Friday, 10 January 2014

The Books Are To Remind Us What Asses And Fools We Are

Apparently my career can now be reduced to two words: 'fire hazard'. 

My shared office was just inspected for untested electrical equipment and hazards. They found some interesting stuff, like an integrated TV/VHS player I'd never noticed sitting on top of a bookcase. The printers didn't impress them either, despite being new and in daily use. But most of all, the tools of my trade (Weapons of Mass Instruction) shocked my visitors. It's true that I have a lot of books, and a lot of them are in the office, but it did feel slightly depressing to hear them discussed as a threat rather than as the means to a better (rather than 'next' life). All very Fahrenheit 451 especially in a university!

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. 
There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.
The next comment was 'I bet you're unmarried. Or divorced', which I thought was quite funny. 

It's true that there are a lot of books here, but there are also a lot of uncollected essays and I don't hear anybody offering to take those off my hands. Still, it could be worse. I've had students describe purchasing and retaining books as 'stupid…like my mum' and more than one has told me that s/he doesn't like reading. Having a lot of books in the office isn't just convenient and necessary for work: it's performative. It's good for reading-resistant students to see us working with books, enjoying books, appreciating them. I wouldn't want them to fetishise the book as an artefact (collectors are a royal pain, little better than train-spotters) but I do think cherishing physical books is an attribute to encourage.

I admit that a large number of books can be overwhelming. My flat has very little in the way of artwork on the walls because most of the space is taken up by cheap Ikea shelving. I too occasionally look round and desire clean, uncluttered, minimalist lines. Or at least somewhere I can hang the stacks of framed prints currently residing in an office corner: a 70s pop-art poster of Angela Davis

I can't find a version of my Davis poster online, but this is fairly close

the Tree of Literature and Renaissance Tree (in Danish), 

a batik seascape given to me by a friend, 6 reproductions of classic CND posters and David Jones' Cara Wallia derelicta:

I would like to live neatly and tidily, but not at the expense of the books and objects that make up my personal history. I find minimalist design sinister, like a Speer building: forbidding, life-denying and inhumane. Life's messy. We acquire things. Some are lost along the way. Some of the significant things may not be beautiful, streamlined or convenient (like my sorry carcass) but they're what we are. I couldn't imagine disposing of books, even the ones I've hated or struggled with. One day I might read them differently, and even if I don't, my feelings about them are part of me. I have an iPad and I can see the attraction of carrying texts around electronically. Light, clean, efficient – but there's more to a book than the marks on a page. I like the inscriptions, the leaflets that fall out of my Left Book Club volumes, my handwriting (and others') in the margins, the nicks and marks that turn a medium into a message. 

I couldn't cast a book out into a cruel and indifferent world, to fall into the hands of some unthinking lout! Just today I received a copy of Muriel Jaeger's 1926 utopian novel The Question Mark. Jaeger was an interesting author of a handful of SF novels and a lot of non-fiction, published by the Woolfs and associated with Dorothy L Sayers, Winifred Holtby and other intellectual Oxford women of the 1920s. My copy is special in another way too. It has an owner's tag:

Maybe it's just because I'm a boring unattractive fire hazard, but that makes this book special. It's crossed the Atlantic, it's spent decades in a place I'll never visit (except when I read The Wizard of Oz and its sequels) and it belonged to someone interesting. Professor O'Leary wasn't just a provincial teacher: he spent time at Oxford University, his wife was a leading Jewish intellectual activist and his son was a prolific sports writer and journalist. Perhaps he wrote about The Question Mark or just enjoyed it, but he was clearly a man interested in the future at a time between two apocalyptic wars when hope was in short supply. I don't know when the University of Kansas decided that it didn't need his books any more, but there's a cultural history tied up in just this one book. I look around all the other books I can see from this desk and see not just the texts and their authors, but phases in and aspects of my own life so far. Anthologies and textbooks for teaching, critical works waiting for assessment, my recently-acquired pile of Beverley Nichols novels atop the rest of my posh-30s buys (Laver, Powell, Connolly, Bryan Guinness, the Mitfords) designed to widen my experience past the proletarian novelists I know most about. There's a pile of books about Anne of Green Gables from a previous research moment, unread journals staring me in the face, rows of texts bought online during fascinating conference presentations in a rush of enthusiasm… you get the picture. 

Every so often I tidy up, and I've read more books than I've bought. I feel for my colleagues in the office who have to share space with me. But they'll have to dig me out of a book-fort before I'll let them take away these extensions of myself. And anyway, I'm not as bad as two of my colleagues. I helped one move office. After emptying one bookcase and taking down the book wall behind it, I was shocked to discover a previously unknown window. The other one had to dispose of part of his collection because a surveyor said his house's structural joists were giving way. Until my books threaten the physical integrity of the university, they're staying here! 

One final quotation from Fahrenheit 451:
The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They're Caeser's praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, "Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal." Most of us can't rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven't time, money or that many friends. The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book. Don't ask for guarantees. And don't look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were headed for shore.


Anonymous said...

The solution = bigger house :o)


Kat said...

Having a similar competition between books and art for wall space I am considering screwing the artworks to the ceilings. It seems to work for the Sistine Chapel.