My Home Library Part 1
The secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like and follow the path of your own pleasures
When do your bookshelves become a library? At some point you probably found you had too many books to fit tidily into your home. You looked around and found them by the bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, on the floor. At this point you need a library.
First, define your space. I will have room for this many books and no more. By doing this you force yourself to make choices, and develop a living library with working rules. First make it finite, as there will be two types of books; the ones you’ll return to again and again, and the ones which are passing through you on their way to a new owner. With the ‘one in, one out’ rule you create a permanent collection of excellence. I arrange mine loosely by themes, size and weight, and not all the books are in one place – there are special paperback shelves, hidden shelves and a set with doors to protect the rarest books from sunlight.
You may find you learn a lot about yourself when you look back at what you’ve chosen to keep. I have far too many books on London. To appreciate the city’s diversity you have to read its history, but this is a daunting task. A home library devoted to the subject will be as sprawling as the city itself, but luckily there’s a public one. The London Library in St James Square is a members-only institution founded by Thomas Carlyle, one of the city’s most exclusive and expensive private libraries. TS Elliot, a long-serving president, argued in 1952 in an address to members that, ‘whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation’. But you need dosh to become a monthly member. I discovered that the membership rate drops according to your age. (Entering my DOB online I found that I could get in for peanuts, which was depressing.)
For your home library, the secret is to be as idiosyncratic as you like, and follow the path of your own pleasures.
My London shelves hold Samuel Johnson for his language, Pepys for his exhausting social life, Besant’s ‘Early London’ and ‘Medieval London’, six volumes of Walford’s ‘Old And New London’, which break the city into districts, packed with as much gossip and scandal as fact. Then there’s Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant palimpsest ‘London: The Biography’, also available in illustrated form (London’s first mayor mysteriously resembles Ackroyd).
Mayhew’s ‘London Characters & Crooks’ has everything from street conjurers to rat killers, and finds a modern equivalent in the story of London’s worst street, ‘Campbell Bunk’, by Jerry White. ‘Photographers’ London 1839 – 1994’ by Mike Seaborne has haunting stills of the misted Thames, but I love the exuberant picture of a North London wedding party taken in 1958. Old Punch annuals and bi-annuals of the Illustrated London News from the late 19th century pep up my library, and provide odd insights into city life.
Gillian Tindall’s ‘The Fields Beneath’ takes you through time in one London village, although it’s depressing to realise that in 1864 you could have bought a grand Islington house in forty acres for thirty quid. I have books on writers’ London, decadent London, its pleasure gardens and music halls, its transport and architecture, but also its dissidents, its heroines and heroes.
At this point, the collection branches into peculiar byways that include Hessenberg’s ‘London In Detail’, featuring photographs of doorknobs, clocks, statues, dragons, railings and other examples of barely noticed street furniture, and ‘Lion Hunting In London’ by Frank Manheim, which reveals the city’s obsession with carved wildcats. ‘London As It Might Have Been’, by Barker and Hyde, depicts many of the heartbreakingly fabulous, mad and elegant designs nobbled at the planning stage by councillors.
My favourite London book is Peter Jackson’s ‘London Is Stranger Than Fiction’, which collects arcane facts from the old Evening News. Do you know why Billingsgate’s dolphin weathervane is ‘inappropriate’? It’s a mammal, not a fish. Sadly, most of the wonderful anomalies depicted here have now been wiped away by London’s developers. ‘To hail a bus or tram, shine a torch on your hand’ suggests a wartime London poster in ‘The Moving Metropolis’, but ‘The Abandoned Stations On London’s Underground’ and ‘The Lost Cinemas of Camden Town’ are somewhat esoteric, even by my standards.