Rather Like Birds

‘To keep his books Cosimo constructed a kind of hanging bookcase, sheltered as best he could from rain and nibbling mouths. But he would continuously change them around, according to his studies and tastes of the moment, for he considered books as rather like birds which it saddened him to see caged or motionless.’ (Italo Calvino, Baron in the Trees)

This passage raises two important issues: that of keeping books outside, and that of keeping books on the move. As one would expect, Johannes Speyer had something to say on both these points.

Firstly: the great outdoors. Should or shouldn’t one run the risk of leaving a book to the natural elements? I know people who wince whenever they pass booksellers taking their precious wares onto the pavement. This is, to them, an act of pure cruelty. What if it rains or snows? Even the sun can bleach a book cover. No, it doesn’t bear thinking about…

But consider it from the book’s point of view. It’s nice to take a breather once in a while; to feel the wind caress your earlobes like the tip of a squirrel’s tail. What novel wouldn’t like to feel a soft breeze ruffling through its back pages? A tricky question to answer – unless your name is Johannes Speyer. ‘Books belong outside,’ he told me several times: ‘it’s the only place for them’. Shortly before his death he began an essay on this very subject. Alas, Dickens Amongst the Leaves was never completed. What it argued, however, is that literature, like living things, needs air. It needs to be exercised in order to work its spell. ‘Take a book for a walk,’ is yet another of Speyer’s famous sayings – but it holds true.

This leads us neatly onto the second point: that books need movement. ‘A bookshelf is like a battery farm,’ wrote Speyer in Riding the Crest of Culture: ‘and we know that battery hens lay inferior eggs’.

Need I say more? Perhaps I ought to. Suffice it to say, Speyer didn’t own any ordinary bookshelves. He struggled, however, to create what he deemed ‘a satisfactory system for the ordered disordering of books’. Several methods were tested, but they all took up too much time. He regularly spent more than four hours a day moving books back and forth – for no good reason other than to ‘keep the little bastards guessing’. One upshot of this was that he was always losing books. This didn’t bother him all that much. ‘One must not keep one’s thoughts too tightly bound’ he once said. Thus was chaos allowed to reign, perhaps a little too freely.


2 thoughts on “Rather Like Birds

  1. A beautiful post, I love the idea of books being like caged birds, longing to be set free. My books are generally shelved, though regularly change hands and go on adventures. The book that I’m reading at any given time comes everywhere with me though. In the bath, on the bus, visiting friends… they get to see a variety of scenery.

  2. You are obviously an admirably active reader. Speyer would be proud. Opinions differ, of course, over whether books ought to enter the bathroom. Personally, I believe that damp pages are a relatively low price to pay for a fresh perspective on an old story.

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