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.

22 comments on “The Secret Life Of Books”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    “It’s like having a sports car…” I had never realised, but my relationship with my books is very close to that with my cars, a refuge, a strike for freedom, old friends.

  2. Roger says:

    You can’t have too much Dickens, but any sub-Dickens is too much.

    “Francesca herself, if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.”
    By the look of it, your soul – like the souls most readers of many books – is your library.
    I’m supposed to be downsizing my books. Essentially, this consists of rereading them and deciding I might want to reread them again so I won’t get rid of those.

  3. Polly says:

    So much of that is immediately familiar. The huge collection of books and bookmarks, reading on my stomach, the not infrequent duplication of physical and Kindle books, books in every room, those destined to be recycled…..

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Watch ‘Prospero’s Books’ by Peter Greenaway. It encompasses everything a book or library should be.

  5. Jo W says:

    Yes, pile of ‘to read’ books-tick, large piles of ‘to the charity shop’ books-tick. (But,like Roger, some of these get re-sorted into a read again pile.) Off to get Englands Finest today, then on to Firstmonday Crime meeting, to hear about-yes, more books!
    Wish I could lay on my stomach to read,like I used to when little, but puberty put a large halt to that. 🙁

  6. Bob Low says:

    Nice to see a prominently displayed copy of ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories for Late at Night 2’. I have that one sitting next to ‘Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do on TV’ – and The Second Hammer Horror Omnibus! I lost my copy of that years ago. It had lovely cover art.

  7. Brooke says:

    Fortress…yes, good word as that is what photos convey; books all upstanding, regimented, uninviting. Bulwark-like. The antithesis of Arthur’s sprawling, diffuse collection.

  8. David Ronaldson says:

    But that moment when the publishers (or new publishers) of a series of books change the cover style and/or size of the books and you know they’ll never match.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, David, and you want to do something violent to whomever is in charge.
    I recently saw a picture of the silliness of the people who design the packaging of some things. John Llewellyn Probert has recently received the collection of Godzilla films and is wondering where to store it. The films (CDs?) are in a box at least 2 feet wide by 3 feet high and features a drawing of Godzilla on the front. It certainly emphasizes gigantism but from a practical point of view what would one do?

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Give away a book! One bought to be given away, yes. One that’s mine, mine for more than a few days, that’s hard. I’ve given a couple to very good friends and I’ve sent a few to Oxfam. The ones to Oxfam were on subjects that really don’t interest me (one was philosophy).

  11. Dave Kearns says:

    I’ve always dreamt of living in a library.

  12. Debra Matheney says:

    I think they procreate at night. There are overflowing bookshelves, piles by various chairs and on the nightstand, and in baskets throughout the house. And still I fear having nothing to read! It’s a wonderful obsession that hurts no one except the trees used o make the paper. (I hate electronic readers.) Purged books got to the library for their book sales.
    I share many with friends who like certain authors or genres like murder mysteries.
    Christopher, please try Jane Austen. “Persuasion” with its second chance for love is my favorite. Not as funny as the others but so well told. Waiting for “England’s Finest” and a pot of tea to indulge my B and M fixation. (or maybe a in and tonic)

  13. Ian Luck says:

    No Jane Austen. Good. I’m sure she could write, but she is, as far as I’m concerned, the prevaricating reader’s best bet. “I will, one day. One day…” But you have the current Viz Profanisaurus. A very useful tome. The sort of thing Rabelais would have produced if tasked with creating a dictionary. Any book that can reduce most sensible people to helpless tears of laughter simply by opening it at random, and scanning the pages, has got to be worth owning. Lots of lovely books on your shelves, in those photographs – a nice set of Pan Books Of Horror – my secondary school library had several of these, oddly enough, including one which had an account of the execution of the unsucessful regicide Robert Damiens, in 1757. It’s real, which makes it even more troubling. I showed it to a French Studies teacher, who assured me that it was absolutely correct in every horrid detail, which made me never want to read it again.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Mr Fowler – I note that you mention that your father disliked spending money. A couple of other writers I like – Bill Bryson, and David Sedaris, have both said the same thing about their fathers. I was wondering if this was a trait that would, in some way make their offspring writers of clever, entertaining and witty books?

  15. admin says:

    Thanks Ian but I suspect it was more to do with emerging from the war years with nothing. Any spare cash went on home repairs, hence the postwar boom in DIY – books were considered a luxury, and expendable.

  16. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler, I urge you–don’t go near Persuasion. I love Austen, but P will make you ill and turn you off Austen forever.
    It took me several conversation with the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre before I could appreciate Austen’s writing. At some point, try Mansfield Park, her deepest exploration of societal change and conflicting values (the movies are a travesty of her work).

    Sorry, Debra.

  17. Debra Matheney says:

    Mansfield Park is the most boring of the books and Fanny the most boring heroine. Emma the most amusing. Sorry you lot can’t appreciate her writing.
    She was hearkening back to Augustan values and is a moralist. What I like most is how her heroines defy societal values like refusing proposals (not once but twice) and still manage to succeed in making good matches. Her ironic take on society still rings true today for those of us who appreciate her.
    Sadly, books remain a luxury for far too many.

  18. Brooke says:

    Austin is Aristotle’s descendent, not Augustus who, like the Roman church borrowed much from Aristotle, including concepts of male and female virtue. Austin was taught by her father, a sound Church of England minister who would have been steeped in classical philosphy.

    In MP, Austin has Fanny exemplify the virtuous struggle. Fanny is not boring–she is quiet on the outside while struggling with inner turmoil as she is insulted as a dependent and a female–how familiar. And Austen is very much on point in describing the British way of life made possible by slavery. Her parody of the landscape “improvers” resonates today as “development” overtakes our parks and communities.

  19. Jay Mackie says:

    A beautiful, whistlestop account and some fab close-up of your library shelves Chris. Hope we get more of the same in future posts so we can see all your shelves’ content in detail! As a fellow collector of anthologies and collections your enviably complete collection of the Pan series was a joy to spot – why is the 9th book so bloody elusive?! Which brings me neatly onto my question Mr F – has anyone had the good sense to take on your complete collection of short stories for hard copy publication yet? I wondered if you had an updates to share on this very eagerly-awaited project?

  20. eggsy says:

    For more on the effects of reading and espousing Austen, try Kipling’s The Janeites in Debits and Credits (other interesting stuff in there too).
    Peter Tromans, I second you! As long as the books are second-hand or FSC-sustainable, we’re actually involved in carbon sequestration, which is a meritorious act. Good insulation too.

  21. Ken Mann says:

    Down my way I often see books put out with the recycling.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Visitors to my house occasionally look at my books – but never touch them, as if doing so would lead to the loss of their fingers, somehow. The randomness of my titles has intrigued others – there are books about the London Underground, V-Weapons, Airfix kits, James Bond, various reprints of wartime troop instruction manuals, including the Home Guard manual, which is an eye-opener if you have watched ‘Dad’s Army’, several Haynes manuals not on car repairs – Nuclear Weapons, Cold War, Thunderbirds, Spitfire, Vulcan Bomber, Apollo 11, all the usual things. Books on British horror movies (Jonathan Rigby’s ‘English Gothic’ is particularly fine); An exquisite book about ‘Smallfilms’ (makers of The Clangers, and other utterly charming, but oddly eerie, shows for children), a book called ‘Behind You’, by Brian Coldrick, and a full set of H.P. Lovecraft books, battered by constant re-reading.

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