Reading is the Least of It

I’ve just been reading a book by Professor Lindsey Darlinger of the University of West Connecticut. It’s called Reading is the Least of It, and seeks to claim (over six hundred tedious pages) that reading is, well, the least of what we can do with books.

Here are some of the other things I could, and perhaps should, have done with Darlinger’s book over the last few days:

1. Built a house (yes, if Darlinger speaks the truth, several people have done just this. A man called Don Demarko, she notes, lives in a six-bedroom mansion in Dakota, built entirely of dictionaries).

2. Built a chair (for those who have less time on their hands, and fancy sitting on Shakespeare).

3. Built a raft (for those who are lost at sea, but remembered to bring a lot of holiday reading with them).

3. Killed someone, or something. A magpie, perhaps?

4. Played sport with it (now this I can believe, having been to a school that owned only one working football. Hardyball – i.e. playing football with a Thomas Hardy novel – was thought of by some boys to be a far superior game).

5. Carried it around like a dog, and hoped that people would think better of me as a person.

6. Taken it into a cafe, pretended to read it, and hoped that people would think better of me as a person.

7. Put it on my shelf, never opened it at all, and hoped that people would think better of me as a person.

8. Used it to prop open a door, or stabilise a table.

9. Put it in storage, and hoped that one day it would be rare, and thus worth something.

10. Given it to a friend, and pretended to have read it, and hoped that the friend would also pretend to read it, and think better of me as a person (and vice versa).

11. Used it to squash insects.

Further suggestions, as ever, are welcome.

Watch the Bath Water

Last night at the Crippled Bee, Jean-Pierre Sertin leant over a sleeping man to ask me this:

‘I’ve been thinking, Georgy, about your post on tears. And what I’ve been thinking is this: how do you tell a tear stain from a bath water stain in a second-hand book?’

‘Talent, mostly,’ I reply, ‘which is to say that one trains oneself to spot such things. Tear stains, bath water stains, mineral water stains, vodka stains, rain stains: they may all look very similar, but any reader worth their lacrimal salt can tell them apart. I like to think that a tear stain softens a page; that it imbues that page with the emotion of the weeping reader. A rain stain, on the other hand, has a melancholy effect on a page. One can almost hear the pitter patter of the raindrops in the margins’.

‘Another drink?’

‘Why not?’

Five minutes later Sertin turns to me again and says:

‘Incidentally, what are your views on reading in the bath?’

‘I’m up for it,’ I admit, ‘as I am for reading in any environment, although I don’t recommend dropping books in soapy water. It makes the pages stick together.  If you can get your hands on a laminated book, however, there’s no need to fear’

‘Or,’ added Sertin, ‘if you can get your hands on one of Tosca Calbirro’s shower curtains

‘Well, indeed’.

Tears and Tears

In my recent discussion of the common smears and stains that readers might expect to find on second-hand texts, I forgot to mentions tears. That’s ‘tears’,the salty liquid that emanates from your eyes, as opposed to ‘tears’ in the pagealthough this is, you might say, an equally important way of marking one’s territory as a reader.

Let’s deal with the first ‘tears’ to begin with. How often do you find yourself crying into, or upon, a book? In the case of some poor readers, this is a frequent occurence. Yet I pity them not, What a way to respond to words! Any book that has been baptised in tears is a worthy book indeed. Of course, recognising a tear stain is no mean feat. Tears lack the punch of blood or coffee. They can easily be mistaken for water. And yet I like to think that I know when a book has felt a tear or two. There is something in the crumple of the paper. There is a certain quality to the faintly ruffled pages. And what’s that I hear? The echo of distant weeping, reverberating in the margins?

The other ‘tears’ are easier to spot. A torn page is a torn page is a torn page. It does not espect detection. And yet it shares something in common with a page which has been touched with tears. Which is to say that it has also invoked in the reader a strong physical reaction. It has driven the reader to do something dramatic. It has driven the reader to inforce themselves upon the text; to leave their mark right there on the page.

The best page, of course (and a holy grail for second-hand book lovers) is the one that has been marked by both kinds of tear. The page that makes you laugh, cry, and start ripping.

Too Many Oranges

‘…Always good to take on diets; to invent new routines for oneself; to keep things moving. And yet I never took to oranges myself.’

‘Too much peeling?’

‘Not at all! No, I enjoy food that puts up a fight. Everything should be peeled. People want food to jump into their mouth ready-made, just as they want books to open up their secrets without the least bit of effort on the part of the reader. What nonsense! There can never be too much peeling, although there can be too many oranges’.

The memoir rolls on. Chapter Five, Part Two.

The Presence of Other Readers

In my last post, I wrote of a book in which the names of fourteen previous owners were carefully inscribed, allowing the imagination of the present reader (i.e. yours truly) to engage in charming speculations as to their personality and experience. Since then, I have been thinking about other ways in which the previous owners and readers of second-hand books reveal their presence.

For a start, there is conscious marginalia. Some readers treat margins like dogs treat lamp posts. They see this blank space on both sides of the page and think ‘Aha: this is my space! This is where I come in!’ And so they scribble all sorts of things: comments on the text, improvements on the text, drawings illustrating the text and, most frequently, thoughts that have very little to do with the text, and plenty to do with the addled mind of its reader. This is not to knock marginalia: it is a time-worn tradition, and mustn’t be frowned upon. On the other hand, a cluttered margin can be distracting. One likes to feel the presence of other readers, but one doesn’t necessarily need to know every last thing about them.

Personally I prefer unconscious marginalia: marks that were put there by other readers by mistake. I refer here to the countless smudges, stains and smells that readers tend to leave on books. These range from the common (wine, coffee, blood and semen) to the relatively rare (most of which are difficult to trace to one particular source). I have, other the years, collected several of the latter, peculiarly damaged books. One was, I can only presume, owned by a painter, for it is covered in multi-coloured stains. The other contains a series of dull smudges, which nonetheless let off the most charming smells; a different one for each page. Page thirty-four, for example, smells of lavender. Page two-hundred-and-fifteen, on the other hand, smells like smoked cheese. A book owned by a chef, perhaps?

Finally, let us speak of creases; of pages folded back, ripped, scratched, crumpled and then smoothed. An unread book is as inviting as a well-made bed. What, then, can we say of those people who favour second-hand books? That they like to crawl into other people’s unmade beds? If it is so, so it is. Reading is an intimate business at the best of times; a relationship between author and reader. Reading second or twenty-second-hand books, however, takes you one step further. It is relationship between author and multiple readers. It is an intimate, mysterious orgy.


Fourteen Previous Owners

A question for all you book-gobblers, particularly those who favour second or twenty-second-hand books: Is it pleasing to know the names of all previous owners, or would you rather that the book’s past life were couched in mystery?

I once bought a book that had listed, inside the front cover, fourteen names. The first owner of the book had clearly taken it upon herself to start a tradition, writing neatly at the top of page ‘I, Cressida Taylor, owned this book between April 1981 and December 1983. I read it three times’. The second reader shortly followed suit: ‘I, Nicholas Lord, owned this book between December 1983 and February 1984. I read it once’.

From then on, every one of thirteen subsequent readers left a similar note, including this starkly honest offering: ‘I, Jemina Ray, owned this book between December 1987 and July 1996. I never read past the first chapter. Sorry’. For whom was this apology intended? Future readers, or the book itself? The admission was, nevertheless, intriguing. Jemina clearly owned the book longer than all previous owners, but gave it the least concentration. Which is not to say that the book wasn’t part of her life – it sat patiently on her shelf for almost a decade, watching her grow – though its duties, of course, remained light. It was never called upon to shed all of its words upon her soul.

Jemina’s story tickles me as a reader. I’ve made it up, admittedly: I know nothing, in reality, about her life, save the fact that she once owned this book and, if we can trust her word, read only a single chapter. But the name is something: a gorgeous glimpse into one of the book’s many past lives.

This book is, however, a rarity. I doubt that many of the other books I own have had as many as fourteen previous owners, though I suspect that one or two may have had as many as twenty. Do I regret not knowing the names of these people? Our imaginations often need a spark to catch fire, and a list of names can certainly provide this. On the other hand, a list of names is just that. It tells us very little about the adventures the book has been through: the good days, the bad days, and the merely indifferent. All those hours sitting on the bedside table, wondering whether they would ever be picked up again. The moments of ecstatic pleasure when they were, at last, taken into a reader’s hands. And the tragedy of being tossed onto the floor in frustration.

It’s a tough life, being a book.

Enter Jan Makobely

How to describe these pictures? I’m not sure I can. Makobely’s mystery lies in his command of line: of that we can be sure. What lines they are! Like the dipping flight of a swift, the swooping neck of a swan, the sharp teeth of a threshing machine, the diamond scales of a large freshwater fish, the elegant shimmy of a practised ballerina, the comely underbelly of a fat summer cloud, the sleek shining rump of a racehorse, the majestic verticality of a lamppost, the ripples of water around a leaf in a pond in mid-October, the interrupted zebra stripes of a grand paino, the padded curves of a well-upholstered sofa in the lounge of a successful banker, the elbow of a foreign princess seen through the gauze of a… You get the picture?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. And a time to read Chapter Five, Part One of my riveting memoir, Conversations with Speyer.