My book collection’s not what it was; it’s been diminished by divorce, unwise lending and the occasional cull, nibbled away by damp and silverfish and now dispersed in various locations throughout the apartment and garage. But to call my books a ‘collection’ is a misnomer; collections accumulate from a lifetime of knowledgeable research, focused upon a particular author, subject or theme, often with the object of future financial gain. My own efforts have been plagued by a characteristic lack of resolute purpose, domestic upheavals and poor funding. In extreme cases of booklust you need to be both wealthy and celibate.
Thomas Jefferson was a serious collector, amassing an important collection which he sold to the US Government to replace the Library of Congress, torched by the British during the War of 1812. Jimmy Page, once lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, has the wherewithal and the knowledge to collect works on the Arts & Crafts movement as well as anything remotely associated with Aleister Crowley, including the occultist’s former residence, Boleskin House, on the shores of Loch Lomond. The ‘completist’ collector must have every scrap and fragment produced by a chosen author. Umberto Eco’s properties in Milan and Urbino are reputedly crammed with 50,000 titles, much of them devoted to semiotics. Other people collect books shaped in circles, books bound in metal boards, pop-up books and books that open like accordions. Nostalgia is an inducement to collect and I spent a lot of time and energy that could have been more usefully applied to a career tracking down key books I had enjoyed as a child in the 1940’s.
Popular writers in my youth had odd first names like Enid, Somerset, Rider, Edgar, Aldous and Wyndham. My collection began with Rudyard Kipling, switched to illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and then to books on space travel, before I realised I wanted every book that took my fancy. When a bookseller asks me what authors or subjects interest me I am unable to provide a coherent answer. Being an avid reader does not make you a bibliophile and separating the book lover from the book collector is what John Hill Burton in ‘The Book Hunter, Etc.’ called the ‘disposition to possess’. Possession, or rather the need for, dealt with by A S Byatt in her Booker Prize winning novel of that name, if unchecked may infect you with bibliomania, a word first documented by Phillip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield in a letter to his illegitimate son at school in 1750 advising him of its dangers. I would describe myself as an inconstant book lover overcome with occasional bouts of lust. I’m sad to report that the English poet AE Houseman, heavily represented among my books, referred to bibliophiles as ‘an idiotic class.’
Books are a lonely interest and not one to trot out at social gatherings. However, I recently showed a dinner guest, a lady librarian from Brazil, a few of my treasures. ‘You and I are people of the book” she confided, as if she had discovered that we were both members of some secret society. People of the book are finding life more and more difficult. Soaring rents have robbed the high street of second-hand bookshops and there are few bargains to be found on the internet. Gone are the days when books could be bought by the yard in London. Book covers, once a canvas for talented artists like John Piper and Michael Ayrton, are now designed by technicians using keyboards.
Books themselves are cheaply produced and digitally printed on machine-finished, coated paper; however long you keep them they will never give off that scent of foxed antiquity. Nor of course will they merit a description of the paper and font as in this example from ‘Dress – An Essay in Masculine Vanity and an Exposure of the UnChristian Apparel Favoured by Females’ by Eric Gill, the English Arts & Crafts sculptor and typeface designer:
Printed in the summer of 1986 at the Yellow Barn Press, Council Bluffs, Iowa by Neil Shaver. The book was printed on a Vandercook Press and handset in Eric Gill’s 14 point Joanna. His Perpetua is the display face seen on the title page. A Gill Floriated Initial is used on page one. The paper is Mohawk Superfine Text, an archival quality paper. The pattern design used on the cover and endpapers was made for this edition by the wood engraver, John DePol. There are 200 copies in this edition and this is Copy Number 122.
Music! and as moving as a paragraph of Flaubert. These details are to a book lover what a film’s end credits are to a movie enthusiast.
While the sheer volume of titles obliges major public libraries to arrange their stock according to the Dewey Decimal Classification, a sort of mathematical version of Linnaean taxonomy, the bibliophile is free to indulge his or her own particular whims. Samuel Pepys, a stickler for order, liked all his 3,000 books to have an even appearance, which he achieved by the use of varying sizes of wooden blocks; others prefer artistic confusion. Library organisation, the perpetual spring cleaning, the weeding, the reclassifying and rearranging, according to principles of colour, topic, size or aesthetics as new titles arrive, is one of the pleasures of owning books.
‘Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books’ by Terry Belanger is only one of many books concerning library organisation. One lunatic scheme he mentions was proposed in an 1863 American book of etiquette which decreed that the perfect hostess will ensure that the works of male and female authors be properly segregated on her book shelves. In all personal collections there exists an invisible category of ‘lost’ books – those stolen, lent and never returned or stupidly not purchased when the opportunity arose. Topping my list are the 1919 edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ illustrated by Harry Clarke (lent to a ‘book keeper’) and WB Yeats’ 1893 three volume ‘Works of William Blake’, left with a bookseller in the Boulevard Haussmann, and costing then, in 1970, no more than dinner for two at Maxims. I might also mention my encounter with a very handsome edition of a Conan-Doyle classic. Inspired by Paolo Uccello’s 1436 funerary monument to Sir John Hawkwood in Florence’s Duomo, I borrowed a copy of Conan-Doyle’s ‘The White Company’ a novel about the English mercenary, from the American Library in Paris. Pasted inside the front cover was a label telling me that the book was a gift from Gene Kelly. Below the label the dancer and movie star had left his signature and the date of his donation, 1951, the year he filmed ‘An American in Paris’. I returned the book with some reluctance.
There are moments of good fortune however. In 1997 Honeybee and I were passing Hatchards, the Piccadilly bookseller, still where it first opened in 1797, and saw a display of JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Honeybee thought his Lordship might like a copy and we inquired within only to be told that the author had insisted the book should not go on sale until after 4pm, when the schools closed. We returned after 4pm and made our purchase. ‘Perhaps’, said the assistant, ‘you would like a signed copy; there’s no extra cost.’ More recently, in the unlikely Sydney suburb of Manly, I came across a first, 1848 edition of Howard Staunton’s ‘The Chess Player’s Handbook’. Staunton was responsible for organising the world’s first International Chess Tournament in 1851; he helped design the chess pieces that are still required for competition and he edited my three volume, 1866 Works of Shakespeare, beautifully illustrated by John Gilbert. Small potatoes, but, nevertheless, a mildly pleasing find.
Part of the attraction for a bibliophile lies in the aroma of leather, bindings, pages, glue and bookmarks. The Nostalgic aroma of old books, that sweetish smell with notes of almond and vanilla, comes from the decomposition of lignin in wood-based paper. So powerful is this scent, with its link to memory, recalling, for the bookish, the pleasures of reading old classics and scouring through second-hand bookshops, that it is now available in bottles. ‘Dead Writers’ perfume, a ‘bookish blend of heliotrope, vetiver, black tea, clove, tobacco, musk and vanilla’, claims to capture ‘the unique olfactory pleasures of old books’. Honeybee, aware of my attraction to the smell of antiquarian literature, now adds a dash of ‘Paper Passion’ behind her ears when she welcomes me home from the local hostelry on a Friday night.
The temperature at which paper combusts is the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in which he writes of a future society where books are banned and burnt if found. There are enough examples throughout history of the suppression of dissent through the incineration of literature to know how likely this is to continue. In 364AD the pagan Library of Antioch was torched on the orders of the Catholic Roman Emperor, Jovian; In France during the 13th century ‘crusaders’ attempted to entirely eradicate the ‘heretic’ culture of the Cathar people by burning their literature; in 1497 followers of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola deemed it necessary to protect the morals of their fellow Florentine citizens by burning every copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron and all works of Ovid found in the city. One of the most notorious book burnings took place in Berlin’s Opernplatz on May 10th 1933 when the Nazis burnt 25,000 works of literature, including those of Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway and Heinrich Heine. Heine’s inscription on the bronze plaque that now marks this infamous spot – ‘Where books are burned in the end people will burn’ – correctly foresaw the present day indiscriminate destruction of human lives, libraries and cultural artefacts by Islamic State
Libraries are temples of high romance; I refer, not to those libraries with Kiddy Korners, rows of PCs, shelves of DVDs and weekend sausage sizzles, but those like The National Art Library at the V & A or, even better, The London Library, whose understated entrance in a quiet part of St James Square takes you into the largest independent lending library in the world. In those aisles of quiet you may sit where Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Darwin, Bram Stoker and Kipling once sat, turning the pages of an incunabulum with your white cotton glove. How good is it that the current President of this most English of institutions is Sir Tom Stoppard, a Czech refugee from Zlin in Moravia. Splendid too the words of Thomas Carlyle, founder of The Library in 1841: ‘All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books’.
Romance is not restricted to a library’s surroundings and the books on its shelves. There is also the feeling, in that mandatory silence, of mysterious possibility, the chance of igniting passion from simple eye contact and the thrill of sliding a billet-doux across the polished mahogany, all with the knowledge that you both share a common passion. Truman Capote understood the romantic association of books when he chose the New York Public Library as the setting for Paul to reveal his feelings of love for Holly Golightly. Giacomo Casanova was a lover of books as well as of women and spent his final years in humble reflection as librarian to a nobleman in Bohemia. Poet and novelist Philip Larkin devoted his whole adult life to quietly administering the contents of the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull.
When book lovers dream they dream of their own particular Holy Grail of literature. Last night I dreamt I was in India. A young guide led me through the urban chaos of some pleasant hill-town and stopped outside an open-fronted shop. Stepping through the haphazard display of bric a brac – tied bundles of old magazines, oil lamps, brass trays and stuffed wildlife – I spied a cardboard box containing a dozen or so books. The price, the proprietor told me, was 250 rupees (about $5) for each book or 200 if I took the lot, a concession I happily agreed to. Back in my hotel I pulled out the treasure I felt sure existed among the otherwise worthless selection of Victorian novels. It was a fine first edition of ‘The Jungle Book’, bound in dark blue buckram with three elephants blocked in gilt on the front cover. Inside was the inscription – Macmillan & Sons 1894, and the author’s signature. The last book in the box, although less desirable, also turned out to be a prize – a first edition of Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads & Other Verses’. Gradually my initial euphoria began to fade. I knew I wasn’t suffering from an attack of Post-Colonial Political Correctness because, like any sane person, I can read ‘Kim’ or Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars’ without feeling distraught at the evident evils of imperialism. What was nagging at my conscience was the thought that I had taken advantage of the kindly seller, for the Jungle Book alone, on the open market, could cost me as much as US$11,000. The dream turned into a nightmare and I woke up. I’m still looking for ‘The Jungle Book’ but I do have a copy of ‘Barrack Room Ballads’.