I Murdered My Library (Kindle Single), page 1
I Murdered My Library
Copyright © 2014 by Linda Grant
I Murdered My Library
I am moving house. I am moving from the spacious flat I have lived in for 19 years, a corner house very bright and full of windows, a place of flights of stairs and landings and hallways, no room on the same level as another. A quirky flat that no-one but me wanted to buy in 1994, but an awful lot of it, from the yellow rose bush round the front door to the attic and eaves. There has always been space for more books; you could tuck in a few shelves in all kinds of places. I had them built when I moved here, by a carpenter called Crispin. It was his last job in London before he moved to Somerset and faded from my sight. ‘These aren’t going anywhere,’ he said, as he applied brackets to the wall that have made the bookcases difficult to remove. Over the years I have had to paint round them.
But however many shelves Crispin built there were still never enough. The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs; I had to vacuum round them. You cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books.
Many books are in my office; they are in a stand-off with technology as to which can take up more space, and aggravate and inconvenience me more. Who hasn’t crawled under the desk to disconnect a plug to attach some new gadget, and fused the reading lamp?
The books line three sides of the room. A niche was left facing the window to accommodate an armchair for the purposes of daydreaming, drinking tea and wishing I still smoked cigarettes. Most of these office books are fiction, arranged alphabetically by author, with a separate shelf for the Greek and Latin classics: for Homer, Ovid, Aristophanes and Herodotus. Outside, up a flight of stairs, the second landing houses mainly hardback biography (Dickens, George Eliot, Eleanor Roosevelt, Coco Chanel). The third landing is the repository for other non-fiction – top shelf the Holocaust, next shelf travel writing, bottom shelf fashion monographs. The Vietnam war has its own section. In the bedroom, a freestanding bookcase shelves current reading or to-be-reads. Lost books hide under the bed, cohabiting with drifting dust balls, straying pens and old, snotty tissues from colds and flu.
As well as the treasures, there are books I did not particularly care for, but kept anyway, or the books I bought but never read, or the books I started but did not finish, and put away in case I wanted to come back to them. The review copies, the books sent by hopeful publishers entreating a jacket quote, and the non-fiction which I kept in the era before the internet, in case I ever needed to look up biographical details about, say, Oscar Levant, or Augustus John, or Vera Brittain. There are books that are evidence of past passions in which I no longer feel much interest (travel writing comes into this category), and the monumental-in-size coffee-table volumes on fashion. But I nonetheless have shelved them all.
And I have kept, because I didn’t know what else to do with them, dozens of copies of my own books. Publishers generously – or maybe maliciously – send authors boxes of each imprint: first the proof, then the hardback, then the paperback, and subsequently each reprint of the paperback, each re-jacketing. The deal is part of the contract. We are supposed to give them away to our friends and family, but I suffer from English embarrassment. I can’t press my books into the hands of others (still less follow up with, ‘So, what did you make of it?’). Boxes of books (proof, hardback, paperback) cross the Atlantic from Scribner and Dutton and Grove. Foreign language editions arrive from Italy, France, Germany, China and Brazil. The husband of a famous novelist told me they kept hers under the bed. Another writer said he buried his in the garden. From inky words, roses rise. Some writers carry them round with them when they go to readings and literary festivals, and flog them for cash, but I don’t have either the car or the chutzpah. I have made use of my attic eaves for all these years, where books hunched amongst the inflated Swiss ball and dumbbells (unused), the guest futon, the suitcases and the packing case containing items I had not got round to opening since I moved here in 1994.
No books in the living room. Those walls are reserved for pictures, although it is the site where the reading actually takes place.
For many weeks before I left the building, I sorted them out. The decision about what would stay and what would go, live or die, began with kindness, and ended in rage and ruthlessness. I have a pair of library steps I bought in an antiques shop in Cornwall and schlepped back to London, and I climbed them every afternoon and scanned the shelves. What I saw, swelling with self-important pride, was evidence of how I had constructed my own intellectual history through reading. Here is Proust. Here is Jean Rhys. Here is Milton. Here isn’t Henry James, because I have never been able to remember the beginning of his sentences by the time I get to the end.
Here is J.K Rowling, here is Jilly Cooper. This is a library which tells you everything about its owner, which doesn’t conceal the shameful reads, the low taste. Here are first editions, bought at abe.com, of my childhood favourites, the Sadlers Wells ballet and riding books of Lorna Hill, which taught me about ambitious, arty girls from Northumberland who went to London, became prima ballerinas, married conductors and lived in smart flats in a St John’s Wood mansion block with a service restaurant. The building actually exists; I’m still waiting for the bestseller that would allow me to be able to afford to live there amongst what I imagine to be tightly-upholstered sofas and hostess trolleys.
Here is my copy of the first paperback edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, the cover almost disconnected from the spine, and inscribed with my name: ‘Linda Sharan Grant, February 1969’. Here are my dictionaries, my thesaurus, and here, occupying a whole shelf, are the complete works of Dickens, every book he wrote including the overlooked (rightly so) Barnaby Rudge and those Christmas stories that aren’t A Christmas Carol. I did my MA on Dickens and these paperbacks are over-scribbled with notes and underlinings. The glory of the library for me is how many of the books are in poor physical condition. They are books that have been read and read intensely. They are knocked about and shopworn. I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken.
Here are books that were birthday presents, with inscriptions in the front from dear friends; some of those friends are no longer living, and some names I can’t even decipher (or I have forgotten who they were) – but they have tried to form a bond with me through the medium of a book. Here is a copy of the first paperback edition of Tom Stoppard’s only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr Moon, published in 1966, which nobody but me has ever heard of. Sir Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the cover drizzled with spilt candlewax, an accident which took place at university in 1974. An American first edition of Bleak House bought for me at the end of the seventies as a breaking-up present by a man – an apology for going back to his wife.
First editions of the forgotten American poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, some of which you can only buy in first editions, for they were never reprinted. A Hogarth Press fifth edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Years, still with its maroon and acid-yellow dustjacket designed by Vanessa Bell. I bought it (and a number of other books) with an £8 book token, a prize for winning a poetry competition. Many a long year lost, though, is the paperback of The Waves which Leonard Woolf signed and sent to me after I wrote to Virginia Woolf, unaware that she was no longer alive. It arrived in the post on my 17th birthday.
There may not have been a better time in history for a teenager to begin to build a library than the sixties, the
In the middle of my move I was watching a documentary called The Flat. A family was clearing out the Tel Aviv apartment of a 97-year-old woman who had recently died, a home in which she had lived for 70 years since arriving there from Germany in the thirties. The walls of the flat were lined with books published in her native language. Her grandson called in an antiquarian book dealer. He took the volumes down off the shelf and hurled them with force to the floor. ‘No-one reads Balzac,’ he said. ‘No-one reads Shakespeare, nobody wants Goethe. Know how many books they throw away in Germany?’
The books were unwanted and unsalable. The film-maker spared us the horror of their fate. Where did they go? Into the rubbish? Burned? Pulped? Holy of holies, the printed book – and not even mass-market paperbacks. The leather-bound classic on the pyre of the obsolete.
Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics. Their fingers itch to build a pyre and strike the match. On 10 May 1933, students gathered in Berlin to dance around a bonfire of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books. They burned, amongst many others, Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Heinrich Heine, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and H.G. Wells. They destroyed them because the contents were too dangerous. Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no-one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but also of disposable living and small houses.
And I too have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.
The little girl who lay in bed, a circle of illumination on the sheets from her toadstool nightlight, afraid to go to sleep because her Struwwelpeter picture book lay next to her in the dark confinement of the ottoman with her toys, frightened of the scissor man who cuts off the thumbs of children who suck them – that small person, who even before she could read understood the power of a book, has just liquidated half her own.
This isn’t me. I am the adult outcome of the shy, awkward, only child, who instead of running around outside in the garden, or clambering on dangerous arrangements of slide and swing in the playground, or slapping bats against balls, or skipping down a muddy lane, preferred above all else, as I still do, to stayed indoors and read. Only children are no good socially. (A sister came along after eight years, but by then the habits of solitude were set in the bone.) I found in books my friends and my fantasy lands, and never looked to fiction for social realism, or expected books to tell me about the life I led in suburban Liverpool, with immigrant parents who muttered in an obscure tongue, and in the kitchen made sure to find a use for every part of the chicken.
I was enraptured by what disgruntled readers now refer to as matters ‘not relevant to my personal experience’. By girls who wanted to become ballerinas and show jumpers – though I was clumsy on my feet, and terrified of horses’ steaming flanks and iron hooves. Edwardian children who walked up the Cromwell Road in London, and imaginary creatures who lived in the sand. I was overly-familiar with chairs that flew, with wardrobes that led to snowy woods, and holes in the ground with hobbits in them. In books was life! The great life!
I was the girl whose face fell when she saw a wrapped present in the shape of a box, perhaps a jigsaw puzzle. Worst of all, that preparation for the future slave-house of motherhood, a doll. I only wanted book tokens or books themselves – but better a book token. The worst present is the book you don’t want to read.
My parents weren’t great readers. They liked the American and the racy. Damon Runyon for my father, Harold Robbins for my mother. Both left school without qualifications and made their way in the world through hairdressing. They bought a TV in 1953 to watch the Coronation, the first real spectacle of the dawning television age. The set came as a walnut cabinet the size of a sideboard, inset with a blurry black-and-white postage-stamp screen, through which the Woodentops, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, and Ragtag and Bobtail peered out onto our floral carpets and line of Toby jugs. Transmission did not start until teatime, and there was a break, during which the screen went dark, so housewives could get the dinner on. Mostly you had to rely on the wireless for in-house entertainment.
After lunch, when housewives torpidly settled down with a cup of tea after the exhaustion of carpet-beating and mangling sheets, we children were preoccupied with the delightful voice of Daphne Oxenford. She emitted and emoted out of our leather-bound Roberts Radio, enquiring if one was sitting comfortably (preferably on Mummy’s lap) while she read you a story.
Apart from that, there was absolutely nothing else to do but read or play in the cul-de-sac with other children. I didn’t like playing. I didn’t like games and running and balls and hide and seek. Supposing I hid and no-one came to find me? I liked dressing up and make-believe. But only children don’t understand how to organise play. Lying on the bed with a book was simple, direct and took you into a world of friends who didn’t jump out at you from behind a tree or scream, ‘YOU SMELL’. I learned my social skills from books. If they’re wrong, blame literature. Blame Becky Sharp who got ahead and Catherine Morland whose imagination was too big for her circumstances.
I can’t remember learning to read. I do remember a moment in the kindergarten classroom when the teacher wrote something on a blackboard and asked us if we knew what the letters were. Fragments of a sentence grew out into the room, but not all the words had meanings. Still, I think I must have forged forwards in literacy because there was nothing else to do all day. Reading wasn’t my religion – it was my oxygen.
Aged around six or seven, I began to build my library. This earliest collection consisted of two plaster-of-Paris horse-head bookends facing each other on the window ledge, surrounded by wallpaper with repeating rose patterns. They held in an expanding row of dustjacketed hardbacks from W.H. Smith and Puffin paperbacks. Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree and The Wishing-Chair gave way in time to her Malory Towers boarding school series and The Secret Seven. I have just spent 40 minutes trying to track down any reference to a book which greatly influenced me called, I believe, A Star in the Hand. Nothing. I read the Bobbsey Twins books from America, first published in 1904, and written by a syndicate of writers under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope, reaching 72 volumes before the series was finally canned in 1979. I re-read on many occasions the Jill series, starting with Jill’s Gymkhana, by Ruby Ferguson, whose chief character, the eponymous Jill, was the horse-mad child of a widowed writer who buys her a pony out of her advance royalties. There was a slightly ominous quality to Jill’s progression through the series, with secretarial training beginning to loom as she approached school-leaving age.
Eventually my parents bought me a bookcase. The challenge was to fill all three shelves. Lines of Penguins began to advance purposefully across them, already anticipating the handiwork of Crispin. In time, those orange spines were toned down by the smart grey minimalism of the Penguin Modern Classic. Ambitiously, I began to add the forbidding black editions of the Penguin Classics. Aged 13, I bought and read Crime and Punishment without understanding a word, but the evidence of the cracked black spine was there on the shelf to show that I had waded through it.
Bookshops were temples, places of worship. I started out in the children’s section of W.H. Smith on Allerton Road, which was imminently to become famous for its landmarks noted in the lyrics of the song ‘Penny Lane’. I moved on, when I was old enough to be allowed to get the bus into town on my own, to Philip, Son and Nephew, a warren of a place on several floors of a Georgian house, the Foyles of the North-West. Then Lewis’s department store opened a Penguin bookshop on a mezzanine. They gave away catalogues of the complete
A dazzle of turquoise lit up the shelves. Defiantly intellectual and provocative non-fiction titles exploded in the mind of a suburban Jewish teenager. Homosexuality by D.J. West, price three shillings and sixpence, with an ominous band of black, rising to iron grey below a clear white space encasing the title. The anti-psychiatry bible, The Divided Self, by R.D. Laing, in which I learned that the mad were sane and the sane mad, and that schizophrenia was all the fault of your family. Pelican’s trenchant, mission-to-educate-and-explain series was an explosion of radicalism amongst the department store’s tea towels and floral housecoats, an official visitation north by Portland Place and Hampstead intellectuals through the medium of the mass-market paperback.
A girl I was at school with went to a brand-new concrete-campus university, and in the age of revolution became a Trotskyist. This leap into the communist era had an immediate effect on me, not in terms of the content of my reading, but because she taught me that it was a revolutionary act, a moral act, to ‘liberate books from their capitalist oppressors’.
I had a long black hairy Moroccan cloak with a hood, purchased in the Lanes in Brighton. The cloak was the perfect device for restoring the economic balance from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. Or, to steal books from Philip, Son and Nephew and take them home to my parents’ suburban detached house, whose gardens overlooked allotments with a rockery and rose bushes at the front. I stole books for quite a long time – three or four years. I stole them because I wanted them. I wanted books in a junkie kind of way. I had begun to want any books at all.
When I left home, I bought Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsit, and learned how to make zabaglione on a table-top Baby Belling cooker, fed by shillings in the meter. I progressed to Elizabeth David’s Provençal Cooking, and tackled the challenges of quiche Lorraine and French onion soup. Almost everything you needed to know or learn came from books, and the rest could be picked up at the Rimmel counter in Woolworths, where they taught you how to spit onto a solid block of mascara and work the mini-toothbrush over it to turn your eyelashes into sticky black clumps.
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