Sunday, April 30, 2006

Yes, I have a lot of books. No, you can't borrow one

WHO read all the books? Not, I hope, the same person who ate all the pies. Unlike pies, books are meant to be good for you but I think mine are killing me. Well, that's an exaggeration. They're just giving me the occasional duffing up.

Can't blame them really. They've been neglected. I love them still, but have nowhere to put them and don't spend enough time with them any more.

Most of my late teens, twenties and thirties were spent reading and writing. Now, I'm lucky if I get three pages read in bed last thing at night when I drop off after a huge dram and a vanilla slice (crumbs from which will often irritate me in the night).

I have tried, recently, to make more of an effort. "Make time for reading" was once an excellent slogan put out by Edinburgh's libraries. I don't watch much television, beyond football and repeats of Are You Being Served?, and I rarely go on the internet, which strikes me as a paradise for cranks, bullies and perverts. Even so, I still don't like it.

It's not that I've a limited attention span but ... I've forgotten what I was just going to say. No: it's not that I've a limited attention span - didn't I just say that? - it's that I buy too many books. I want to have them all, except perhaps Oprah Winfrey's Guide to the Cosmos.

I love Edinburgh's second-hand bookshops, and will happily browse in them until told to leave. I always feel obliged to buy something, too, being one of those sad sorts who believe that, once you've crossed a shop's portal, you're contractually obliged to purchase something. How I regret the day I inadvertently blundered into Leather and Lace (though that codpiece did eventually make an excellent cloot).

But I will also visit Waterstone's, endlessly being conned into buying three for the price of two: "I'll have Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, please. And The Trial by Franz Kafka. And, er, The Viz Book of Humungous Hooters." And, on the few occasions I wander on to the internet now, I shop like billy-oh at Amazon, not to mention Abebooks (first-class second-hand site).

I just can't resist buying books. I go out for trousers, I come back with books. I go out for a wardrobe, I come back with books. I go out for books, I come back with a hatstand. You know how it is.

And so the books pile up. The desk in front of me, as I write, groans with higgledy-piggledy piles of reference books and dictionaries. At least I don't have to read these from start to finish. Indeed, I rarely see any book through to the end in one go, without starting half a dozen others in the meantime. It is the restless mind, the questing head, the imperial imagination. One thinks: "There must be something out there that will mean something, cheer me up or make everything seem clear." But, as you get older, you realise this ain't going to happen. Tolkien comes closest, but everybody reads him in their teens, and it's all downhill thereafter. Eventually, you just read for diversion or occasional strokes of beauty.

I've bookmarks in around 250 books. The main ones I'm flirting with at the moment are Saint's Getaway by Leslie Charteris (wonderfully arch writer), Traditions of Trinity and Leith by Joyce M Wallace, Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness, The Miss Marple Omnibus, Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, and Rubicon by Tom Holland. I've also lined up Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, Manda Scott's Boudica and Allan Guthrie's Two-Way Split; oh, and I've just started my regular re-reading of The Hobbit.

The last books I finished were Boris Johnson's Seventy-Two Virgins and, before that, Who Will Comfort Toffle?, a Moomin picture book by Tove Jansson.

Surprisingly, one of these books is contemporary. Generally, it takes years for a book to settle and mature before I'll buy it, and I never believe these end-of-year newspaper features where famous people lie about all the recently published books they've allegedly just read.

I should get rid of some more books (I did offload some obscure ones recently), but it goes against the grain. I don't even loan them out, as people never return them. The refusal may offend, but these books have my name in them and a little shorthand note of where I bought them. Sometimes, if they were a real find in a second-hand shop, the whole day comes back to me. How dare borrowers take that away from me and ruin my entire life!

I've lugged my books in scores of boxes through a dozen different flittings. I'm not giving up on them now. Not for all the hatstands in the world. Living - Books - Yes, I have a lot of books. No, you can't borrow one

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