Thursday, 25 February 2016

In Search of Lost Books

I am a reader.  I love reading.  I do it every day, and I start to feel strange and unhappy when I don't do it for more than a few days.

I was raised a bibliophile.  When I was a small child, my mother and I lived in Templeogue, in west Dublin.  My mother came from a family where books were enjoyed and valorised, and both her parents wrote, my grandfather seriously and with some success.  Kenneth Reddin published several novels, at least one children's book, and he also wrote plays, poetry, essays and reviews.  When he was not being a witty District Justice, he was hanging out with Austin Clarke, who lived just across the Dodder at Templeogue Bridge. My grandmother Nora was equally interested, and I can still remember the exquisite terror of her reading Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (The Roly-Poly Pudding) - 'The Rat Book', I called it - to me, as I lay, cradled in her arms, on a most elegant chaise longue, lent to my mother by the writer Mary Manning.  My mother and her sister, now both sadly gone, were avid readers too. Perry, my wonderful aunt, for years when I was under twelve gave me packages of Puffin children's books every Christmas, culminating in The Lord of the Rings (at my request).  Though my mother had little sympathy with my teenage passions for orcs and reading about the Red Army, she always encouraged and took pleasure in my reading, even as she was powering through a novel a week and immersing herself in feminism and women's history.

Dublin's first 'shopping centre' was built at Rathfarnham.  When we went shopping there, I frequently wandered away from my mother, and when thus 'lost', I was always to be found in the centre's bookstore.  Travelling home from visiting family at Kill o' the Grange, we'd call into the branch of Hodges Figgis in Donnybrook.  It was a treat, the excited anticipation of which I can still remember, 40 years later.  I love bookshops.  In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an expansion in Dublin's bookstores - Dubray Books was born, the beautiful old APCK bookshop still existed at the top of Dawson Street, and Maurice Earls created Books Upstairs, still Dublin's finest independent bookshop.  Further down Dawson Street, Waterstone's Bookshop faced Hodges Figgis.  Both were owned by the British chain Dillon's, and their inflated rivalry was analogous to the puffed up property bubble elsewhere in the economy.  The crash took away many of these shops, though Hodges Figgis remains as Dublin's largest and most comprehensive bookshop, Dubray still thrives, and Books Upstairs has lately moved to expanded premises on D'Olier Street.

When I travel, I always visit bookshops - in Paris, in London, and, for me, preeminently in Manhattan.  Visits to New York are always punctuated by trips to St Mark's Books, just north of the Lower East Side and near the Cooper Union; the Strand, a vast and complex secondhand bookshop at Broadway and 12th St; and most of all to Book Culture, an extraordinary academic bookshop on West 112th St and Broadway, just a few blocks south of the main gates of the Columbia campus.  Originally and more appropriately and imaginatively called Labyrinth Books, Book Culture is the kind of place where I disappear for most of a day, moved by alternating feelings of excitement, curiosity and anxiety - excitement at the sheer volume of books (an elegant bookstore downstairs, and a vast hangar filled with phalanxes of shelves upstairs), curiosity at what I will likely find, and anxiety at what I will not be able to take away or will miss.  I find it very hard not to emerge from Book Culture bearing at least one bag of loot - thrilling new texts in cultural or political theory, novels that catch my eye, philosophy which I will fight to grasp, all of them amounting to weight I will struggle to accommodate in my limited baggage allowance on the way home.

So, yes, I buy books.  Book-buying is, after all, only a minor vice.  There are things I could be spending money on that are much more reprehensible.  And I buy these books moved by the blissful expectation of future reading pleasure and learning.  This does not mean that I read them all immediately.  So my collection - quite extensive, and filling up my apartment in ways that are now troubling - contains plenty of books I have not yet read.  Occasionally, friends give me a metaphorical dig in the ribs about this situation.  Yet I am pleased to find I am in the very best company - that of two great Italian writers, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.

Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, the experience of which I owe to a seminar both thrilling and terrifying at Trinity College in 1988 taught by Ian Ross,  is surely one of the greatest, funniest, most tender and intelligent books about reading - about its intellectual pleasures, about the erotics of anticipation and conclusion, about the mechanics of reading and books themselves.  Calvino was brilliantly perceptive about the widest ramifications of the act of reading.

We've just heard of the death of Umberto Eco.   The Italian literary critic, theorist of semiotics, novelist and essayist was 86.   Most famous for his first novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco was a critic in an older style than we mostly encounter these days, in public or in the academy.   He was of the generation of Paul de Man, Edward Said, Michel Foucault - scholars of monumental erudition and range, who confidently gave the impression of having read everything, capable of a kind of intellectual and critical stamina which is simply no longer possible in the era of the neoliberal bureaucratised 'university', where any activity must be pre-defined in the windy and vacuous rhetoric of 'learning outcomes' and 'impact'.  But Eco, it turns out, had the confidence - probably available only to those of great learning - to admit openly and publicly just how much he had not read.

Calvino and Eco are the star turns in a clever and amusing new column on the Dublin Review of Books website.  Calvino justifies the sheer pleasure of acquiring books.  And Eco deals briskly with the challenges to his large library from bean-counting philistines who expect him to have read everything they see on his shelves.  His erudite insouciance will be missed.  My thanks to the DRB for this defence which I will now hold ready to fend off attacks on my bibliomania:

Umberto Eco: 1932-2016


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