0024 | rectangles

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.

Reader Comments

  1. People suggest that material things aren’t important.

    And in one sense they’re right… they aren’t as important as the people in our lives, as what we’ve done and what we do and what we will do with the time we have, as how we think and what we believe and who we are…

    But, as you say, for most of us, there are possessions that are connected with who we are, such as books and looking at them, touching them, using them gives us a way of connecting with who we are too, at those times when we’ve forgotten or need reassurance.

    Not to mention how great they are at jogging the memory. Yesterday, during epic tidying of a living room that’s like those hoarders’s homes on the telly, Pete found a shoebox containing some small jewellery boxes of mine from my teenage years. Inside one was pair after pair of earrings, proper 1980s stuff that I’d never wear again. Though I know I’d probably get a bit for them if I sold them to retro fashion fans, I couldn’t stand to part with them. As I picked each one up, I found myself smiling and occasionally grimacing at the memories of teenage me and my teenage life. The memories were inside all along but it took the earrings to bring them to the surface.

  2. what a view matt into years passed. i treasure books and the memories i close between the front covers and the back ones. i could easily see my life void of so much but not books, even when they have collected dust, they seem to be living.

    thank you matt, the fog mixes with a cool breathe and then your words begin my morning and just like that i inhale the breath that will carry me through the day.

  3. Yes, I know what you mean. I’ve got a kindle and I scroll down the list sometimes, almost the same….oh wait

    Keep them coming

  4. When I left the country for a few years, I was able to take two boxes; one of clothes, one of books. We had no tv, no radio, at times no electricity in the jungles–but I had books. I remember the process, the agonizing I went through over packing that box. (much more so than my clothing) Do I take old favorites or risk something I’ve never read and pray…

    I have a library in our third floor. Huge bookcases stacked with mostly hard bound old books…an antique secretary desk I rescued from the side of the road and rebuilt into a bar. A poker table, again, from someone’s trash is now laquered and cherished. A turntable with stacks of records… I cannot pass by a flea market or sale that has piles of books without stopping. Today, with electric replacements taking over the planet, someone must rescue them. Nestle them into shelves next to friends; to be held and touched and read by the fire when the children are asleep…

    My husband says we have enough.

    I’m building another bookcase.

    I apologize for the length of this comment. You’ve given me much to mull over, made me wonder at the range of my collection. Curious to think what stranger would intuit about me…

    Yours makes me like you more. And I’ve just ordered Snow.

  5. I actually read your post a few days ago and had to think about what ‘defines’ a person. It’s true, your collection of books speaks volumes (pardon the pun) about you but, don’t define ‘Matt.’ You are and, we are so much more than what we read.I love to take photos…lots and lots of photos. They, all 17 kazillion of them, probably say a whole lot about ‘Joanne!’

    A great post…a thought provoking post.

  6. Kavey:
    Thanks for your comment. These kinds of objects can be incredibly powerful either in what they say about us or in those memories and associations they release. I hope the living room is looking tidier!

    Nadia:
    Thanks for your lovely comment. Yes, books are the one material possession I treasure most. I don’t think I’ll ever settle for reading them in the form of anything less than the physical object.

    Bison:
    I suspect that list of yours — knowing your proclivity for making the most of your bandwidth — is many thousands of titles bigger than my collection! Thanks for reading.

    Chantel:
    The first holiday I went on with my wife to be, I packed about 15 books into a suitcase for a fortnight’s break. It was 40+C heat and I could barely move let alone concentrate on reading. I finished about two and a half books, but couldn’t bear the thought of being without the things I wanted to read. I buy far fewer books these days, but I still love to stop and look through second-hand piles too. I have a confession, though: I had high hopes for Snow, but didn’t enjoy the remaining 300 pages anything like as much as I did the first two. I’ve always intended to reread (I was rather sleep-deparved and distracted at the first time of reading!). Thanks for your comment.

    OpinionsToGo:
    Thanks for your comment, Joanne. ‘Define’ in the strictest and most complete sense: no. But they describe something of the nature and workings of my thoughts, the things I love and am interested in: that ‘tiny fraction’ of me that I allude to and more convincingly than any other material thing in the house of mine over which you could glance.

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