

She was born in 1900 and her grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill, or so I understand, in Manchester, and he lived in Prestwich, and he was educated, a member of the new affluent middle class, that Manchester middle class which was the first real middle class in the whole wide world, and he was a book collector, and his books which my great aunt inherited were a pride and joy to her. And now to me.

As examples, two marvellous volumes, London City and London Suburb, which he subscribed for in the 1870s, and his name is in the back, along with all the other subscribers. Bound sets of Studio magazine. Beautifully bound volumes with tinted and tissued paintings of birds and flowers. Macauley’s History of England, in five volumes. Five – but I can only find four. I must have the fifth, surely? (I will be searching.) A middle section of  binding on the spine of volume two has come away, and that is on a small pile of books to be repaired. The metal clasp on a miniature prayer book has already been repaired.

But my biggest puzzle is a volume where the front cover hangs by a thread, and the opening pages are missing. Two books are bound together – a bible from the 1730s and a prayer book from the 1780s. Don’t ask me why they’re bound together. I will need to research.

The more I explore behind the old bindings the more conundrums, and the greater my pleasure. I now have a bookbinder who can help me out. And I will read – in so many ways Victorian books are superior to those of our own time – finer bindings, and illustrations each one of which was a labour of love.

Thirty years ago my great aunt took one book from her collection and gave it to me as a present. Pigot’s County Atlas of England, from 1840. Individual county maps, and a four-way fold-out map of England. I loved it, and when I set up my own publishing company in 1989, the little-lamented Garamond, I published it as a facsimile edition. It looked and looks superb, and I took delight seeing it featured in bookshop window displays. But, the book itself, well, it had to be broken apart before being sent for repro, and it came back to me with the counties as individual parts, the boards (cover) intact, but unbound. And it stayed that way until a month ago, and now at a cost of £230 I’ve had it rebound, and I’m as chuffed as can be to have it there, on my coffee table.

There’s another story to the book. My great-grandfather, whose second wife was the fierce-looking (and black-robed) lady I mention above,  was a successful builder – he built many the houses and shops which line the streets of Bramhall, my home village in Cheshire. And a young man, he’d worked for the rector of nearby Mobberley, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory, the father of George Mallory, long a hero of mine, who lost his lfe along with Sandy Irvine somewhere above the Second Step just below the summit of Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999.  So my atlas would have been in George’s library in the Mobberley rectory when he was growing up. I like that idea, and wonder if he might have perused and pored over it as I like to do.

I asked Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, disappearing into cloud, when I met him thirty years ago at the Royal Geographical Society, whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit – he was sure they had.

There will be other stories, I’m sure. More bookish adventures.


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.