Poor Artist’s Cupboard, Charles Bird King, c. 1815
by Jenny Diski
The Poet, who made Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork for supper last night, so I am not entitled to complain about anything, has a dark side. Before he was an academic he was a book dealer. He gave up book dealing but not the books. We live in a terraced house which backs on to the railway line. These houses were all railway worker’s cottages. They have tiny rooms and steep staircases. They are lovely, well-built but must have been cramped even with a smallish family living in them. These days most of the houses have been bought by people working at the University in various capacities, or parents with one or two young children, and most of the houses have had their roof spaces turned into rooms and extensions built into the gardens.
What isn’t good about them is that there are only four walls per room, and the problem of housing The Poet’s 5000 books grows daily as he scours the second-hand Internet sites for volumes he’s been searching out for years or a surprise first edition of a 1930’s novelist that no one alive (apart from The Poet) has ever heard of. Every wall is covered. We built a shed in the garden for the overflow. There are still piles of books on the floor of his study. And the bottom of the staircase to my attic study is a dangerously tottering pile of books I’ve reviewed and have not got round to taking to the Amnesty Bookshop.
This is not the whole story. The whole story is in The Poet’s two rooms in college where he teaches. Both these sizable rooms are shelved from floor to ceiling and filled 2 deep with books. All over the floor, leaning book towers mean the students have to pick their way carefully to get to their chairs. Every surface, empty chair, table, side table, window sill, have books on them. ‘Waiting,’ The Poet says severely ’to be put away.’ He has about 7000 books there, which he tells me he goes to all the time when teaching. ‘All of them?’ ‘All of them.’ Five minutes walk away is the Cambridge University Library, one of the great copyright libraries of the world to which he has borrowing rights. We have to be within walking distance of the library, so there will be no moving to some idyllic countryside retreat when he retires. He needs his 12,000 volumes within reaching distance, and the University Library within a quick trot away. Or something very bad will happen.
I mentioned retirement. What hangs over us in two years time is that he is required by University regulations to retire. This is wonderful. Time to write his own things, more time for poetry, less working on schedule, working at home, blissful. But day by day, as it gets nearer, the fear grows. Where are we going to put the 7000 books that he will bring home to our book-lined house? Oh, he’ll sell them. Really? Well, not all of them. How many? Some. Perhaps not many. He needs them, he always needs the books he’s got rid of. We think about building a library in the garden, but it will change the the lovely garden, and anyway, as a retired academic where’s the money to come from to build a shelved, weather and light proof space for 7000 books? He says he’ll think about it later. It is later, I say. I’m frightened.
I like books too. I’m keen on reading them. I used to be keen on hoarding reference books, but since the arrival of the Internet that’s no longer necessary. I like a room with books. I’ve never lived in one without books. I enjoy the sense of all those words being there, the muddled mix of colour and the way they absorb sound. I couldn’t live without books. I accumulate books, borrowed and bought, when I have a project. My study is only lightly shelved, but they are full of books on and around the subject of melancholy at the moment because that’s the book I’m writing. But I also get rid of them. Each time I’ve moved, I’ve weeded out the books never looked at for years, or haven’t read in the first place. When I’ve finished a project I get rid of most of the books, keeping only a few for reference and mementos. Then I buy and borrow new ones, and maintain a sort of equilibrium. I am the model of sanity in our relationship. When it comes to books.
The Poet uses books to think with. They don’t have to be open. I’ll walk into a room and see him standing in front of the shelves, looking intently at them. I’ve long since stopped asking what he’s looking for. He isn’t looking for, usually, he’s looking at. It helps him think about…the cultural history of bombing…the mediocrity of contemporary fiction…Wyndham Lewis…a poem he’s writing…a supervision he’s planning. ‘But you’re looking at the spines of green Penguin thrillers of the mid-twentieth century.’ ‘It doesn’t matter what books I look at, it helps me think.’ And this is just as well, because apart from the sets (Henry James, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Hamilton, Marx, Henry Green ) and the green Penguin thrillers of the 20th century, there is very little of anything you could call order in all these thousands of books. The other thing that happens is that I come in to a room and he’s standing on top of a chair, pulling out books to get to the ones behind (you didn’t think they were single depth, did you?). ‘I’ve lost…’ he’ll say. ‘I think it was here, last time I looked at it.’ ‘When was that?’ ‘I think it was August 1997.’ I point out that he wasn’t living in this house in 1997. But in some renaissance memory book-room in his head, it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of relational. Still, he doesn’t find it. It goes on for days sometimes. He wanders round the house, goes off to college. ‘Still looking.’ Eventually, he’ll find it, no where near where he was sure it was supposed to be. Or he won’t, but he knows he will one day. Why not put them in order? Subject. Alphabet. It’s a tried and true way of housing books. He shakes his head, dismissing the thought. ‘No, I’d never find anything, if they were in that sort of order.’ What sort of order? ‘Well, any sort of order.’
We only get the merest glimpses into the minds of others. Mostly we can only imagine, and we suppose the inside of their heads must be much like the inside our own heads. My daily insight into the mind of The Poet comes through his lively, brooding, searching relationship with his books, and suggests a mind so different from mine that I dare not quite allow myself to imagine it. I fear a sort of Edgar Allan Poe’ish descent into madness would result. Nevertheless, set against that terror, there is the fact that he makes the very best Chairman Mao’s red-braised pork.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued