The Secret Life Of Books
It’s like having a sports car that no-one else is allowed to drive.
I’m probably hurting my eyes, I thought, reading under the bedcovers with the worst torch my father, who had always been a cheap shopper, had ever bought. Having ploughed through every book in the house (not as hard as it sounds) I was sometimes reduced to tackling the Readers’ Digest, that peculiarly wholesome, heavily censored compendium of excerpts mostly culled from books filled with tendentious religious sentiment.
I think my mother had once agreed to a subscription from the bullying door-to-door salespeople they used to send around, but I had decided that even the Reader’s Digest was better than no books at all.
I realised from an early age that I wasn’t terribly interested in watching television. I blame Muffin the Mule, Brains Trust and the rest of the Reithian tosh we were forced to watch on our blurry monochrome television. I was grateful when ‘Pathfinders To Venus’ came along – but I digress. Under the bedclothes with the Reader’s Digest should have been enough to put me off books for life.
I had two reading modes. For comic books, seated squarely at the kitchen kitchen table armed with a chocolate bar and a tea, and for novels, lying on my stomach with the book flat on the floor. I still often read lying on my stomach like a five year-old, perfectly happy in that position.
Reading habits are formed early. Multiple bookmarks, hoarded and shared among the books I’m currently reading. A paperback in a back pocket wherever I went. Three books on the go at once, always. (Today it’s Ben Macintyre’s ‘Operation Mincemeat’, Phillip Pullman’s ‘The Book of Dust’ and ‘March of the Lemmings’ by Stewart Lee). Books arranged in piles that hold cryptic meanings; the pile for immediate consumption, the pile for the charity shop, the pile for people who may be interested when they come to visit, the books set aside for specific friends. My own books, two copies of each, one kept as a permanent record, tucked away from sunlight, plus one dogeared ‘user’.
Notes about books scribbled in notebooks purchased especially for that purpose (a habit begun at the age of seven), notes on my phone and my Kindle, many so oblique that their original context has been forgotten. Books on shelves that have had to be divided not according to theme or author but by height, the most gigantic volume requiring an entire cupboard to itself. A special section for magazines worthy of keeping, including a one-off issue about the bit-part actor Michael Ripper which consists of him singularly failing to recall anything that happened in his packed career. Many of the classics, not with appealingly classy leather covers but in tattered paperbacks and with notable omissions – no Jane Austen, never got around to them, saving them for later, on my Kindle anyway. I know, I know.
Theatre programmes – a few kept just to prove to myself that such strange shows could ever have existed. Too much Dickens and sub-Dickens, experimental postwar authors, 1930s US pulp thrillers, supernatural paperbacks of the 1970s, Golden Age crime, angst-ridden modern American state-of-play novels, a lot of non-fiction and obscure academic works (although I realised I’d hit brain limit with Errol Morris’s abstruse treatise on modern philosophy, ‘The Ashtray’). Playscripts, comics, arcana, compendia and of course, Viz’s latest profanisaurus, ‘War & Piss’. Nothing if not egalitarian, this library.
Books on London, film, Victorians, art, transgressive horror, SF, architecture, modernism, music hall, politics, writing, history, humour writing, performance and true crime, especially unsuccessful murderers, all of them regularly reordered to create a thematic flow. Books so rare that they are completely worthless to anyone else. The recognition that a curated personal library has a personality. Others obsessively take photos. I keep books. Both serve as memory and history.
And the strangest part of all is that no-one else ever disturbs these treasures. Friends visit and don’t peruse. My partner remains incurious about them. The books live in bandit country. They remain untouched by anyone except me. It’s like having a sports car that no-one else is allowed to drive, or wants to. It feels arrogant to call it anything so grand as a library. They are merely bookshelves.
In this tumultuous world they are my Fortress of Solitude. They remain my last repository of peace and joy and privacy.