BOOKLUST

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.  

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Book of 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood. Errol Flynn splendid in red tights

 

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Buffalo Bill Annual from 1949

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.

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Michael Ayrton’s dust jacket and illustration for Poems of Death 1945

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.

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Art books arranged by size & colour

 

‘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.

 

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Paolo Uccello’s portrait of Sir John Hawkwood  in the Florence Duomo

 

 

 

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.

 

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An illustration from The Chess Player’s Handbook

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Staunton’s 1866 edition of Shakespeare

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

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My copy of Dante, illustrated by George Grosz whose works were burnt in 1933

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’.

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The very elegant and atmospheric London Library

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’.

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The Romantic side of Empire

 

LEAVING

Leaving is intensely satisfying. That journey to a distant destination may well be the best part of a vacation; the taxi to the airport the happiest moment. Even leaving home to go to work to a job you hate carries with it possibilities for new outcomes, unobtainable if you call in sick and stay indoors. Always better to be the leaver than the left behind, the abandoner rather than the abandoned. Odysseus had a tough time, first fighting the Trojans and then encountering all manner of obstacles during his 10 year journey home. But at least he was experiencing novelty; poor Penelope spent those years just waiting and knitting.

There are many poems about leaving; here are four from the pen of four disparate poets. The first, by Constantine Cavafy, a Greek journalist and petty civil servant – a Byzantine Philip Larkin – writing in Alexandria in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, his poems unpublished during his lifetime. The settings for his work are the warm, pagan sites of ancient Greece and Egypt, his characters mythological Gods, heroes of the Golden Age and perfumed Ottoman boys.

Here he deals with the very island in the Ionian Sea that was Odysseus’ destination, in this case perhaps a symbol for the hunger for life or ‘rare excitement’, without which we fail to live. To reach Ithaka, you have to leave Ithaka. Not everyone gets to leave Ithaka; not everyone wants to leave Ithaka; there are those that remain unimpressed by the sound of the outward bound.

As you set out for Ithaka
Hope the voyage is a long one,
Full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
Angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
You’ll never find things like that on your way
As long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
As long as a rare excitement
Stirs your spirit and you body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
Wild Poseidon – you wont encounter them
Unless you bring them along inside your soul,
Unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one,
May there be many a summer morning when,
With what pleasure, what joy,
You come into harbours seen for the first time,
May you stop at Phoenician trading stations
To buy fine things,
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
Sensual perfume of every kind –
As many sensual perfumes as you can;
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
To gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind
Arriving there is what you are destined for,
But do not hurry the journey at all
Better if it lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey,
Without her you would not have set out,
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka wont have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

This next poem, ‘Christmas Day at Sea’, is by Robert L Stevenson, written in that unique style that seems to appeal to both young and old. Like D H Lawrence he was physically delicate, sought the sun and died young. Like Lawrence it took many years before his qualities as novelist, travel writer and poet were recognized. Between 1888 and 1890 he sailed the South Pacific finally settling on Opolu in the Samoan group of islands where he renamed himself “Tusitala” (Storyteller). “I wish”, he wrote, “to die in my boots; no more Land of the Counterpane for me.” He got his wish in December 1894. He had already written his own epitaph (1), which the Samoans translated and apparently still sing in the islands. The son of a lighthouse architect, Stevenson understood the difficult shores of England. Here a young sailor leaves home for the first time, the difficulty with which the ship beats away from a lee shore reflecting the pain of separation from the only life he knew. But we know, instinctively, that his was the hard but right decision.

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And the cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ‘twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For every life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made brought the North Head close aboard:
So we saw the cliffs and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every long shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you (of all the days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way
To be hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light and the dark began to fall
“All hands to loose the top-gallant sails’ I heard the Captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it’ our first mate, Jackson, cried,
’It’s the one thing or the other, Mister Jackson’, he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward, just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Rudyard Kipling is no longer popular, condemned by the politically correct for his subject of an Empire too recent to be held in the same regard as the Roman, his name now more commonly associated with mince pies. Nevertheless, in ‘The Feet of the Young Men’, he writes compellingly of the ‘Red Gods’ that call us from tepee, hut, house and condo in a pilgrimage of discovery.

He must go – go – go away from here!
On the other side the world he’s overdue.
‘Send your road is clear before you when the old
Spring-fret comes o’er you
And the Red Gods call for you!

It’s a longish poem and, apart from the above quoted refrain, I submit one verse only as a taster for Kipling’s description of the lure of a then, largely untraveled world.

So for one the wet sail arching through the rainbow round the bow,
And for one the creak of snow-shoes on the crust;
And for one the lakeside lilies where the bull-moose waits the cow,
And for one the mule-train coughing in the dust.
Who hath smelt wood-smoke at twilight? Who
hath heard the birch-log burning?
Who is quick to read the noises of the night?
Let him follow with the others, for the Young
Men’s feet are turning
To the camps of proved desire and known delight!

Can a poet, who spent most of her short life in the solitude of her bedroom, communicating largely by post, immersed in a herbarium, explain the excitement of leaving, of the ‘first league out from land’? In her poem ‘Exultation is the Going,’ frail, morbid, agoraphobic Emily Dickinson captures, and I can only use her own words, the ‘divine intoxication’ of departure. I understand that the devout Emily is referring to the passage of the soul after death, but I will take it for the metaphor she uses.

EXULTATION is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands,
Into deep eternity!

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

***

‘Ithaka’ is from C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; Princeton University Press, 1975, 1992.

‘Christmas at Sea’ (as well as Requiem – Under the Wide & Starry Sky) are from ‘Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson’. Chatto & Windus; London, 1913.

‘The Feet of the Young Men’ is from ‘The Five Nations’ by Rudyard Kipling;
Methuen & Co. London, 1905

‘Exultation is the Going’ is from ‘The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson’; Little, Brown; Boston 1924

(1)             Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the hunter home from the hill
And the sailor home from the sea.