Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Fragments stored against my ruin…

I passed a happy lunch hour chatting to senior colleagues about books, plays and our previous discussion about the place of intellectuals in public life (join in here). We talked about what we do with books after we've read them. I must confess to never giving away books, even ones I haven't enjoyed and don't plan to re-read. Partly that's because I'm a grasping, selfish hoarder, but it's not the only reason. The main reason is because I'm fully on-board with the claim that there's no stable, true self. That we pretend to ourselves that there's a 'real' me as a psychological defence.

It follows then that I shouldn't be allowed to take decisions on behalf of my future selves. The clothes I wear, the food I eat and the books I read are contingent on my current condition. It's true for you too: look at a photograph of yourself from 5 years ago and explain why you've changed your hair style. Food's a problem too: I can - and do - stuff my face with curry now, and the effects will be felt in a few years' time. It's like putting obesity in a time machine.

But that's all by the way. With books, I know that the ones I enjoy now won't necessarily be the ones I appreciate in a few years' time. Similarly, texts I can't stand now may mean a lot to me when I'm in a different situation: older, hopefully wiser, more experienced. When I was a teen, I hated Dickens. I tried again in my twenties and really appreciated Hard Times. In my thirties, I grew to understand Great Expectations. At the rate of one book a decade, I'll only have to live to 340 to be a genuine fan. Other authors' works have fallen by the wayside: I was such a fan of Tolkien that I joined the fan club in my mid-teens. Now I'm horrified. The same goes for Robert Heinlein. So I try to be a bit clever: like a squirrel storing nuts for winter, I think about reading material for future decades.

So the books I buy aren't for contemporary-me. They're presents for future-me. He may not have any money for books. He may not want these ones, or he may really appreciate them. I just hope he hasn't gone blind… He's me, with evolved tastes, hopefully derived from all these gifts. In a sense, I'm imprisoning him in my current tastes: surrounded by my things, he'll have to conform - and therefore be understood by himself and others as a continuance of past-me, which is current-me (for further elucidation, consult Back to the Future). Future-Vole is in many ways a much more intellectual and interesting person than Current-Vole. He reads 'classics' and learned works covering a wide range of subjects. Future-me is an erudite polymath: he's the idealised version of me. Now-Vole is a lazy man who consumes books for instant gratification. When the post comes, the fun books are read immediately. The 'improving' books are carefully stored in piles for Future-Vole. Carefully-visible piles, that is. I benefit from his eventual erudition by gaining respect from friends and colleagues when they poke through my shelves. I never let on that they're not for Now-Me, or even Near-Future me. 

I have friends who seem to live solely on the literary equivalent of foie gras, or wheatgrass smoothies, whereas I snack constantly on the paper equivalent of kebabs and pork scratchings. I know it'll make me bloated and static, but that's for Future-Me to worry about. Do you ever suffer from book insecurity? Anyone who comes to my flat inspects my 322 feet of books, and probably comes away thinking I'm a lazy middlebrow dumbass. The poetry shelves are tucked away in the bedroom, the critical theory is mostly at work, and what's on view is a mish-mash of SF, politics and random stuff. Then I remember that literary fiction is just one more (dying) genre, and that the Canon is dead. But it's not too convincing.

Here's a good bit from The Tempest:

There thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books; or with a log
Batter his skull; or paunch him with a stake;
Or cut his weasand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books, for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command. They all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
He has brave utensils—for so he calls them—
Which when he has a house, he’ll deck withal.

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