On the Shelf – A Book Review

This review of books is a little overdue but has come to fruition as a result of three convergent but independent factors: space, time and knowledge. Space, or rather the lack of it, is a direct consequence of sharing my home with four other people who strangely confine their books to the available shelving.

My children are yet young and can gradually be converted to the cause but I fear that my wife may be lost to it already. Don’t get me wrong, she loves books too but she particularly loves books that are attractively arranged on the shelf. There is a beauty to this symmetry but I find it a cold beauty as they sit all in a line shelf by shelf with, god forbid, their spines bright and buffed. Luckily, her influence in this respect only applies to the drawing room.

My influence applies elsewhere. One garage has metamorphosed into a repository for the spillage of books, accompanied by a big, old fashioned table football, a huge papier mache starfish mirror, a self confessed aberration by my wife, various cartoons which, for good and various reasons, didn’t make the cut in the house itself and a general sense of disorderliness. We’ve reached a sort of quid pro quo whereby she utilises the space beside the door for excess storage, immaculately packaged as usual, and averts her gaze from the relative chaos at the other end of the room. There is one area that is indisputably mine, however, and that is my study.

There is only one thing wrong with my study and that is its size. This inner sanctum contains, in general, those subjects I am especially interested in but, much as I have tried to classify them, the sheer wealth of material has progressively rendered this a most difficult task. The categories covered in my study range from philosophy, Judaism and counterculture to essays, humour and bibliophily but, equally, through want of space, exclude passions such as football, art and business, all demoted to secondary locations.

Nevertheless, a pile of 22 business books presently sits in my study, completely obscuring my view of the bottom shelf of biographies and partially so the one above. The column to its right comprises a random 16 strong selection, the next a further 12, plus 4 pamphlets, and you get the idea. I shall be reviewing in pretty short order every incumbent on my shelves, whether horizontal or vertical – that’s books, not me – and, by the time I’ve finished, auditing the books will take on an altogether different meaning. I shall thus be pruning my collection to ensure I have what I know and know what I have. Who knows what hides behind the column?

The very mention of time reminds me of a quite marvellous book which I have just plucked off the shelf beside me. This is Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin, an American academic, which I bought in 1988 and have only occasionally dipped into since. The author is a noted authority on both Shakesperean and Renaissance literature but is evidently a man of formidable erudition and lightness of touch, not dissimilar to Robertson Davies. Grudin’s exploration of time, through wise and pithy observations, is an absolute treat. Recommended. Also recommended is actually finding the time to read all these books. Many have lain untouched, unopened and unloved for years and, hopefully, this exercise will bring them to a new audience. I don’t pretend that I will ever read half the books I own but then many are designed for a dip rather than full immersion.

The real problem is that I buy books fairly frequently. Moreover, I find it exceedingly difficult to buy only one book when surrounded by so many. Most people have mastered the modest art of, broadly speaking, leaving with what they came in for. I am far too distracted, however, even in bad bookshops. Bad bookshops tend, alas, to be the rule rather than the exception. Most of the dominant retailers are conspicuous by poor signage, predictable display and a complete absence of what I would best describe as a comfort zone. Yet these disadvantages are insufficient to deter me from a quick gander from time to time, if only to draw upon their breadth of stock, so you can imagine the state I’m in when I enter a bookshop, replete with gaps, surprises and architecturally challenged shelving. There are some quite wonderful bookshops in both London and beyond but that’s a subject with numerous diversions, in more ways than one, which I must leave for another day.

I have frequently ruminated over what I have collected and why. Certainly, I am conscious of how little I know of so much and one might view this accumulation of books as a natural form of education. However, it would be a misconception to consider me well read. Widely read perhaps, but well read? No. I would struggle to name five classic works of fiction that I have read. I can safely say that in adulthood I have not granted daylight to a single page of Dickens, Tolstoy or Wordsworth. Darkness has similarly shrouded such titans of ancient civilisation as Socrates, Plato and Cicero. The great political, economic and social tracts have been largely dispatched to forgotten shelves and I have but a nodding acquaintance with classical music, opera and ballet and other such cultured pursuits.

So what have I got? On balance, I own a pretty eclectic collection of books acquired from charity shops, antiquarian dealers, unlikely places, second hand booksellers, village tearooms, overseas, unpromising situations, in the country, frankly, anywhere and everywhere. I’m fascinated as much by design or provenance or eccentricity as I am by the raw content. Of course, within that, I own innumerable mainstream titles, some perhaps a little unfashionable now, that may be regarded as a diverse barometer of public and critical taste. I also possess some extremely rare and unusual items but the key for me is to mix them up wherever possible. I simply enjoy the juxtaposition of an 1863 edition of Memoirs of Remarkable Misers alongside Purple Cow by marketing guru Seth Godin. I’m sure there’s a medical term for my condition but, unfortunately, I can’t reach the necessary dictionary just yet to confirm it.

I aim to pick up every single book on my shelves over the coming weeks and months and I hope will open my eyes, and indeed your eyes, to the multifarious pleasures of books. If a book I mention should appeal, please let me know if you wish to borrow it. My next missive will concentrate on 13 outsize volumes atop one of the main bookcases in my study. One or two lean towards coffee table territory but overall they represent a handsome selection of books that I look forward to sharing with you shortly. Onwards and upwards, as they say, or, perhaps, in my case, onwards and sideways.

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