Books, glorious books…

(27-Feb-09)

My desk, which offers the largest horizontal working surface in my quaintly miniature room, is currently hors combat. The workspace is threatened by a highly unstable pile of books, which casts its shadow over most of the space available in my little cubbyhole. I have taken to working while lying down on my bed, surrounded by absorbant cushions to protect me in the event of a structural collapse.

The reasoning behind this new topographical element in the landscape of my cubiculum is simple. I love books. I buy books. My shelf space is exhausted. Ergo books pile up on the table. Hardly the sort of syllogism that would have kept Socrates up nights. No; he was far too busy coming to grips with his own mortality – or drinking wedlock – or engaged in some other such Attic nonsense.

The space in my private boudoir may be limited, but what there is has been used wisely. Two large bookcases dominate the South-facing wall – one stuck in a convenient nook, the other mounted on top of my desk. Thereby limiting my workspace from the word Go. 

These two brave plywood constructions have given as good as they have got over the past sixmonth, calmly accepting whatever load was placed on their weary bolts and tired joints. The British soil on which they were mass-produced from trees grown abroad has doubtless had its effect in producing a pair of uniquely stoic storage units.

Their resilience has been truly remarkable, but this last straw has finally broken their camel-coloured backs. Space has run out on their ample shelves, with books piled horizontally on top of others and all available gaps crammed with deserving volumes. As a result, the eleven striking tomes which are the latest additions to my collection can fit nowhere other than on the desk previously described.

This latest mass immigration has been sparked off by a week spent scouring the second hand bookstores of central London. The families of battered editions clamouring for a better place to live are hard to turn away.

In truth, I don’t mind. Not only because at the moment I’m hammering this out in my departmental common room, where the lack of desk space is less evident, but because I couldn’t have found more charming roommates. Something about the way second-hand books are brought up makes them ideal bedside companions. It must be all that time spent in musty, dingy, dusty and mingy bookstores, watched over by ardent bibliophiles in sweaters several sizes too big and crooked glasses protecting their light-sensitive retinas.

These stores are my spiritual home. Places of pilgrimage, of worship and of relaxation – the additional stop I am always willing to make no matter how long the day has been or how many puddles I have been pushed into. There is nothing quite so peaceful as to be surrounded by bookshelves full to the point of bursting, and to gently run one’s finger along the spines of a set of entirely heterogeneous volumes in the hope of striking gold.

 Perhaps not a first edition Gutenberg or, rarer still, a second edition Jeffrey Archer, but simpler, more meaningful treasures. The chance to broaden one’s horizons is rarely as great or as unrestrained, and the sight of two books lying side-by-side that share neither author, nor topic, nor language, nor century of publication leads to wonderful and unexpected mental associations.

 To think that the books packed into those overpopulated shelves have  delighted a thousand owners, known a thousand cities and been read a thousand times builds a powerful connection with the rest of humanity. To read the soft dedications to parents and lovers copperplated onto copyright pages; to notice the underlining of key passages or the scrawlings of distracted students from past decades pulls one into the maelstrom of  the human reading experience.

 Forgive me. To paraphrase Gladstone, I have been carried away by the exuberance of my own pomposity. But where the written word is concerned, who can blame me? A book is an object of the most intense passion we  can bestow upon inanimate objects. Our need for knowledge and  adventure, our erotic attraction towards the unknown, and even our love of other human beings is nowhere else so compactly and attractively packaged. 

And while I can sympathize with an amateur librarian who likes to keep a collection in pristine condition, the sight of bent spines and dog-eared pages sends a shiver of glee down my own warped backbone as an indication of a genuine physical relationship with literature that is in no need of false modesty or imposed purity.

Most of us have our first affair with a book, whether in the form of a one-night stand or a lengthy romance, and the experience has us hooked for life.

Words, to borrow one of Kipling’s most powerful lines, are the strongest drugs that mankind has ever used. They are simultaneously more addictive and capable of arousing stronger emotions; they can be as dangerous and as soothing; and the variety available on the streets is certainly as likely to contain lethal impurities.

Books are the easiest way many of us are able to get our fix. All we have to do is find an isolated corner, roll some paper and let ourselves be transported to either heaven or hell on the wings of language, propelled by the engine of syntax and guided by the rudder of punctuation. The winds of overblown metaphor are powerless to hold us down.

I will continue to satiate my appetite for words to my heart’s content – and if this cheap toke fails to satisfy your cravings, be gentle: I plead guilty of writing while under the influence.

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