I am on holiday in England, at my parent’s house, and am throwing out some of the old books that I had left with them. I have hundreds here: the result of a childhood and adolescence spent rummaging through charity shops in search of the amusing, provocative and enigmatic. I was something of a book bore, attracted not just to the contents of the things but to the act of buying them: the sense of mystery and history; the smell of cellulose and lignin.
Different books inspire memories of times I spent with them: the dog-eared copy of Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk that I bought for a holiday in Yorkshire, aged 14, and read with a sort of admiring bemusement; Camus’ The Outsider in paperback, which I read in the rehearsal rooms of my local theatre as a troupe of teenage girls devoured Harry Potter; Fred Trueman’s autobiography, passed down to me after the death of a cricket-mad great uncle whose shelves I had long admired.
Other books remind me of old obsessions. There are the huge, grim World War 2 books that I seized as a young boy. There are the cricket books with which I could have paved the field at Lords. There are books by the Chomsky, Pilger, Curtis, Said and Karl Marx, which bring back awkward memories of my teenage leftism. Other books are even more peculiar. I have flirted sympathetically with paranormal research but what did I hope to get out of The Case for Astrology? I have a somewhat pessimistic outlook on life but what attracted me to a book called Why Suicide? And how did I ever get hold of a giant medical encyclopedia from the 1930s? (It says the main harm of smoking is its impact on one’s eyes.)
Some books had a more significant effect on me. I recall a left-wing columnist, at a London book-swap, handing me a copy of John Gray’s anti-humanist Straw Dogs with words of dark but intriguing disapproval. I read it on the train home and felt like I was peering through a window onto a new, fascinating level of perception. I grew almost misty-eyed on seeing my first Calvin and Hobbes anthology: an introduction to a series that did much, and does much, to brighten my existence.
At some point, when I was young, I made a valiant attempt to bring some order to my bookshelves, making sections for “crime”, “humor”, “plays”, “poetry”, “American fiction”, “English fiction”, “world fiction” and “politics” (with “cricket” spilling out across its boundaries). Nonetheless, I wonder if the sheer eclecticism of my reading doomed me to be somewhat dilettantish. Hopping across genres, and between high and low culture, it was easy to form knowledge that was broad yet shallow. I had a great time, though. In my bedroom I could trek about the world, and through its history, meeting all kinds of people, with all kinds of experiences, and all kinds of ideas, from Winston Churchill to Winston Smith, Henry VIII to Humbert Humbert and Jesus to Jim Laker. I would be bored and dull without such a childhood behind me.
Still, what can I part with? Val McDermid can go but Ian Rankin must stay. Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman can be dispatched to the Red Cross but I will keep The Female Eunuch in case I need it for reference. Will I ever read Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and The Religious? Doubtful, yes. But possible. Possible. Will I ever need my Biggles books again? Probably not. But it’s still hard to let them go.