Alphabet 1

Alphabetisation is a necessary evil. Discuss.

I remember visiting a man once – Manfred, I believe, was his name – and, whilst waiting for him to return from the cellar (I was a vinolent fellow in those days, and made social contacts on the basis of wine cellars) I took the opportunity to look over his record collection. I spent five minutes scanning the first of what I imagined to be a series of alphabetised shelves. I moved onto the second – and then the third. That was it for this room, and yet every record I’d seen so far was by a band or composer beginning with the letter ‘A’. If he had three shelves of ‘A’ alone, how many records did he own?

That’s it,’ he replied, anticipating my question. He had a frightening habit of doing this.

He uncorked something from the South-East of France: ‘Yes, oh yes, oh yes. That’s the lot of them. The whole bang lot. Lock, stock and barrel. Every pickle in the jar. Every guppy in the tank.’

‘Explain,’ said I.

‘I will,’ said he. And he did.

It was a simple explanation. He had started collecting records at a young age, systematically, giving every band its due. He didn’t like to make opinions based on the opening chords; on one or two listens only. He liked, nay needed, to take his time. It’s better to know a few things well than a lot of things hardly well enough. This was his philosophy and is, to a certain extent, mine also (derived, you will not be surprised to hear, from Johannes Speyer). Working this way, it was no surprise he’d never got beyond ‘A’. There were new bands and new composers beginning with ‘A’ appearing all the time. I never met him again, but I’d be highly surprised to hear that he ever found his way to ‘B’.

Roughly nine and a half years after this encounter, I published a work called Gogol to Galsworthy: A Rhapsody in G, a broad study of European literature, discounting texts by writers whose surname did not begin with the letter ‘G’. There’s a small bookshop in Hamburg with a stockroom full of copies (the owner would be thrilled to part with one).

About thirteen years after this I published my list of Greatest Novels by Contemporary European Writers (two for each letter of the alphabet). You’ve probably heard of it. In the introduction to this list, despite my evident refusal to eschew it, I mused with due negativity upon the horrors of the alphabetical approach.

Now I am busy working on an index to Underneath the Bunker – an alphabetically based index, of course. As much as I dislike the alphabet as a classificatory system, I never seem able to spurn it. I am held in its thrall, like a monkey under hypnosis.


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