The Perfect Library (3)

You take the damp book with you and move towards the building, tiptoeing around the selection of books strewn across the ground. Every now and again you stop to examine one. You do not put it back where you found it.

Much the same rules apply inside as they did outside. There are books aplenty, though not in their usual places. One or two sit on a shelf –  a nod to olden days  – but they are very much in a minority. No point throwing out tradition wholesale, nor is there much to be said for clinging onto it. The Perfect Library seeks to keep readers on their toes.

There are books hanging like winter coats from hooks on the wall, or like light-bulbs from the ceiling. There are books piled up on the floor: leaning towers of literature which readers are encouraged to topple and reform. No disrespect is intended. Visitors are not encouraged to mistreat book; simply to put aside preciousness. ‘Muck in’ reads a sign on one wall. ‘Get involved’ reads another.

You jump up high, to see if you can catch one of the hanging books. You get nowhere from a stationary position, but with a short run you succeed in pulling down a hefty novel. You feel as though you have just caught a large fish. Hunting for books: you like this.

The Perfect Library makes you work – but work has rarely been this fun. Up the stairs you find a series of rooms in which books are subjected to ‘experimental treatment’. In one room they have been lined up in troughs of dried lavender. In another they have been partially submerged in warm, dungy compost.

Coming out of one room you see a book nailed to the door-frame. You pull out the nail, releasing the text. You’ll take this one back with you too. When you bring it back, one or two weeks later, you’ll find for it a new place. Maybe it can go in the garden. Up a tree, perhaps. You save the nail. It can go through another book next time.

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The Perfect Library (2)

They tell me the library can be located behind the bright green gates. I wouldn’t have guessed it otherwise. There is no sign that reads ‘library’. There is no indication at all. Nothing invites you beyond those gates except your own curiosity.

Then again, why wouldn’t you be curious? Beyond the gates is a large garden; in the centre of the garden an octagonal lake. The garden is populated by flowerbeds, bushes and trees. To the left of the lake a winding path leads you towards a significantly sizeable steel structure. It strikes you as something in-between a warehouse and a greenhouse. It is, in fact, the Perfect Library.

Before you get to the building, you take a wander around the gardens. Not everything is as it seems. There are books in unexpected places. Books laid out on the grass, like sunbathers. Some faced upwards, some downwards; others on their sides, pressed down into the turf. Books sheltering in the shade of a small shrubbery, or up on the branches of trees. Books sitting on park benches, like old men, or under them, like patient dogs. Books in boats, floating across the lake. Some books in the lake, enjoying a morning swim.

You kneel down by the water’s edge, dip your hand into the glassy depths, and lift a book dripping into the sunlight. The book is well-made and hasn’t suffered unduly from its underwater adventures. You can still peel the soaked pages apart. Sometimes it’s good to get your fingers wet. So what if there’s a ribbon of pond-weed trapped between pages thirteen and fourteen? You can always use it as a book-mark…

Variety is the Spice of Active Reading

I had cause to write, the other day, of the tradition of baking books. In doing so I was, of course, extending a conversation that I have been having on this blog for several years now.  The subject of that conversation is Active Reading; the means by which the adventurous reader breaks out of the standard ‘sitting in an armchair’ mode and embraces all manner of other reading methods, whether it be reading on a bike, reading up a tree, or reading whilst hand-gliding.

The expert on this matter was none other than Johannes Speyer, my late mentor (see here for more of him). For Speyer, reading was not an activity to be taken lightly. When you take up a book, you are engaged in a serious creative activity; one which requires a certain amount of mental, even physical, preparation. There was never anything off-hand about Speyer’s reading habits. This was a man who planned ahead.

Which leads me to a more general question. How do we (or, indeed, should we) prepare for reading? Under what conditions might we enter a book – and how do those conditions affect our reading of that book? Or, to put it another way: how does one approach reading foreplay?

What do we do to books, and to ourselves, before we slide into the first page? Speyer did all manner of things to get him, and his books, ready for reading. He sprinkled them in dirt, he soaked them in wine, he hung them upside-down in smokehouses. He tied them up in ribbons, which he removed, one by one, before opening the covers. He read whilst naked, or clothed in fourteen layers of silk. He meditated for eight hours before turning his mind to a text, or set his alarm to wake him in the night in order to read a single sentence before slipping back into sleep.

Variety was the spice of Speyer’s reading habits. He stuck to nothing; resolved to trying out new methods, regardless of success. Others have been less patient, developing a practise which they repeat over and over again. One man I know goes on a five mile run before starting any novel. Another showers several times before picking up a newspaper. Still others will only read at night, under the covers, by the light of a torch. I went through a period of only reading on an empty stomach. Whatever gets you in the mood.

The Full Weight

Forty hours of reading would have had a very different effect on Speyer, for which reason he could only ever read in short bursts. He could keep going for a couple of hours, at most, pausing at intervals for necessary rests. Reading was like a sport to him; best done in forty-five minute spurts. He approached the task like a wrestler. Time was not as important as the energy expended during that time. ‘An hour’s worth of true engagement,’ he said to me once, ‘is worth a thousand hours of light reading. Reading must have weight behind it. The full weight of your mind, your body and your soul.’

The sage continues. Chapter Six, Part One.

Baked Books

There was once a fine tradition (which, for all I know, may be ongoing) of putting library books in the oven before reading them, in order to kill off the germs. Whether or not it worked is beside the point. What I liked about this process was the fact that I, as a reader, got to experience the pleasure of a hot book in my hands.

I recall my mother taking such a book out of the oven and passing it along to me as if it were a slice of baked apple pie. Some readers would have waited for the book to cool down, but I was no such reader. I liked to get going whilst the book was still steaming. It seemed to me like a glorious way to start a book. Even now I miss that feeling; of cradling a baking book in my grubby paws, turning the first few scalding pages, and of sensing the temperature lower as I eased my way into the narrative. How I miss those baked books days.

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.