This piece originally appeared as a post on the Southerly website, where I was guest blogging for Feb 2013.
This post is a little late: the dilatoriness due not to lack of enthusiasm but the fact that I am in the middle of one of life’s cataclysms – moving house. And by ‘moving house’ you know that I, as a writer, primarily mean standing, hands on hips in the middle of my living room, gazing with an abruptly urgent sense of incredulity at the dozen or so tightly packed shelves that form the main decoration of my home. Moving house, in other words, means moving books.
I am a forty year old writer and arts graduate from a bookish family. This suggests correctly that one of my greatest forms of entertainment is logging an inventory of all my books on LibraryThing, the online personal repository of such lists. It is a treat I have been eking out over the past year or so: because it is truly delicious thing to take an armful of slightly dusty books from a shelf, carry them to my desk (it barely occurs to me that I could bring the laptop to the shelf; the opposite is now my delightful ritual) and, one by one, enter the title, author or ISBN into the fields on the screen and find the correct listing; select it; and see an icon of the cover of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot or Out of Sheer Rage float into its place in the virtual library shelf of my inventory. Attending to each volume individually is a way of remembering, revisiting and re-cherishing it. Oh, I’d forgotten One More River, The Greengage Summer and All Quiet on the Western Front! I’d forgotten the treasurehouse of stories and worlds I have sitting so inaudibly around me. I’d forgotten what a splendid collection I have.
On occasion I have been seen to lift one of my neglected beauties and deliver it a rapturous, utterly sincere, literal kiss of love.
So LibraryThing tells me that – so far, and there are a couple of big shelves still to go – I have just over a thousand books. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. Only a thousand! My father claims ten! I’m at capacity for my little apartment; one reason to move home is: more space for books! But now, standing before this mass of items, simultaneously proud and appalled by their number, and contemplating the putting of them into boxes, I understand the weight of my custodianship.
Literally. I have just booked a five-tonne truck.
Now, why not spare yourself this antidiluvian dilemma, people may ask. Why not go digital? I am yet to get an e-reader. (I have an iPad, an old one, but never in my life does it occur to me to pick up its brick-like heft and read a book on it.) Oh god, does this mean I am getting fusty? But I just… don’t want one. Every three months I have regular spasms about getting a Twitter account and a Kindle, and every time I decide to stroll on and wait to see if I need one. So far, no. There is not a single moment in my life when I envy those with tiny little whosis and their creepily vacuous pages. And though my lower back is going to screech about the number of books I am going to lug for the tenth time in my life into a five-tonne truck, there is no fucking way on this earth I would give up my paper books. I’d as soon sleep on the floor. Give up showering. I’d as soon knock out my own teeth.
A few years ago, traveling in Vietnam, I visited the Museum Alexandre Yersin, shrine to one of Vietnam’s most beloved foreign citizens. Monsieur Yersin was a Swiss-French doctor who relocated to Vietnam in the late 19th century for the Institut Pasteur, where he immediately identified the plague bacillus and set about establishing the country’s immunisation programs, saving millions of lives. This is the man who helped stop the black plague. He was an extraordinary man: fearless explorer, anthropologist, pioneering documentary photographer, botanist, agronomist (he introduced rubber and Cinchona—quinine—plants to Vietnam), research scientist and physician. His handsome, bearded, soulful face gazed out of photos with thoughtful eyes, a sensitive mouth, a reticent demeanour. As a student, according to a colleague, he “showed no emotion, except when confronted with the suffering of children.” Evidently a great beardy boffin, he had a taste for technology: brass anemometers, Morse transmitting antennae and a gigantic telescope are in the museum; in 1901 he bought the first car in Indochina; he thought about buying a plane in 1910, only seven years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. He conducted atmospheric readings by kite, owned one of the earliest radio sets in south-east Asia, possessed an alcohol-fuelled bicycle, and regularly took the ‘Air Orient’ route from Indochina, through Syria to France, a journey of many days.
His tenderness to the local people was legendary but, monkish, he loved solitude. And he loved books. His collection is preserved in the museum, and it was for this above all that I fell, for his reading included books on aviation, mountain climbing, physiology, mathematics, radiotelegraphy, geography, military history, the history of England, Bedouin costumery, Homer, navigation, astronomy, Rousseau, a full assemblage of Latin classics. And, for the slow warm humid evenings, something lighter: French translations of Agatha Christie, Walter Scott, Edgar Wallace’s, H. G. Wells’s and Jules Verne’s science fiction, 1001 Nights, and some racier titles such as Les Pirates de la Mer Rouge, La Caravane de la Mort and La Femme aux deux Sourires. Yersin’s armchair is next to the shelves: I pictured him, lean with age, settling down after a long day’s work to lose himself in penny-dreadfuls, their yellow covers cupped in his weathered hands.
This beautiful man was honoured during his lifetime, not least with the impressive ‘Ordre Imperiale du Dragon d’Annam’ by the area’s Emperor, and the Grand Croix in 1935. The Vietnamese have made him into a guardian spirit, and erected a pagoda to his memory. But I think the little museum of his notes, and countless letters to his mother, and those evocative bookshelves, are the best tribute of all.
I fell in love with Yersin for his wonderful eyes (still gazing at me from a postcard portrait in my kitchen—soon to be packed up too) and his library. Through seeing it I could see a part of him – a man long dead, but so present in the constellation of his reading. And I think my reluctance to embrace electronic books is to a large part due to a kind of horror: if all my books are held invisibly (frictionlessly, weightlessly, ineluctably) on some digital device, where no one but a deliberate browser can see them – not the visitor to my home, not the curious fellow-passenger on the train – then how will anyone know who I am?
It’s true that few of my friends need to inspect my bookshelves to know what my preoccupations are – I broadcast them vocally at every meeting. But I look around my home, and my books, and the assemblage of my reading – which is already missing the library books, the discarded books, the loaned books, the lost childhood books, the thousands of newspapers, the abandoned magazines, the ephemeral advertising material that I have read in my forty years – and to me the contents of the shelves are not just ornament, not simply aides memoires, not merely archives, but a literal manifestation of another intricate jewel: my own mind. These books are part of what has made me. They have burnished me, moved me, formed actual tracks in the material of my brain, transformed me and finally, given me their souls.
It seems the least I can do, to carry them gently to a new home, and love them anew there too. Five tonnes? It may not be enough.