A Little Light Consoling is Required

J-P Sertin writes again:


I returned to your house last night. It’s not a bad place, all told. A little damp for my liking, but that’s par for the course in this part of the city, is it not? It might also have something to do with the windows. Forgive me for pointing this out, but I do worry about your books. Don’t you think it might be better for me to look after some of them whilst you are away? Granted, my own flat has had its fair share of disasters (three months since the latest fire and counting) but at least they’d go down being read. There’s nothing sadder than a great collection of books sitting in an empty house. It is too cruel of you to have abandoned your babies! If you listen hard enough, you can hear them whimpering away. They miss their owners. They want to be read again; to be held again; to have their spines caressed by your fat stubby fingers.

Needless to say I am doing what I can to soften the blow of your departure. I have always been the consoling sort: you know that. If I see a book, or a woman, in distress, I put on my consoling hat, my comforting jacket, and my calming shoes, and I step forward into the fray. You cannot hold me back when a little light consoling is required. One loves to soothe, does one not? Oh yes, you have left your book collection in a fine pair of hands, dear Georgy. I will cradle your books. When they ask for solace, I shall provide. When they scream for relief, I shall come running. ‘Succour’ is my middle name. Jean-Pierre Succour Sertin. It has a ring to it, has it not?

As I march around your dear deserted house at night I like to think of myself as an officer in the foreign legion, defending a fort in the dark. And lord knows there is much to defend! Perhaps you should have employed an armed guard to ensure that your collection does not fall into enemy hands? We wouldn’t want anyone to get their grubby hands on your complete compendium of early twentieth-century Castilian comics, would we? And that peculiar sculpture of which I spoke last week. The more I see it, the more I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. I mean to say, it’s a horrible piece of work. But this is horribleness of the very highest order. It is the sort of thing which will not, nay cannot, be understood within our lifetime. It is too great for the times – which is why it needs to be looked after carefully. Future generations will thank us, profusely, for having the foresight not to throw it out, however much we feel we should. I only have to glance at it and I feel compelled to smash it to pieces. And yet I resist, if not for my own sake, than for the sake of future generations (god bless their little unborn souls).

When you gave me the key to your house (still lost, by the way: wherever could it be?) I must confess that I wasn’t too excited. By and large I don’t enjoy doing menial tasks for friends. My brother once asked me to water his plants for him whilst he took a holiday. I bowed out after the first day. It wasn’t the job for me. But this one has turned out rather differently. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am actively enjoying my role as guardian of your property. I am not only enjoying it: I am somewhere close to taking it seriously. It’s not often that one is given the opportunity to snoop around a friend’s house. And to snoop at one’s leisure, over the course of several weeks! This is too good to be true. You have spoilt me, dear Georgy!

I can only hope that you are enjoying yourself as much as I am (though I doubt it, having left all your good books back in England). You must write, you know, and tell me of your adventures. How is your dear wife getting on? How are you coping with her continuing success as a poet – and your enduring lack of progress as a writer and researcher? I simply must know!

Ever yours, in theory,

J-P Sertin

P.S. I suppose you are wondering whether I have tracked down your memoirs, as requested? The truth is that I haven’t yet found the time to step up my search. I’ve been looking, in a casual sort of way, but nothing systematic as yet. Maybe later in the week?

 [see Sertin’s earlier letter here]

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.

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…

The Perfect Library (1)

Keen readers are not always keen library-goers. Many readers find libraries distasteful, even disturbing. They hate the idea of picking up, let alone reading a book which has been pawed by countless other readers. They hate the very atmosphere of libraries. To confront fellow readers: what exquisite pain this gives them! Or, in a public library, to find oneself confronted by the tastes of the masses; by the shelves and shelves of cheap crime novels, quirky romances and short novels with needlessly long titles (‘The Daughter Who Threw Her Bathrobe into the Canal’, ‘The Wonderful Story of The Runaway Devonshire Threshing Machine’, ‘The Continuing Adventures of Chainsaw Jim’ etc). Many readers would rather enter a chamber of torture than a public library.

Johannes Speyer’s hatred of libraries took a slightly different course. He resented their ‘tiresome allegiance to staid organisational methods’ – which is to say he disliked the way they ordered their books alphabetically by genre. The perfect library, in Speyer’s opinion, would be open to different ways of ordering books. For a start, the books would be taken off shelves. They would not be grouped by genre, and they certainly wouldn’t follow ‘that straitjacket we call the alphabet’. The perfect library would be a large warehouse where the visitor did not find the book he/she wanted, but stumbled upon them instead. It would be something of an eccentric experience.

More on this shortly…

Reading Kills

Here follows a short list of fatal book-related accidents:

1. Jon Birgurismir, killed in a book-hurling context (book-hurling being a traditional sport amongst Icelandic academics during the late nineteenth century)

2. Marcius De Roeber, squashed between two bookshelves after a small ground tremor in a poorly planned library just outside Barcelona. ‘It is how he’d have liked to go,’ said his wife, idly flicking through a magazine.

3. The Bishop of Wenchester. A victim of ecclesiastical greed, Wenchester commissioned the most expensive Bible to have ever been made, only to trip over it whilst administering communion.

4. Nicolas Clam, a victim of the Polperro Ink Disaster of 1977, in which a small publishing company mistakenly printed five hundred copies of a literary magazine in toxic ink. Only five copies were sold, and Clam was the only reader to have inhaled the ink in fatal quantities (he made his debut, as a poet, in the magazine).

5. Princess Gloria of Stanberg. Rumour has it that the Princess was so engrossed in a particular novel that she forgot to eat, thus dying of starvation. Others have argued that she died of shock, claiming that the book in question was one she herself had written, fifteen years before. Opinion differs as to whether she resented her early talent, or regretted the publication entirely.

Flowers in a Wind

From whence did it spring, this belief in books as worlds unto themselves? Books were always well considered in the house in which I grew up, but never worshipped as such. It was recognised that books at their best were a glorious invention: that a stack of pulped wood, sliced into pages and covered in tiny black letters could conjure up such an array of fascinating characters, scenarios and concepts was, as anyone must accept, something to be marvelled at. Once written, it is true, a text does take up a life its own: it goes out, like a ruddy-faced schoolboy, into the world, and gets into all manner of shaping scrapes. The words may stay the same, like your DNA, but the meanings never stop shifting, like flowers in a wind, caressed by breezes, or blown apart by stiff winter storms. A book is not a static thing. It is, as Speyer noted, a world unto itself.

And so on, and so forth…. Chapter Six, Part Two.

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.