11 October 2016

A Life Without Books ...

I’m big on books. A life without books would be no life at all. I read every day. I couldn’t imagine a day passing by without me dipping into a book, no matter how briefly. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never owned a television, there are far too many books to read (plus it’s easier to listen to the radio whilst doing the washing up than it is to watch a TV screen). I wasn’t always this way inclined though. As a child I preferred being read to rather than reading for myself. It was only later on that I began to enter into that solitary yet contented withdrawal which is reading for oneself. That propensity to absorb by listening is perhaps what later lead me towards the study of history and anthropology. And perhaps it’s also why I prefer the radio to the telly – they do say, after all, that you always get better pictures on the radio!

Not everyone is keen on reading. I once lodged with a friend who was far more interested in outdoorsy-type pursuits. I remember her incredulous exclamation as she returned one frosty Sunday morning from a bracing off-road cycle ride up and down the Chiltern Hills, only to find me several hours later sitting in exactly the same position on the sofa, cosy indoors with the same book in front of me. “You haven’t moved!” she exclaimed. But I’m sure I’d travelled just as far in that space of time as she had, except in a different way – with each turn of her bicycle’s pedals matched by the number of pages which had accumulated under my left thumb.
Needless to say, being such a devoted reader, my flat is stuffed full of books. But alas the space for an ever growing personal library is finite. The bookshelves I’ve set up here are groaning under the ever-accumulating weight. Nearly all the flat surfaces in my home are simply abhorrent vacuums which have swiftly been filled by piles of pages – books, magazines, off-prints, TLSs, academic journals, notebooks, guidebooks, dictionaries, etc. Given the limitations of space every-so-often necessity prevails and I have to thin my library down. This always poses a deeply difficult dilemma: Which books should make way for new acquisitions?

I attempted this task only this morning in fact, and was rather surprised at the outcome. I managed to clear a small swathe of tomes from a shelf which meant a stout pile that had recently accrued on the desk nearby (and which, very inconveniently, was preventing me from actually using my desk) slotted neatly into the vacated shelf space. My surprise wasn’t so much at the apparent neatness of this act of rotation, it was rather at the act of negation – Why was it, I wondered, that only now could I envisage living without these particular books which had once been deemed so important and integral enough to my life that they should have taken up permanent residence on my bookshelf? What had changed? Was that prior importance simply relative? Had I lost interest in the topics they were centred upon? Had I realised that other books in my collection covered the same subjects such that these ones were now redundant? … In this particular instance, I realised my re-classification was essentially based on what might best be described as ‘associative memory.’

As I scanned the rest of my shelves this realisation began to sink in more deeply. It struck me that most of the books I own, and particularly those books I’ve owned the longest, are in some way or another ‘associative tomes.’ In my mind, I don’t just simply recall them as being particularly good reads, although invariably this is almost always the case too; but moreover, I associate these specific books with people, places, or particular times in my life. The book may have been given to me by a dear friend or relation, or it might have been inherited from a certain family member, or it might have been bought or read in a particular place whilst travelling or at some other significant phase in my life. It dawned on me that reading wasn’t simply confined to what the words within those pages said – more often than not, when scanning the spines of those titles which I’ve already read, I realised I could almost without fail recall where I’d bought or been given the book, and also where and when I’d first read it.

As such then, I began to perceive that my library is caught in a constant ebb and flow of change. It regularly builds and reduces itself. It is continually being re-categorised and refined. Time and sensibility as much as utility and space are the main factors which regulate what is retained and what is lost. In essence my personal library is my life in the sense that it acts as a kind of mirror to my memory. The books of greatest value are not simply those which are or might be most useful to me either now or potentially in the future, but they are also those which are most important to my past and my-previous-selves as well.

Alberto Manguel has written a wonderful book which is a meditation on libraries – inspired by his own library, which he has lovingly lodged in a 400 year old converted barn in France – The Library at Night (Yale, 2005) is a paean to books, book-collecting, and the act of reading; examining the use, nature and representation of libraries throughout the ages across the world. Opening the front cover I see I’ve written my name at the top of the title page in pencil with the note “Tokyo, 2011.” I didn’t really need this aide-mémoire as I still distinctly recall buying this book at the big Kinokinuya bookstore in Shinjuku’s Takashimaya Times Square (over the years I’ve spent a small fortune there). I also distinctly recall devouring the book in the warm evenings over the course of a week or so that particular summer. Since bringing it home to my flat in the UK I’ve evidently not been the only one to keenly ingest this particular book as the tell-tale gnawing of a silverfish can clearly be seen on its spine (a literal ‘bugbear’ of my library as it’s currently stored in my flat is that it seems to regularly draw in these ancient gnostic little critters!). 

Wherever I go I always seek out libraries and bookshops. I’m particularly drawn to secondhand bookshops, as these are the places where one is most likely to find rare and unusual treats as readily as finding discounted treasures. This habit began whilst I was still at Sixth Form College, when I regularly used to take myself “up to town” to spend a day scouring the old bookshops along London’s Charing Cross Road as well as the famous ‘Ripping Yarns’ bookshop in Highgate. Many of these shops, as with the equally enthralling old bookshops in Greenwich, have sadly long since disappeared. Yet thankfully, there are still a handful of good secondhand bookshops still to be found in London; and, just as in my Sixth Form days, I still visit these regularly in order both to bleed my wallet and better insulate my flat for winter.

On a recent trip to Delhi I passed along a book market lining the street whilst making my way to the famous Red Fort, but it was in the small multi-level labyrinth of ‘Bahri Sons’ in Khan Market that I found the kind of books I was looking for. Likewise, I’ve found similar bookish enclaves in other cities too, such as the Bras Basah area of Singapore and Tokyo’s Jimbocho. I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money in Jimbocho over the years, particularly when I was living for a time in Tokyo in 2009.

One of my favourites there is ‘Kitazawa Books,’ which is excellent for obscure academic titles as well as old Penguin paperbacks up on the large upper floor. I bought a wonderful old hardback copy of The African Queen by C. S. Forester, which had previously belonged to the library of the USAAF in Yokohama or something similar (sadly, despite the fact I lovingly restored the dust-jacket myself, the book never made it home to the UK with me). I also bought a gorgeous old paperback of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American there, which I read whilst travelling through the Mekong Delta in Vietnam that summer (which happily did make it back to my bookshelf here in London).

Another favourite there is ‘Oshima Books,’ which is particularly good for paperbacks as well as English literature and literary criticism. A pristine copy of Everyman’s 1000th title – The Metaphysics by Aristotle bought from here, as well as Basho and the Dao by Peipei Qiu, plus a little book on Grammar by Frank Palmer, and Conrad’s Romanticism by David Thorburn (which I read twice, but also never made it home either) stick in mind from there – as does my memory of the lady who runs the tiny little shop from a desk perpetually buried in books at the back, always wearing a worn-in looking old apron and fingerless gloves.

I wouldn’t be so surprised if other people felt the same – that books are bound up with time and place as much as they are with the self who collects and reads them. Books are much more than the tales or topics they tell. Books are a part of us, and just as I know I will continue to read everyday until my eyesight goes or I go, I know I will always continue to seek out libraries and bookshops – in the hope that one day I too might find my own ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ as in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind, or Umberto Eco’s forbidden library hidden within the monastery in The Name of the Rose.  And, just as with Jorge Luis Borges’ labyrinthine Library of Babel, I shall continue to reshuffle, as well as reject and replace tomes from my own library as my memories of reading reconstitute themselves and settle down into the rhythms of constant re-classification which my life prescribes – like pebbles on a beach being shaped by the surge and pull of the tide. As time permeates and accrues through all the thoughts and feelings which I’ve derived from (or invested in) all those many pages which have so quietly accumulated in my left hand, so too my library is both the mirror of me and the world I have travelled. Indeed, this is why – for me at least – a life without books would be no life at all.

Further Reading:

Read my reviews of recommended bookshops in Taipei, Taiwan & Portland, Oregon for the LSE Review of Books