Saturday, 12 December 2009


I adore books.  Today, I finally got around to sorting the ones in this flat out.  It's a strange place, this, because it contains stuff belonging to all members of my family which, with the exception of myself, they aren't currently using.  It's things they haven't got rid of but only need intermittently or not at all.  There's a lot of un-thrown-away rubbish, or things left here like a very elderly pair of slippers belonging to my dad or the largest pans we own as a family, 'because I need something when I'm there'.  When I got here, there were 6 loaves of bread in the freezer some of which have been there for months and months (becoming breadcrumbs by degrees).  And around the same number of 2-pint containers of milk, half used and frozen 'for next time'.  I have forbidden anyone buying either of those staples until the freezer is under control...

The books aren't that different.  I found a heap of Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and P. D. James that belong to my mum and her crime obsession.  I organised the cookery books that belong mostly to my next brother and me to discover quite how many duplicates we have between us.  He's living in college at the moment so all his cooking stuff is here.  Still.

There isn't really excuse for the following, though.

That's *three* copies of The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, first published in 1903.  It's a relatively little-read early spy novel written at a period that was (rightfully) fearful of German imperial ambitions westward over the North Sea.  It's actually a wonderful read, if you like an action story.  That is no reason to have copies from re-issues in, respectively, each of 1955, 1978 and 1998.  And I first met it as an audiobook, too, which means we have it FOUR times.  I suspect the older two belong to my dad and my mum, and the newest one is mine.  Still.  Not really an excuse.  For Harry Potter we have three copies of each of the last two novels.  That's one for each child, though I suppose that makes sense - we were all living in different counties when those two were published.  I also have the first book in Latin, but that's beside the point.

The duplication is hindering my ability to file things.  I always have this problem.  I suppose I have around two thirds of my books here, and the rest on shelves in Cornwall.  Down there, where I have room for them, they're orderly - divided by genre and then alphabetised.  Here, I've done my best.  Adult fiction is downstairs, along with maps and travel, reference, drama, biography, interesting non-fiction ('coffee table') and most poetry.  Up here beside me is the complete Discworld, 'young adult' fiction (that's the aforementioned Harry Potter*, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Stroud and a few other things - there isn't much space after Terry Pratchett), the irrelevant non-fiction and poetry anthologies.  The main issue is that every single shelf is double-stacked, which means that A-E is behind F-K, etc, and hard to get to and hard to re-shelve.  I haven't labelled things.  I'm debating it.  My family might upset things if they don't notice.  I understand librarians and their constant air of irritation.  It's taken me all day to do this and I hate the thought of it being disturbed.  But I suspect that labelling things might be taken amiss, too...they aren't quite all mine.

I adore books.  It's why I did a degree in English.  I love them for escapism, I love them for learning, I love them for poetry and music and understanding and knowledge and information and discussion and ideas and new thoughts and hope and different moods and people and places to reflect back to myself.  I get totally and utterly lost in stories, I always have.  It's what makes me unbelievably irritating to watch films with - I jump, and gasp and mutter and have to resist shouting encouragement or warnings or advice to on-screen characters even in crowded cinemas.  I usually fail when sitting on a sofa.  That world onscreen is real.  And I feel bereft when I finish a book, or a film, almost without exception.  Putting one down in the middle used to be a very rare occurrence indeed, until my education led to more discerning tastes.  Even now though, I'll probably read the book I've got and then not bother with anything else the author has written unless influenced by some trusted friend.  Once a book is started I feel an obligation to it to finish it.  It's a thing as a whole and never in parts - what comes after modifies what happened to begin with; you can rarely say with any authority that you don't like a book when you've only read half of it, you didn't look at the whole thing.  That irritating foible of style might turn out to be magically transformed later in the tale into something of purpose.  The only exception to this rule is something like a poetry or short story anthology, put together by an independent editor or team.  Any set put together by a single author ought to hold together as a whole, like an album does.  The best of them create something greater than the sum of their parts.  I've never had that feeling about a multi-author collection, there's just too much disparity of style and preoccupation.

I do read several things at once, though, because what I read needs to reflect my mood or I will fidget and not do whatever doesn't fit justice.  I tend to have a volume of poetry, something new to me - probably loosely-defined as 'literature' - and something familiar (still might be some sort of classic or modern classic) or otherwise simpler on the go all at once and will flit between them.  That's often influenced by which is lightest.  I read a lot of poetry collections on trains because they're so little.  I actually don't get on with bookshops and browsing them, it isn't how I read.  I follow threads, looking for influences on favourite authors or books I've heard reviewed or discussed or which come from the same family as something else I love.  I have never been at a loose end for something to read next, not since I first picked up a book.  I have a very well tended Amazon wishlist, which represents fairly accurately preoccupations of the moment, though with a bias towards to trashy because I let myself buy less of it - the 'worthy' stuff gets bought more often.

I virtually never read books created for 'art' that were originally published in a foreign language (non-fiction or criticism is different).  Translation is a difficult and valuable skill, granted, but to my mind it will always muddy whatever the original text said.  Some might argue that translated works should be regarded as something in their own right, and maybe they should, but I don't want my closeness to a text mediated by somebody else.  There was a point that I kept making over and over in one paper of my degree, and I can't now find the reference - about the fact that no reader can truly approach a text in total isolation as advocated by the enormously influential New Critics of the early C20th.  How you understand a given word in a given position is always governed by where you have seen that word, that phrase, a similar word, a rhyming phrase, the same idea, a contrary idea, used in what you have read before - which is influenced by your historical moment, your employment, your gender, your education, your class, what you're listening to...right down to what the weather outside is doing and maybe even what colour pants you put on this morning.**  A translation means that someone else's unique position in time is already influencing how the text can be interpreted, and so one individual's unified creation becomes clouded.  At some stage, maybe I'll learn enough of a foreign language to read well in it, but it hasn't happened yet.  It requires total immersion, I think, to get to the point where your mind feels the connections between things instinctively.  Mind you, there are advantages to being an outsider - I, reading American novels for example, will understand them very differently to someone from that nationality, and it is from such oppositions that the most interesting ideas come from, I guess.  What I read won't be what you read, and from what we each comprehend from a text will a more full and more interesting reading, conversation, philosophy come***.  That is a strong reason for the existence of criticism, for me****.  To do with the exchange of ideas is central in really good criticism and the reason that I read essays on texts I'm interested in, still - even if I'm not writing essays any more.

All of which is a way of justifying the enormously large collection of books I have and will continue to have.  They comfort me and connect me to the world around me and I think they're great.

More about the function of art, from me. I meant it when I said I was keen.

*I keep thinking 'that is the type of thing I'd usually find a reference link for'.  But it's Harry Potter.  No.
**I think this possibly wanders around the edges of Derridan Deconstructionism, should anyone be remotely interested.  Lots of fairly nihilist Post-Structuralist Post-Modernist philosophy about the instability and eventual futility of human endeavour.  Fascinating, but a little dark.
***Edward Said definitely discusses the idea that the Critic should always be in opposition to society in order to be of any use.  Which kind of makes sense.  References...  I *think* this will be in The World, The Text, and the Critic but I couldn't swear to it...
****There's a very great deal to say about the function of criticism - which really means the function and influence of art and literature...the discussion of the POINT of reading.  Academics have been studying it for centuries, which always seems a little uncomfortable to me.  All those discussions could boil down to a justification for their existence, on one level.  In modern times (as opposed to the Greeks), the conversation comes into its own in the Victorian period with Matthew Arnold's seminal essay 'The Function of Criticism at the Present Time' (1864), particularly 'the idea of a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.'  I find it absolutely fascinating and wrote my dissertation on the function of art and whether or not it is or even remotely should be regarded as philosophy.  I'm aware that other people wouldn't find it quite so interesting, though...


  1. Maybe take pictures of each of the shelves, so that you know where stuff 'should' live, and encourage them to put them back at the same place?

    What you said about reading American books reminded me of something from CAST. There's a line near the end of Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Valentine has discovered that Proteus has been scheming to get his woman, and Valentine says "Proteus, I am sorry I must never trust thee more" - the American teacher said all their students had found this rather funny, why was he saying "I am sorry" for something like that, whereas to me it seemed like a rather British way of expressing himself.

    Books are weird; I've got several that I've read only once, and a few that I've never read; and yet I don't want to let them go. The whole 'e-book' thing doesn't have the same attraction for me, I can see a few cases where they might be useful - if you need to travel light, for example - but having an actual book is far more my thing.

    Do you ever mark/annotate your books?

  2. It's not like I can't work out where stuff goes easily enough - the categories are pretty simple. Taking pictures doesn't really work when the shelves are double stacked, either, everything is behind everything else...

    That's kind of what I'm getting at - the different ways the Brits and the Americans interpret the line tells you quite a lot about the different cultures. You can read in all kinds of things about respect for enemies and the importance of trust...that would need discussion and support, granted, but this prompts a response.

    I don't get rid of books. Sometimes I hide the more embarrassing teen fantasy, but I never get rid of them. What if I need them?! What if they are the thing I need to read?

    The e-readers...I can see their purpose, definitely, and it's the kind of thing I will definitely be up for having as an when they are cheaper and they've worked a few more bugs out. They will probably slow down if not stop my purchase of 'trash', but anything I regard as remotely worth owning I will still own in hard copy, much as I tend to for music. They will make every trip I ever go on SOO much lighter...

    I don't mark books, usually. I do copy large chunks out, though, into notebooks. Sometimes I fold corners down to mark specific sections. That's kind of always the way I've worked, though, except at school where we made notes in our copies. Take the quote, discuss at length in an essay somewhere...there is never enough space in a text for an annotation that isn't obvious every time I read the line. Guess that's what 3 years enforced close-reading does, though!

  3. Thoughts (lots of them):

    Duplicates - My dad, having recently retired, cleared out a load of his old bought-for-assemblies (& such like) poetry books. There were a few I'd become a real fan of (this one, in particular, - although mere cover art doesn't really do it justice as there's also beautiful illustrations inside,) & so had purchased my own copies. But when it came to the choice of keeping my own or inheriting my Dad's, the copies went. There's something wonderful about a pre-owned in-the-family book. The last time I saw my Grandad, he 'lent' me his Poems by Auden, basically telling me to hold onto it. There's no way that's ever leaving my bookshelf now.

    Marks in books - I did possibly overannotate as a student. In 6th form whilst books were still being provided for us, I bought my own copies regardless as I wanted clean pages for my own notes. (The school copy of Richard II that I started the term with had next to the stage directions for Richard's death: "Richard dies". 'No, really?!' I wasn't living with that original insight for a year.)
    As an undergrad, I wrote whilst I read, mainly so I could track back to certain quotes & events when it came to Week 9 essay crunch time & so didn't have to spend hours page-flicking for *that* particular quote. I don't regret annotating either The Bell Jar or The Visitation to death though as I still open them to re-find old quotes, time after time.
    I have become better of late, much more of the folded corners to mark and sometimes (although admitting it here makes it seem sacrilegious) breaking spines in order to make a book fall open at the well-read page. The pencil only comes out on occassion if I revert to study mode for whatever reason, like when I attacked Ulysses with loaned lit crit texts in hand. Perhaps notebooks are the right way forward, after all.

    Oh, & of the Heroine - have you read about this?

  4. Yes, it has to be said that I was quite thrilled to find the copies of The Riddle of the Sands. Actually, MORE keen on the 1970s version than the old one. It's great to see something from that era, and it was published as crime novel with emblems on the cover and the author's name all big and silver - very different from the other two!

    At school, they gave us copies and told us to annotate them once we got to GCSE - the ones you take into exams and so on. But there was never space! I like notebooks, where I can put all the quotes together. Plus, the exercise of writing them down concentrates the mind properly - you find more in them.

    I hadn't seen that particularly article, though I had seen that she had written something faintly miserable for Christmas. I didn't want to read it, at all, and I adore Carol Ann Duffy. Will have to actually find the damn poem now and look...

  5. "There's a very great deal to say about the function of criticism"... *dies*

    I still have my shelves organised by period (and then roughly alphabetical) - and yes, they are still those overlapping and very arbitrarily defined period boundaries from Part I...

  6. Well there *IS*. Even if you weren't interested. What ELSE did we actually do in our degrees, really?! Ner.

    Hah. I thought about period, but came to the conclusion that it would be so weighted towards C20th that I'd go with something more like an ordinary bookshop...