Rick Gekoski has spent his life travelling by book. He set out as a little boy with Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hatches The Egg, and found there his life-long love of things that are big, (Horton is an elephant), as well as a better-than-Freud way to read his parents’ marriage: Horton is reliable, wiling and patient, if a little too placid. Mayzie is the flighty bird who would rather be on the coast than egg-brooding in a tree. ‘My father was that sort of elephant, and my mother was that sort of bird.’
Outside of a Dog is a bibliophile’s version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Long distances, great company, and a particular view of the world are the pleasures of this eccentric memoir, where books are transport, in both senses of the word, and destination. One of the paradoxes of reading is that an important book is means and end all together; it takes you somewhere, and it is the somewhere it takes you.
The title comes from Groucho Marx – Outside of a dog, a book is Man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. Rick Gekoski is funny, and it’s delightful to read about serious books and laugh at the same time.
In his days as an academic, Gekoski hated the way that the exuberance of literature, its appetites, its size, was squashed into formula and theory, squeezing out the life- delighting effect of language and a story. He left academia because he was no longer getting pleasure from what he loved; books. Instead he set himself up as a rare book dealer, and found that his passion made him happy again – and more than paid the bills.
There is a wonderful double anecdote about his trip to Graham Greene in Antibes, where Greene can’t believe that Gekoski has just written him a cheque for £35,000 for various manuscripts. Gekoski assures him there will be a good profit, and turns up in Antibes next time in a white Saab convertible.
But when Greene gives him an introduction to Kim Philby’s widow in Russia, the chance of getting the whole Philby archive from 1963-1988, and selling it to the British Library for £60,000, comes to nothing and costs a fortune, as Ruffina Philby consumes vast quantities of Beluga caviar, and knows how to play the game. Gekoski notices that wherever they go they are being followed KGB-style by a ‘portly, slightly florid gentleman, dressed in cravat, spats, a bright waistcoat and a hound’s tooth tweed jacket…. It was the man from Sotheby’s.’
There are plenty of dealing stories, but the weight of Outside of a Dog is in the twenty five books Gekoski chooses as shaping his life. There is nothing ponderous about this; whether it’s Dr Seuss or TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Germaine Greer, or RD Laing, every reading is insightful about the text and moving about people, about the choices we make, about love. Towards the end of the book, Gekoski admits that when he looks over his selection, which has a kind of inevitability for him, he realises that it is all an attempt at understanding love – which surely is the most difficult thing to do, and the most necessary.
He is candid about his failures towards his mother at her death, and in his first marriage. When that marriage ended, his wife Barbara, in one of those divorce acts of guerrilla warfare, refuses to let him back in the house to collect his thousands of books ‘I felt dizzy, nauseous… it prompted the questions, at once psychological and metaphysical: was I still me? Who am I, with no books?’
From that loss followed huge freedom, a freedom I understand because after my mother set fire to my books, I realised that only what is outside of you can be taken away – the library inside is always there.
Gekoski is endearing to read for his childlike enthusiasm for, well, for everything. Talking of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and his own painful analysis, he says that nowadays people obsess about releasing the inner child, but at sixty-four, he is still hoping to find his inner adult.
I suspect he will have to go on looking. One of his favourite books is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, (mine too), and if for whatever reason you have never read Matilda, the sight of Mr Gekoski buying it for his children, then locking himself and the book in the loo on Christmas Day, while his unfortunate offspring camp outside on the carpet, should be enough to send you to the local bookshop right now. As Matilda discovers, books talk to you, and what they say is that however dreadful your circumstances, you are not alone…. In spite of what Matthew Arnold thought.
There is an interesting piece on Arnold’s Dover Beach – the poem Ian McEwen uses at the end of his novel, Saturday, and although the line ‘We mortal millions live alone’ is poignant, it is not true. Gekoski’s search, his passage through his books, is always towards relationship – with ideas, with emotions, with human beings.
Meetings with formidable human beings, such as Germaine Greer and RD Laing are well told, and because Gekoski is essentially a modest man, even the horror stories turn the joke back on him. There is nothing cynical or clever here, just real intelligence and true feeling. – and the sense of humour. That makes him a good companion, and I would be happy, on a long train journey to sit in between Rick and Matilda, the one very big, the other very small, but made of the same stuff.
At a time when reading is under fire, Gekoski reminds us that it has been that way since television began in the 1950’s, but that any book which becomes meaningful is likely to act as a portable detector, and find us other books that will become meaningful too.
I suspect that everyone reading this charming memoir will be writing their own list of twenty five hits on the flyleaf.