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Books: a difficult habit to shelve

by Trevor Pateman


“Hell is Error realised too late.” That’s how I’ve always phrased it but today Google tells me I am misquoting Thomas Hobbes. But since the expression comes to mind often enough, and has done for many years, I doubt that it will now change to the authentic version: “Hell is Truth seen too late.”

     I sometimes wonder if it was an error to have spent so much of my life reading books. Not just the mistake of reading The Magus; the bigger mistake of clocking up almost as many hours reading as sleeping. I’ve never really kicked the habit.

     As a boy, I was a regular visitor to the local public library—a solitary one; I wasn’t taken there. My teenage self started buying books out of pocket money, the first purchase Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems in a two-and-sixpenny Penguin edition displayed in a window of W H Smith (!) at a time when Yevtushenko was a newsworthy Soviet dissident. That was 1962 and I was fourteen or fifteen. The buying has never stopped and occasionally went out of control. I was one of those very aware that I could not graduate until compliant with the university regulation obliging settlement of debts to local tradesmen—the tradesman in question, Basil Blackwell.

     Fifty years later, I buy two or three books each week but never now go to a library. At one time, I organised everything alphabetically by author. Since I remembered books by author it made sense. It’s also the case that any other system soon encounters problems of a theological order. Novels by Charles Dickens are joined by books about Dickens; books about George Eliot are slipped beside her novels. But then some member of the awkward squad writes a book about Dickens and Eliot. Where does it go? Do I create a section “The English Novel in the Nineteenth Century”? But that will promptly be spoilt by some troublemaker who tackles Dickens and Zola between the covers of one book. And so on.

     Proper librarians are of course familiar with such problems and even engage in theological discussions about them. I am not convinced by the results.

     Nowadays, there is no system on the shelves just as there is no system to my reading. But I still read when all around are lost in their smartphones. A contemporary train journey nowadays must be a very dispiriting thing for an author. Where are the people reading books? Even kindles are in short supply. 

     For some reason I think of a moment fifty years ago, reading on a train headed from Paris to Dieppe. Two women, clearly sisters and clearly rather grand, were sitting opposite and shortly opened a conversation. They were intrigued to see someone—to be frank, anyone—reading the Logic of Port Royal (Arnauld and Nicole, 1662) on a train. Could they introduce themselves? We became friends. With a kindle it would not have happened.

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