Individuals’ book collections are said to offer deep clues to their characters and interests – and doubtless this is broadly true. However, there may be many reasons why certain books have found themselves on someone’s bookshelves, not all of them by personal choice. This is especially true if most of your career, like mine, has been spent working with authors, publishers and booksellers. Some of the volumes that have found their way on to such owners’ shelves inevitably will have been promotional gifts or simply acquired by accident, to be retained through sentimentality or inertia.
How book collections are arranged may also reveal something of the owner’s personality. Is he or she chaotic, tidy-minded or even obsessive about order? Do the books look as if they are frequently consulted and shoved back again, perhaps in a different place, or do they stand in serried pristine rows exactly half a centimetre from the edge of the shelf, with the air of never having been taken down and opened for decades? Has the owner filed them by subject (perhaps using the Dewey decimal classification system), in alphabetical order or by some other system? I’m afraid that, in my case, the answer is much more mundane. My bookcases are 150 years old; they came from a Yorkshire public library when it moved to new quarters with more standard shelves which, unlike their forbears, could be moved with ease. So, my books are filed purely according to their size: each shelf bears the titles that it can best accommodate according to its height. As they’re not, therefore, arranged according to merit, topic or even format, it has sometimes been challenging to find a particular title, though I’m now pretty much acquainted with the place of each, for I very much live with them.
What is more extraordinary, perhaps, is that I can remember the back story of almost every one of them. At random, I’ve pulled out six that ‘live’ together to see what they can say to me.
Murdoch by Shawcross, published in 1992 by Chatto & Windus, is one of several books I own about media tycoons. The author is William Shawcross, a well-known political writer who has also written books about Eastern European politics. This book was given to me by David Moore, at the time the Cape, Chatto & Bodley Head account manager, when I was working for a library supply company in the 1990s. I remember that it sat on my bookshelf in the office for many months before I finally took it home and read it.
Original Sin, by P.D. James, was published by Faber in 1994. I was an avid James fan and had read all her backlist. I was working at another library supply company when the book came out. The purchasing manager, who always had a collection of stock for ‘wheeler-dealing’, obtained this one for me by swapping it with the rep for some other titles. It was a service he performed regularly for colleagues.
Black Diamonds, by Catherine Bailey (subtitled The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty), was published by Viking in 2007. I bought it from the Albion Street, Leeds, branch of Waterstones. I’d read a review of it in the Sunday Times and was captivated by the account of an English aristocratic family living in a white elephant of a stately home not twenty miles from where I live, a house which is still the largest private house in Europe, but of which I had, until I read the book, been completely unaware. The book itself is a poignant account of the class struggle in the twentieth century. Although by then the owners of the house were decadent and impossible to admire, Manny Shinwell’s vindictiveness when, after the Second World War, he wrecked the beautiful grounds of the house still shocks.
Travels with Virginia Woolf, edited by Jan Morris and published by the Hogarth Press in 1993. Another gift from my friend and colleague David Moore. I love the writings of both Virginia Woolf and Jan Morris. Need I say more?
The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter, by Benjamin Woolley, published by Macmillan in 1999. This was another book I discovered through reading a review. I bought it in Waterstones, Piccadilly. I’d been a fan of Lord Byron since I was at school – I visited his former home at Newstead Abbey more than once – but I didn’t know much about Ada Lovelace, his only legitimate daughter. She’s been in the news much more frequently since this book was published, as a pioneer of computer science and one of the first women scientists. Perhaps as remarkable is that she rejected the existence of busy leisure typically led by women of her class for an intensely demanding life of intellectual discipline and hours of long labour, at a time when there was no opportunity for women to attend university lectures, even as guests.
The Fourth Estate, by Jeffrey Archer – HarperCollins, 1996. I have most of the books Jeffrey Archer wrote until the year 2000, all of them gifts from the publisher in the hope that I would sell lots of copies and most of them are signed by the author. I’ve read only one – Kane and Abel, which I think was the first, and it was after the publication of this book that I first met Jeffrey Archer. I’ve met him several times since. Suffice it to say that his books are not to my taste, but now I’ve read the blurb to this one, I think that I might find the topic more congenial than I had thought. I may just dip into it one dark winter’s evening, when I’m at a loose end.
I’ll leave it to you to decide what these books say about me. They certainly illustrate that my collection – which numbers several thousand volumes altogether – is eclectic. That each has a story I think proves that these books are more than possessions – they have become part of my story, a rich extension of my life as it has been travelled. Next time you’re stuck inside on a rainy afternoon, you might amuse yourself by writing about some of the titles in your own book collection and why you have them. If you send the piece to us here at QuoScript, we’ll try to publish it on this blog.