Whilst I was waiting for my guests to arrive and the food was simmering slowly (I made red kidney bean soup with a vegetarian option that included carrots and sweet potatoes and a meat one with diced pork and beef) I looked around the lounge to make sure that the place was tidy and clean. It was then that my eyes alighted on the middle shelf of the small bookcase. I scanned the titles on display and I came to the sudden realisation that I had, unconsciously, mind, “tarted up” this reading corner. I had committed the ultimate sin: I had “sexed up” my mini-library. In swapping books from the (equally small) bookcase upstairs to the one downstairs, I had ended up with the more interesting and intellectual-looking ones on the ground floor and left the less exciting ones on the first floor. Vanity had finally got the better of me.
Or had it? Was I really being vain?
It’s a habit of mine, which I have had for many, many years, even stretching back to when I still used to live in Cuba that, whenever I visit someone’s house, I must also pay a visit to their bookshelves, if they have any. I also check out their CD collection if it’s in full view, but that’s another column. I can literally spend hours looking at the literary choices of my hosts.
A person’s bookcase says a lot about his or her personality. I’m not only referring to the genres they opt for, but also to the state of their reading material. Each book tells a story of use, re-use and in some cases, misuse (even abuse. But let’s not go there!). Sometimes my host(ess) satiates my curiosity with an anecdote on this or that volume and how it made him/her feel at the time. New authors have been recommended via another person’s mini-library. What I do have noticed is that very rarely are the books on display uninteresting or dull. They’re usually well-known pieces and as conversation ice-breakers, priceless.
So, with these thoughts in mind I wondered if others spruced up their books display as I had, apparently, done. Do you, dear reader/blogger, arrange your poetry, non-fiction and fiction material in a way that looks more eye-catching? I am aware that in the old days reading rooms were… well, just that, reading rooms. A whole section in the house would be devoted to this literary sanctuary. There was no need to “tart up” anything. What you saw was what you got. Brown leather-bound books in glass cages were the only species in this literary zoo. But I doubt that in modern times people have such lofty ambitions. For starters, there’s the practical: lack of space. And, number two, there’re the priorities we have nowadays. I guess that some people would sooner turn an empty space into a gym with state-of-the-art treadmill, than a shrine to the likes of Zola and Hurston.
Nevertheless, the more I thought about the way I had “prettied up” my bookcase (not that it was ugly to begin with; it was just very, very messy) the more I realised that the truth lay elsewhere. And it did, indeed. A few days before my dinner party I had been mulling over a - now defunct - column that used to come out in the Saturday Guardian’s Review supplement. It was called Writers’ Rooms and it could be found regularly on page five where the My Hero section is located these days. I found Writers’ Rooms a beautiful and warm read. In a few hundred words, authors (poets, short-story writers and essayists, amongst others) let us in on the secret to their magic. Because there’s no doubt that that place where you churn out word after word like a blacksmith taming the rough iron, is a magical place. Writers also showed us the mess, the reigning chaos in which they work (for instance, Marina Warner), or, in some cases, the pulchritude and wide space they needed (Joan Bakewell). Above all, I marvelled at the different notions of what a writer’s room is or represents. Simon Callow hasn’t got one since he’s always on the move. I would have thought that, if there were to be someone sticking up for the grand reading room as it used to be back in the day, Mr Callow would be its most prominent exponent.
When reading Writers’ Rooms, I remember scanning the photos of the authors’ work spaces for clues as to their source(s) of inspiration. And that’s probably one of the reasons why I ended “sexing up” my own bookcase. Not in an attempt to become a writer by osmosis (writing might have once been an aspiration I had but that goal is fading further and further away from me it as time goes on) but because I wanted to keep my sources of inspiration closer to me. The Kleins, Joyces, Piñeras and Mantels are the reason why I continue to read. Literature has never ceased to amaze me. And I don’t think it ever will. So, it wasn't vanity after all, but advertisement. I was advertising the power of reading (and good writing) to unlock the creative inner self.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be posted on Sunday 25th November at 10am (GMT)
|The "sexed-up" shelf|