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Are the books missing us?

The committee room at the Lit & Phil

All regular users of the Lit & Phil, and even those for whom an occasional visit is a treat, must be missing the old place. I know I am. That bookish atmosphere – and all those books!

Are the books missing us?

Daft question.

Books are patient. Even the flimsiest will wait years if left in peace, registering protest only with a little rueful foxing and a frosting of dust. That the Lit & Phil books are appreciated goes without saying, although some, perhaps those peering down from on high, must surely feel the love less than others. Judging by the dead giveaway of the librarian’s date stamp, some books go decades without a riffling of their pages. The flurry of dates immediately after publication almost always tails off. Tastes change, the world changes, authors die or fall out of favour, readers move on. With libraries closed due to coronavirus and bookshops reliant on online sales, books have come to the fore in unexpected ways.

They have become a conspicuous distraction in the video conferencing which has replaced physical gatherings. Social media accounts have sprung up to scrutinise the bookshelf backdrops of online talking heads and you can imagine the comments. Some cynics have had the temerity to suggest people might be showing off! That hasn’t stopped “instant libraries” becoming a popular online purchase. A Sussex firm called Décor Books, which sells books by the metre, has reported an upsurge in demand. It’s understandable. If your home is on show for all the world to see, even if it’s just a rectangular portion of it, how much better if all the world can see that you love books rather than that you hate housework. For those of us lucky enough to have plenty of books about the place, lockdown has been a chance to get reacquainted. 

Books have always been part of my life. They have threatened to take over my life, or at least my home. They have come to me in all sorts of ways and taken up residence. After lockdown there must be a clear-out, I suppose. But shielded from the constant lure of other books in shops and libraries, I have been able to lavish a little attention (oh, all right, a lot) on those taking up an inordinate amount of living space. They include the books I was given as a child. Books were always the present of choice and each survivor is steeped in nostalgia. Every one of the beautiful illustrations in the volume of Aesop’s Fables my parents gave me for my seventh birthday, signed by them, leaps off the page with startling familiarity. 

My much-loved copy of Farmer Boy, by American author Laura Ingalls Wilder, has the dust jacket I made to replace the original that must have disintegrated. It has a drawing of a cow that looks more like a horse. There are others, including paperbacks by Hugh Lofting, Kenneth Grahame, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Philippa Pearce, a little fragile now but each a capsule of treasured memory. The books survive although it must be said of some of them that the prose they contain reflects views that, while acceptable at the time, seem iffy nowadays.

Reading to my young daughter from Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Dolittle, a volume I remember being carsick over on a trip to the seaside, I found myself having to censor on the hoof. Ironic, really, since Lofting devised the talking animal stories for his children when writing from the trenches of the First World War, not wishing to share with them the real-life horrors he was seeing. Inscriptions put other books into the category of ‘must keep’, including the dictionary my grandparents gave me to mark their golden wedding and the biography of Roald Dahl given to me one Christmas by my sister.

Among the many books I have handled during my lockdown rummaging are some that I have not so much rediscovered as discovered. What on earth am I doing with a biography of the Christian missionary Gladys Aylward which, according to the sticker, was presented to that same sister as a school RE prize. No doubt she will be overjoyed to be reunited! I like inscriptions. Serious book collectors avoid them unless the inscription is by the author or to someone famous. But who could resist a fine collection of Rupert Brooke’s poems from an Oxfam bookshop bearing the inscription: “May Rupert give you many hours of pleasure – all my love, John. Dec 25th 1939”? Who was John? Who was the recipient? Questions to ponder and poems to savour in this poignant peace offering of that first wartime Christmas.

As longtime arts writer on The Journal, I was privileged to receive review books, many of which still lurk here, and to meet and interview a lot of the authors. I was shameless in soliciting autographs from those I admired. Pat Barker and David Almond are among those whose careers I saw take off and I am delighted to have books they kindly agreed to sign. One highlight of my career was meeting Antony Burgess at his London flat. The author of A Clockwork Orange was busy with some hack work when I arrived, writing a review of a book about pencils for the Observer, but was charm personified. The book I had come to talk to him about was You’ve Had Your Time, the second volume of his startlingly candid ‘confessions’. He offered whisky and chatted amiably while Liana, his Italian second wife, sashayed around the flat in a long dress. I’d finished the book on the train, including Burgess’s gripping account of the affair they’d conducted while his first wife, Lynne, lay dying. The events, decades old to them, lay fresh in my mind. The inscription in my book, “To David – Anthony Burgess. London, Nov 5, 1990”, brings back the thrill and potency of that afternoon.

So many books… highbrow, lowbrow, fiction, non-fiction, many I’ve read, many more I say I’ll get round to and plenty that I know I never will. I have found I am the unwitting owner of two identical paperback copies of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Rectifying the fact that I’d never read either, I was surprised at the impact and enduring fame enjoyed by so slight a work.  There is, you might have gathered, enough reading here for the remainder of lockdown and indeed my lifetime. But still I yearn to be back at the Lit & Phil and in the bookshops.

You can never have enough books, can you?

It’s a loaded question. But if the worst happens and they threaten to overwhelm me, I will just have to grit my teeth and flog them off by the metre.


About the author

Dave Whetstone

David Whetstone writes about arts & culture for the Newcastle Chronical, has done so for more than 25 years and has won many awards. He's also been one of the judges for the 2019 Young Writers' Award.

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