It’s really not something I like to do. Everything I’ve ever been or done revolts against the idea. It is like throwing away food: it’s just plain wrong (and another thing I almost never do). But we have far too many, and at 65 I have come to recognise that most will never be read again (assuming they’ve ever been read); not by me, at any rate.
I seriously started collecting books at university. Not just in or about Spanish and Portuguese, the subjects I studied, but any Penguin Classic that came within range: you could easily make a case for a student of 19th-century Iberian literature buying translations of Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Maupassant, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Nerval, Gorky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Verga… but the Upanishads, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Orkneyinga Saga? And all those Loeb Classical texts that every gentleman must have in his library?
After that, those hefty Royal Academy/Tate/V&A/BM catalogues: everything you always wanted to know about Byzantine jewellery, medieval ivory carving, ukiyo-e prints, etc., etc.
When you move house your books arrive in boxes. For the first year or two you place them on bookshelves, diligently respecting your ac hoc choice of classification: by author, by subject, by series, by size. You steadily acquire more books, only rarely disposing of any you have long ceased to dip into; soon your rows of books have additional rows in front of them; they are crammed into whatever spaces you can find; then they sit in piles on any horizontal surface that doesn’t interfere with the workings of everyday life; finally they end up on the stairs, on the floor… and you realise that you’ve lost the plot.
Anne spotted on Twitter that HM Prison Pentonville were asking for book donations because their library was closed owing to you-know-what. She messaged HM Prison Brixton and asked if they would also like some books. Yes, they would. We soon had a large box three-quarters full. I sent a whats-app to my neighbours asking if anyone had a book or two to help fill it… and that’s when it all went wrong. Within a couple of hours we had four heavy boxes and bags on our front path. Whether that shows a generosity of spirit or a desperate desire to shift the “clutter” (while Oxfam is closed) I’m not sure. But it does indicate that I live in a middle-class part of the borough.
No more, I cried
That evening we had a long-overdue thunderstorm. It rained heavily for a couple of hours. In the morning I found another four boxes of very soggy books by the front door. For a week they sat in our front room, drying out. In attempting to dispose of a few dozen books we had acquired 10 times as many.
Given that everyone in the street knew they were destined for prisoners, there were some interesting titles amongst them. I thought I had better do some weeding – initially, as advised, to ensure there were no notes, letters or names and addresses lurking between the pages. It’s rather shocking when you realise how many books (most of those that aren’t of the SF persuasion) concern death and criminals. The great majority I let pass, including the gruesome Holy Bible, but I did remove Crime and Punishment, on the basis that to send that was taking the **** There were a lot about Hitler and the Nazis, though we probably have our school curriculum to blame for that. There was a novel about the six wives of Henry VIII – in German. I wasn’t sure about The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. I’d never heard of it, but on finding out that it had been Man Booker shortlisted I decided to keep it for myself. Similarly, Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima, a man who, I quickly discovered, had had himself ritually beheaded (a cry for help, if ever there was one). To quote from the publisher’s blurb
As a homosexual whose inner life was dominated by images of pain and death, Mishima’s suicide was the ultimate realisation of his fantasy….. [it] takes us deep into the fascinating and terrible world of the sado-masochist homosexual
I read it in a couple of sittings, putting A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk aside for a few days. But as I don’t understand two words of Japanese, whose story was I reading? The translator was Meredith Weatherby, who seems to have been an interesting chap. I also discovered that Yukio Mishima’s name was not “Yukio Mishima”.
So there I crouched, playing the prison censor, deciding which books were appropriate for the inmates, and knowing that any book that failed my ill-formed criteria would either become part of my collection (remember the original issue?) or risk going into the bin – perhaps to be genuinely recycled by an intellectual binman. I don’t doubt that there are many of those.
Anyway, we eventually took the books to the prison. As I’ve said before, it is a grim place – even on a sunny day. To avoid the security hassle, we attempted to have them collected, but they apparently had a problem finding someone who could drive. (We realised that this whole operation was being handled by one person, who was also responsible for running the radio service, social media and doubtless much else. But what do I know?)
Delivering a carload of books is a blunt instrument when it comes to effecting social change, but if even a couple of men get some value out of reading a book or two, I’ll be content.
So… it’s three weeks since I wrote my last blog post. No excuses; I’ve been indolent even by my standards. It’s not that I haven’t done anything, but more a mental fatigue likely brought on by lack of sleep owing to the early sunrise and oppressive heat. Or boredom with the whole idea of staying put. I appear to have offered two excuses after all – sorry again.
A holiday would be nice
Facebook reminds me that exactly a year ago we were sitting on a balcony in Thessaloniki overlooking the city and the sea. And the weather, very oddly, was just the same.