What do the following books, from my list of books read in 2018, have in common? The House in Paris (Elizabeth Bowen), I Will Bear Witness (Victor Klemperer), The All of It (Jeannette Haien), Storm of Steel (Ernst Jünger), Son of the Morning Star (Evan S. Connell), The Death of the Heart (Bowen), Alamein to Zem Zem (Keith Douglas), Burger’s Daughter (Nadine Gordimer), What Maisy Knew (Henry James).
Not worked it out yet? That’s surprising because the answer is quite obvious to me. But maybe I should have phrased the question more precisely, by referring not just to the books but to particular editions (The All of It, for example, is “a Faber hardback…”) and included information, to put it into museum-ese, about date of acquisition (“…bought as a remainder in Oxford, 20.8.92”). If I’d done so then it would be clear that these were – with apologies for the anti-climax – books I either bought or was sent a long time ago! The youngest is The Death of the Heart (Vintage paperback, Delhi, 6. 2. 2010) and the oldest would be either The House in Paris or Alamein to Zem Zem, both Penguin Modern Classics and both bought in the prehistoric days before I started writing the date of purchase on the title page, so they must be even more ancient than Son of the Morning Star (Picador, 21.7.1986).
At the most basic level, belatedly reading these books constitutes a form of vindicated investment. If I hadn’t read them then buying them would have been a waste of money, even if, in the case of Connell’s magisterial and strange account of General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, there was a price to be paid for reading it, in Byron’s phrase, so late into the night: my eyes struggled with the tiny and rather faint type in a way that they wouldn’t have done when I was twenty-eight. On the plus side my peering and squinting appreciation of Son of the Morning Star in 2018 was greatly enhanced by having been nudged back to it by Peter Cozzens’ recent, more orthodox history of the Indian wars, The Earth is Weeping. (Each of the guests at the gala dinner for the Texas Book Festival in Austin on 4 November 2016 had a book waiting for them on their seat. I persuaded a guy at a neighbouring table to swap his hardback of Cozzens for whatever it was that I’d ended up — i.e. started out – with. I felt like I’d got half of Dakota for a few glass trinkets).
A version of the notion of delayed vindication applies even to books such as Storm of Steel that were sent to me free, as review copies, since they have taken up sought-after shelf space that might otherwise have been given over to numerous competing titles. All have survived multiple moves and purges; most have served time in storage. Some are now out of print and these are the most valuable, in non-monetary terms, even if that value has been radically reduced by technology. There was a time when a book’s falling out of print made it extremely difficult or impossible to track down but any pleasure at having pre-empted disappearance in this way is compromised now that out-of-print titles are instantly obtainable on the internet. I bought the Douglas second-hand, because it was out of print, for 30p. The House in Paris must have only just fallen out of print when I got it, new, for 60p. I’d barely even heard of Bowen back whenever it was. I probably bought it because Penguin Modern Classics were the essential building blocks of a modern library and any rarely-seen item in that distinctive livery was worth getting, irrespective of whether I intended reading it.
The satisfaction of having done so, thirty-five or more years later, is immense. On the one hand, I don’t want to make a big deal of out of it; on the other, I feel an increasing urge to itemise any and all of the things that make me happy because this might constitute a shared recipe for well-being in the way that people who live to a hundred are often asked to pass on the secret of their longevity. There are no definitive answers but I always pay attention to their advice, however eccentric it might be: drink a pint of Guinness every night, eats lots of pickled onions or whatever.… While reading a lot is seldom mentioned as an aid to life-extension I suspect that reading these books so long after obtaining them might constitute a small victory over death. But whose death?
At dinner a few months ago a friend who works in publishing said of a recently published book that had made a big splash, “It doesn’t need me to read it.” It was one of those off-the-cuff remarks that expressed exactly the way I feel about reading. Flipped around, don’t we derive special pleasure from feeling that we are among a lonely handful of readers standing between a given book and its potential extinction? Isn’t it a cause for joy when the enthusiasm of a few devotees can bring Dorothy Baker’s wonderfully weird Cassandra at the Wedding back from the dead and see it doubly resurrected, first by NYRB Classics in the US and then by Daunt Books in the UK? Elizabeth Bowen’s works have been safely restored to print by Vintage Classics but if we imagine a personal book collection as a microcosm of the biodiversity needed to sustain literary life then I have done my bit in keeping Keith Douglas’s wartime memoir alive all these years after the author’s death in 1944, aged just twenty-four. Alamein to Zem Zem (available as a Faber Find) is still being read in the wild rather than preserved in some mausoleum of doctorate study. It has in turn, played its part in maintaining the active if fragile eco system of my head.
This would be less noteworthy if I were one of those compulsive bibliophiles who keep nearly every book they buy or are sent. I don’t. I’m always culling and expelling, making my library tighter and tighter, again replicating in a personal way the larger process of canon formation by elimination and erosion over time. At various points (prior to moves typically) all of these books have had to justify their continued but unexamined existence on spec, as it were.
As a reader I cherish the fantasy of one day stopping acquiring books, of subsisting only on what is already stashed away in the crammed larder that I call a study. Buying books and not reading them – or waiting to read them – is a form of hoarding, similar to picking up and hanging on to something because it might one day come in handy, but a book is always both more and less than handy: potentially life-changing and, at the same time, quite useless. In a quasi-Borgesian way, I would ideally draw my last breath just as I turned the final page of the only unread book left in my collection. At that moment my library – my life – would be complete.
Geoff Dyer’s most recent books are The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand and Broadsword Calling Danny Boy.
Geoff Dyer (f. 1958) er en britisk forfatter og essayist, kjent for en rekke uklassifiserbare bøker om alt fra litteratur og film til billedkunst, reising, fotografi og musikk. På norsk foreligger En ren besettelse. Basketak med D.H. Lawrence (2014), Det jeg egentlig ville si. Utvalgte essays 1989 – 2015 (2016) og Vi er her for å dra et annet sted (2019), alle på Flamme forlag.
BLA 5/19. 16.05.19