I pulled a book from the shelf, one which I had read previously. I reread the first few pages and then returned it and took down the one next to it and reread its first pages too. I must have taken down eight or nine books, repeating the cycle with each. I pondered on the last one longest – the diaries of Derek Jarman – stood up with it, read it as I filled the kettle and made a sandwich for my daughter, sat back down with it, back within reach of the shelf from the sofa. I didn’t slide the Jarman book back into the cavity which its removal from the shelf had created. I sat it at the front of the shelf instead: a reminder to pick it up and read more later, but also a reminder of a thing that I own, of a thing that is mine, of a material thing that is a part of me. A tiny fraction of me defined by this object, and further, by the words inside it. There on the shelf, as I walk past, to look at once more, like looking into a mirror, at a bit of myself. Like passing your own reflection: it’s almost always impossible to not stare and regard oneself again.
My collection of books is one of the few things that I have to show for 36 years of life. In fact, not at all 36 years, not even the 15 or so years that I could truly regard myself a reader of books. And then, not even that many years either, since for almost half of that time – since becoming a father – my reading has shrunk to become so little. Perhaps 9 or 10 years of me: these objects through which I can recall stages of myself, projections of myself, ambitions I have and once had, ideas I wanted to pursue, knowledge I wanted to accumulate about the world, knowledge I wanted people to think that I had acquired about the world. Things which have almost always opened some part of my heart or mind, however briefly, and many which have done so profoundly. These hundreds of rectangular objects, standing on shelves, except for Jarman, laid down.
I have an appalling memory for so many of them. I recognise a title and a cover, something of a storyline or idea. I remember some much better than I do others. One of the books on the shelves is a small collection of essays by Patrick Süskind and contains the essay, ‘Amnesia in Litteris’, about the author’s struggle recounting the books in his own library. I can see it there at the top: thin and black with orange capital letters running down its spine. I can see his other book, yet more slender, The Pigeon, which was brilliant and which I recall reading from cover to cover without leaving the corner of the book shop where I first picked it up. I can see the book Snow, which I bought with such care and excitement from the same shop years later, just before my wife was due to give birth to my second daughter. I had wanted to commemorate her birth in some small way with a parallel beauty in my life, something that I thought, sentimentally, I might one day recommend to my daughter to read for herself: to be able to share with her the stories, both inside and outside of the book. I see the big Everyman edition of Moby Dick, which I read during a summer of convalescence about 15 years ago, convincing myself there would never be a better opportunity to make a concerted effort to get through its seven or eight hundred pages. I see Notes From The Underground, which I read maybe eight or nine months after Melville – and because of reading Melville and Camus previously – transfixed for hours each night, in my own underground dwelling, which was the basement flat I shared with my dearest friend. I see Pessoa: the book which has travelled most from those shelves, and been put back into that largely random configuration in more different places than all the others. Its silver spine creased and weathered, the white of the board showing through here and there where my affection and regular attentions have eroded laminate and ink. I see names like Fante, and think of oranges, and Trocchi, and think of a canal barge. I see the huge sans-serif ‘M’ on the spine of the beautiful jacket to the Caravaggio biography which I still believe I will one day begin to read. The Discovery of Heaven next to Being Dead, next to three books by Saramago; what joy each of them brought me.
Rectangles of green and orange and black and silver stacked against one another and maybe a hundred other colours and shades besides. All little pieces of who I am, one of the few areas in the house that offers any real idea of me.