I’ve always needed to have books around me, quantities of them, ever since I can remember. There may be something pathological about it. When I was a boy, the eldest child of literate but not bibliophile parents, in a big enough house in suburban Cheshire, most of my pocket money went on books – Billy Bunter, Jennings, William, War Picture Library, Biggles, Arthur Ransome, bird books. In the 1950s I used to order Puffin books by post from the catalogue, the pleasure of unwrapping the parcel rivalling the discovery of a new book in a Christmas stocking. For my ninth or tenth birthday I asked for a glass-fronted bookcase, and loved to make rows of uniform jacketed hardbacks and bright Puffins. Writing now, I find all this rather odd. I didn’t know anybody else, child or adult, who acquired books, or collected anything seriously, even stamps. I got through quantities of library books each week, but that wasn’t the same as owning them myself. I suppose I felt that possession gave me a different kind of relationship with the stories the books contained; it certainly brought me closer to the kind of life I enjoyed imagining for myself, living in a rambling old house in the country with secret passages, or, more often, in a tall terrace in London, with high dark rooms full of untidy piles of books and wildly interesting – more interesting than my parents – grown-ups. I felt more at home in that world than I did in the one I was required to inhabit, which seemed lacklustre and ordinary, and the rows of books became a defence against normality as well as a way to escape from it. It functioned as a sort of carapace, almost as character-armour in the Reichian sense. The sight of the books, the feel of them, their colour and their smell were a reliable source of pleasure and comfort separate from but always associated with the narratives and locations to which they provided access.
I was about 13 when by chance I saw and bought a quantity of books at the local auction house. There were more than a thousand of them, Victorian novels and histories for the most part, with some bound volumes of piano music. The whole lot cost me a pound. I went back the next day with an old pram and started the business of transferring them to my room at home. It took several journeys there and back to remove them all. But at the end (discounting the religious tracts and such like) I had a set of a hundred or so quarter-leather uniform hardbacks, ranging from Dumas and Gil Blas to Napier’s Peninsular War, an almost complete set of Dickens (the last three volumes had been placed on top of a cupboard, and the dealer who’d bought it wouldn’t let me have them as he claimed they were part of his lot), a great deal of Thackeray, Macaulay, Jerome K. Jerome (first editions, those, I discovered later), Pardoe and Bartlett’s Beauties of the Bosphorus (seven out of eight quarto volumes of steel engravings), the works of Homer, Milton, Sir Walter Scott, and so on and on and on. Not exactly a treasure trove, but getting so many books at once, with so few titles I would have chosen, moved me suddenly much closer to possession of my fantasy library. Some of the books were hard going – I never got on with Hall Caine or Jeffery Farnol – but there was enough enjoyable reading there to keep me busy for quite a while. A couple of years later, a generous Welsh bibliophile my parents knew gave me the first forty volumes of the Edinburgh Review, along with Foxe’s Martyrs (with its gruesome engravings) and a few 18th-century odds and ends.
As I got older, and my interests became more rarefied, the books I wanted became commensurately harder to find. I developed a consuming interest in out-of-print and forgotten fiction from the first decades of the last century. In the end I was spending so much time in second-hand bookshops that I gave up my (part-time) job as a teacher in an FE college and became a bookseller myself. A subsidiary motive for this was the hope that it would make me less acquisitive if I was buying books in order to sell them, not keep them. I spent most of my thirties in that world, accumulating a large and somewhat specialised stock in my basement (modernism, left-wingery, the Spanish Civil War, ephemeral political pamphlets and the like) until my enthusiasm for buying books outstripped my aptitude for selling them by a large overdraft, and I stopped, sold the stock and the shelves, and took up the equally bookish business of academia, teaching English. After 25 years of that, my college rooms were a parody of dons’ rooms in novels, most of the shelves double-stacked, and the tables, chairs, windowseats and much of the floor covered in piles of books and papers.
It was a comfortable place to work and to teach in. It had large windows looking out over the green, armchairs and a sofa, and a small rug that was always edging its way across the stained fawn carpet. In an alcove just inside the door was the smallest sink in the world, with cupboards over the draining board. The cupboards were full of books, too. Most of the wall space was covered in shelves, partly original to the room, partly built to accommodate my books. Where there weren’t shelves there were Spanish Civil War posters and a neon pink print of a Christopher Logue poem. There were some filing cabinets, one full of notes, the other full of photocopied articles (though one drawer did contain bottles of wine). The green armchair and sofa were reupholstered when I moved into the rooms. I worked at a big oak table with laptop, dictionaries, pens and phone. In recent years a second large table in the inner room was almost invisible as rows and piles of books crept across its surface: American poetry from Ashbery to Zukofsky, literary biographies, journals waiting to be read and piles of photocopied poems for Practical Criticism classes.
There was a large board on the wall just inside the door for cuttings and postcards (mostly of Marilyn Monroe, sent by students to accompany the Eve Arnold photograph of her reading Ulysses that used to be on my door). The inner room contained philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary theory, literary criticism and history, linguistics, classics, French and German, and five shelves of collections of short stories. The first room contained poetry (from Wyatt to Eliot – more recent poetry was kept at home), Victorian literature and criticism, and what could broadly be described as modernism. Orwell’s works occupied two shelves beneath the CD player. A revolving bookcase on loan from the college library held more books (Frank Kermode, Norbert Elias, the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics) and had more papers stacked on top of it. Once there had been a bed in the inner room, but it had been used as a place to store books for so long that in the end the housekeeper took it away and replaced it with another bookcase.
That was my office, my store, my workplace, and my home from home for nearly twenty years. Then I had to retire. A small Cambridge terraced house, even with a library or two in the garden, can only hold a certain number of books, and it was already pretty full. I’d had a garden building, a long, barn-like structure with a beamed roof, put up a couple of years ago expressly to house the books I had in college, but almost at once I’d completely filled it with poetry books and periodicals from the house. Nearly all the books in college would have to be disposed of. And that would be no hardship, I thought: not really, not with so many libraries, including a copyright library, within walking distance. Silly to hang onto them when there was nowhere to put them except in store, where they’d be inaccessible. So I decided to sell them, all except the editions of literary texts and a few others that I couldn’t contemplate living without.
Despite having lived within that carapace of books for so long, I didn’t realise what a wrench it would be to get rid of them. I thought at first I’d just sort everything systematically and decide what had to be kept, what could go, what might go, what could go at a pinch, but almost as soon as I started I realised it would be an impossible task. Each book had its own history, which was part of my history. In the days before the internet made finding books relatively easy, you had to search bookshops, send lists of wants to booksellers and scour their catalogues to find scarce or out-of-print volumes. It could take years. Now each time I pulled a book off the shelf, I remembered when and where I’d bought it. The day I’d finally handed over 25 shillings for Spinoza’s correspondence. The Bergson with Hubert Bland’s bookplate that I found in a jumble sale. The complete run of C.K. Ogden’s journal Psyche which he’d bound himself in quarter vellum with his butterfly insignia on the spine, and all the volumes of the Psyche Miniatures I’d picked up here and there over the years. Books by friends and books by people I disliked. Books full of my notes or jottings on the backs of envelopes. Books bought in Cambridge from the libraries of Raymond Williams, Dadie Rylands, Tony Tanner, Jack Lindsay and other luminaries. Even the most unassuming books prompted recollections. They composed a sort of biography, each one acting like a door in an advent calendar, opening on to some moment in the past.
Still, they had to go. From a dozen shelves of psychoanalysis, I kept nothing but the works of Freud, Klein, Bion, Winnicott and Lacan, alongside Adam Phillips, John Forrester and some André Green and Laplanche. All the other history and commentary and penumbra went, along with books on psychical research, including the two fat volumes of Frederic Myers’s Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. A whole swathe of 20th-century thought went with it, Lukács, Kristeva, Barthes, Sollers, Pleynet, Lyotard, Sartre, Fanon, Beauvoir, and the complete works of Georges Bataille. Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Bradley, Collingwood, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty … all gone. No more literary criticism, or literary history, or history, or linguistics. And then there were the sets: Hazlitt’s Works, De Quincey’s (the 14-volume set), the Oxford Wordsworth, the Coleridge Letters: they all had to go in the end. The bookseller, though, declined to take the works of Marx and Engels.
There were some books I didn’t regret losing. A couple of hundred academic books called Modernism and … Some inspection copies. Books bought purely for teaching purposes. But that hardly accounted for more than about five hundred. The rest I minded. They weren’t a collection so much as an accumulation, but they shared, even embodied, what Walter Benjamin called ‘the chaos of memories’. If I’d stopped to try to sort them out, I’d never have been able to part with most of them.
I said earlier that there was no more room at home for books. That wasn’t quite true. I had extra shelves made in the first of the garden buildings to accommodate some of the books saved from the axe. The rest, texts of poetry from the last few centuries, will have to go on the floor of the second building, the one at the far end of the garden which is my poetry library. Forty boxes of books and papers will come out of store and I’ll feel a bit like Benjamin unpacking his library, though most of the books I’d think of as belonging to collections in the Benjaminian sense are already on my shelves.
As a corollary of all this, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to lose all of my books, the ones I’ve collected in the course of my life or never parted with, the ones that really matter to me, whether because of their contents, their history, their value, or their associations. My Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford or Mary Butts collections, 1930s stuff (though I sold my complete set of the Left Book Club many years ago), first editions by prewar writers, rarities, oddities, and books of poems given to me by their authors.
Rose Macaulay lost all her books, along with the rest of her possessions, when her flat was bombed during the Blitz. When she wrote about it, in the Spectator in 1941, she recalled, not without an eye for effect, her first dismay. ‘Here was a charred, curled page from one of the 12 volumes of the Oxford Dictionary, telling of hot-beds, hotch-pots, hot cockles, hotes and hotels; there, among a pile of damp ashes and smashed boards, were a few pages from Pepys, perhaps relating of another London fire, a few from Horace Walpole, urbane among earthquakes, revolutions and wars, knowing that all things pass. But no book remains; my library, with so many other libraries, is gone.’ Indomitably she started to make lists. She listed (‘the saddest list’) the books she had had, then she listed the ones she would never be able to replace. Then the ones she hoped to replace. And finally the ones she would replace straight away (‘the indispensables’). It’s a poignant essay, but also a practical one. It lists books in each category as the essay gradually registers her coming to terms with the situation, which must have been one that many of her readers had shared. There’s always a sense of relief mingled with the distress of loss, but it’s not always such a relief to recognise it.
The feeling of having to make a mature rational decision that came to me as I confronted the need to get rid of the books turned into something much less controllable when the books actually started to disappear. The bookseller sent two very capable men to pack them up. Both were tall, not young, and brought what seemed like a thousand flat-pack boxes and rolls and rolls of tape. As each box was filled, it was taped up and labelled PAT in broad marker-pen letters. When I told the chap in charge that I was thinking of writing about the process, he said he’d like to be described as wearing a beret and with a French intellectual look. They brought packed lunches and ate them sitting in the college grounds. As the shelves emptied, I felt rather sick.
Quite suddenly, through my psychosomatic nausea, I was gripped by a mixture of apprehension, misery and fear. It may have been tied up with thoughts of death (retirement prompting recollection of the phrase ‘unburdened creep towards death’), or some terror of displacement or abandonment. I was close to tears quite often as I thought about it. How was I to find space for the right things and how could I let go of half a lifetime’s accumulation? The emotions I felt were overwhelming, bound up with my sense of myself and the organisation of my memory and my thinking mind. Ever since I can remember, I’ve thought through the feel and look of books in order to get at the stuff they contain. People I’ve lived with have tended to comment, sometimes impatiently, on my habit of standing in front of bookshelves with a vacant expression on my face. I have to explain to them that what I’m actually doing is a kind of reading, looking as it were through the spine or the outside of a book to what it contains, remembering the past self that read the book (or that bought the book with the intention of reading it one day) and re-experiencing the feeling of reading it for the first time. There’s a latent knowledge or an association of memories that gets released by that or by the book’s smell or its texture or heft, which I find intrinsic to the process of reading.
To explain what I mean, let’s imagine a question arises about Heidegger’s Being and Time. The first thing that happens is I simultaneously see and feel the cloth of my second-hand 1960s edition, before I start to flip through the pages in my mind, stopping here and there because I know the sentences I’m looking for are on the top part of the right-hand page, round about page 110. But I can’t now reach up for the book to do the actual research, which is what I would once have been doing as those impressions passed through my mind, because I don’t have it. (At this point, in an attempt to haul myself into the modern world, I interrupted my writing. I found a pdf of a later printing of that edition on line, looked up page 110, and found the following: ‘Even if we turn our glance in the direction which the arrow indicates, and look at something present-at-hand in the region indicated, even then the sign is not authentically encountered.’ Which seemed oddly pertinent.) There’s something about the authenticity of an encounter with a book which requires the actual (not even an actual) book. It may be a sort of fetishism, but that’s how my mind seems to work best.
While I was trying to sort all these feelings out, and when the first consignment of books had filled the bookseller’s van and driven off, I received an email from someone I didn’t know, in Sweden. When my wife Jenny Diski was alive she used to write a monthly column for a Swedish newspaper, the Göteborgs-Posten, and one of the pieces had been about me and my books and where they’d all go when eventually I retired. My correspondent had, it seemed, been worrying about this for some years. Apologising for what might seem too odd or too personal a question, she told me she couldn’t ‘stop thinking from time to time about how it ended or will end’. Not so much on my behalf as because Jenny had written ‘so beautifully’ about it.
It was a strange coincidence and felt too much like a message from the land of the dead for comfort. Ever since I’d started dismantling my office, I realised, I’d been caught unawares by things that weren’t there any more. Stretching out my hand to turn on the red anglepoise on my desk when I’d already taken it home was like missing the last step when you’re going downstairs. The jerk of realising that things had changed worked like a momentary revival of the experience of bereavement, which was why it had got so powerfully under my skin. But books are not people, although they do become their readers. It’s easier to get used to their absence, even if it takes time.
It used to be my habit to read digressively, taking down books mentioned or cited in what I was reading and reading them, or reading in them, until they in turn were supplanted by another digressive impulse. (The unpredictability of this process is very helpful to me in my role as editor of the long-running literary quiz Nemo’s Almanac, enabling useful discoveries of vivid quotations to file away under headings like ‘canaries’, ‘cabbage stalks’ or ‘Westminster Abbey’.) Reading a book about Paris and existentialism recently I kept wanting to follow up ideas, or just read more of whatever the author was mentioning; but the knowledge that I couldn’t simply reach for my Sartres or my Temps modernes did at least help me focus on the book in my hands, and rely on my own memory. I might at last, in my retirement, be taking the first steps towards a more organised kind of thinking.
And one of the things this new thinking will address is the nature of reading itself, the pleasures of the imagination, the satisfactions of thought and understanding, what books are for and what fiction can do, the use of ownership, and the continuing life of books whoever claims temporary ownership of them. Some days after I’d sold the final batch of books from my shelves, I had an email from a colleague who’d been delighted to find what he called an amazing selection of books in a Cambridge second-hand bookshop. Somebody else mentioned that they had bought the Hazlitt. I try to imagine all the books going to good homes, as I hope they will. Meanwhile, I shall doubtless buy more, even though I still have too many to reread in my lifetime. The American poet Alice Notley said recently, in response to a paper about poems finding the right time to be read by a reader: ‘That’s what books are for. You’re supposed to have them and read them when you need them.’