|The books we choose to keep
Publication: The Times : Books
My recent reservations about the ReaditSwapit site, where readers can swap books they have read for ones they have not read, has been interpreted by its founder as my behind-the times terror of the Internet. I do not think he has visited my website.
Anyway, this week we are not worrying about how writers are going to make a living, picking among the royalty-rubble of promotions and discounts, or the cowrie-shell world of internet swaps. This week is not about the books we want to lose, but the books we choose to keep.
If you were Prospero fleeing through the tempest to your unpeopled island, what books would go with you?
Marketing frenzies, like the BBC Big Read, and our current obsession with LISTS – Hundred Best Books Beginning with A, Ninety Nine Top Ten Classics Written by Great Britons, tell us nothing about the private life of books. The private life of books is what happens when ordinary readerly enthusiasm gives way to silence; to talk about such books at all would involve confession. When we give such a book to a new friend or a new lover, or a child who is growing up, we are giving away part of ourselves. Books are good at keeping our secrets. Sharing certain books is like telling a secret. Often it is like telling a secret in code.
This can be obvious – E M Forster’s Maurice, for instance, was given to me as a teenager in dreadful dreary Accrington, by someone who wanted me to know that they were on my side.
I gave Antoine de St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince to someone I loved because I wanted them to understand that ‘you are responsible forever for that which you tame.’
Less obviously, I recently gave the Chronicles of Narnia to my god-child, not to save her from the awfulness of the movie, but because she needs to know that Aslan is not a tame lion. Make of that what you will.
Often, it is a question of sensibility. The books we love say something about us, and about our friends. Scanning someone’s bookshelf can tell you as much as reading their diary. The quickest way to intimacy is not to share a bed or a holiday, but to share a book.
There will always be awful rows and disagreements, and only you can decide whether another’s failure to love your favourite book is a moral defect, or an eccentricity you can abide, like train spotting.
What is certain is that we could no more be parted from the books we love than be parted from ourselves. It’s not even a question of re-reading them often. I like to touch their spines from time to time, or pull out a page here and there, and just look at it for pleasure. When I’m in a mess, I go to my books, and out of the fairly large number I like to have around me, there are a few that are as close as any living friend. ‘What shall I do?’ I ask, and there is always an answer, though not always the answer I want.
‘Knowing that I loved my books…’says Prospero, who has used them as crystal balls and magic wands, for the simple reason that they are both. We keep our books about us because they are a way of re-reading the past and re-writing the future. The straight line of experience is confounded by the imaginative line of a book. Things are never what they seem, which allows a certain freedom. It is easy for life to lock us in. Opening a book often opens a door.
The transforming possibilities of books are well-known. We all have books that have changed our lives in some way, and the great thing is that we will find such books again, even ones that have not been written yet. Knowing that there are favourite books still to come is a continuing happiness. Who knows? It might be today or tomorrow.
Am I suspicious of people who have few books? Well, yes, I am, not because I wonder if they are shallow and stupid, but because with such people I don’t know how to read between the lines.
I always ask people about their favourite books, and I don’t care if it’s Noddy in Toyland, as long as there is something to say about it. In fact, Orlando the Marmalade Cat is certainly a book I would take with me in the life and death struggle. What about you?
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