My Home Library Part 2
Sometimes I have a houseguest who fails to remove a book from any of the shelves.
Meanwhile, over in the shelves reserved for serious fiction, Dickens still remains the pack leader, mainly because I believe that characterisation is the single most essential element of fiction writing. My favourite Chucks are ‘Our Mutual Friend’, which adds vivid river descriptions, brilliant society set-pieces and a plot involving recycled waste, and ‘Bleak House’, with its crushing criticism of the legal process and a climactic chase led by Inspector Bucket.
There’s room for a few of his rivals, too; Wilkie Collins, a contemporary whose concerns (crime, social commentary) often intersected with Dickens, but only two novels, ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Woman In White’, are easily recalled. Robert Louis Stevenson, only 44 when he died, and still developing his talents. Stodgy, mean-spirited William Thackeray, Dickens’ greatest rival, satirical, sharper-tongued and more appealing to the burgeoning middle classes than Dickens. Most of his novels have completely disappeared from bookshelves. Elizabeth Gaskell, sympathetically depicting the plight of working class women and prostitutes.
Charles Palliser’s ‘The Quincunx’ is my favourite Dickens pastiche, even if its plot takes explaining, and I allow a little room for Sherlock Holmes – the short stories, not the novels, plus all the books of Holmes’s rivals (for those, see the new improved ‘Book of Forgotten Authors’ out now! See what I did there?) I’ve a huge number of English pulp novels and short story collections from the 1930s – 1970s.
From the sixties I’ve also plenty of experimental fiction by the likes of Charles Wood, Joe Orton, Ann Berg, Brigid Brophy, BS Johnson and Ronald Firbank. Beyond this I lurch into the surreal (‘The restraint of Beasts’), the comic (‘Ascent of the Rum Doodle’), the disturbing (Ballard, Condon, St Aubyn) and then the trivial guilty pleasures, from Viz annuals to ‘The Man who was Private Widdle’, a biography of drunken fantasist and deeply peculiar Charles Hawtrey and ‘All the Devils Are Here’ by David Seabrook, a strange study of characters from the Medway Towns.I keep a cupboard for my own books so that they don’t get unbleached
There are shelves reserved for graphic novels, many of which are by minor artists and writers, but prove the most fertile for sparking the imagination. I especially enjoyed ‘La Violeta’, about sex, politics and adolescence in Valencia. ‘Giraffes on Horseback Salad’ is, like many of the books I keep, an interesting failure; it’s a graphic novel version of the movie script planned by Salvador Dali and the Marx Brothers – points for trying to recreate the unimaginable!
I have far too many books on the theatre, including ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Theatre (But Were Too Afraid To Ask, Dear)’, and ‘Murder & Mayhem & Music Hall’, a look at the links between the Victorian underworld and the stage, which was of course considered a profession barely above prostitution. There are far too many books on grammar and language tools, and compendia of odd stories including the excellent ‘The Odditorium’ and ‘The Mysterium’ by David Bramwell & Jo Tinsley, one on weird people, the other on weird places. Much of the rest is taken up with the complete works of writers with whom I become obsessed, and this means tracking doing everything they ever wrote.
I have a cupboard set aside for copies of my own books (excess copies go to libraries or charity shops) just to keep them out of the sunlight. I now find I have books that I’ve no recollection of writing. There’s no alphabetical order for the rest but I have a vague sense of where everything is, which is useful when you’re researching and suddenly think, ‘I have a book in which artists discuss France in the 1970s’ and can lay your hands on it. In short, there’s something here for everyone.
But what shocks me is this; sometimes I have a houseguest who fails to look at or god forbid remove a book from any of the shelves, even just to glance at it out of curiosity.Perhaps they’re intimidated by books (not an uncommon sensation) or overwhelmed, or are dyslexic, or simply have no connection to the printed word. I suspect readers here are the other extreme, unable to pass a book without checking the cover.