Monday, September 27, 2010

Books in Homes

I took this picture in 1997, shortly before we left Italy. The last place where we lived, a single room with a passageway-cum kitchen and a tiny en suite bathroom, was a rent-free arrangement that helped us through whilst I served my twelve months as a conscientious objector, unburdened by such base things as a salary. These were the only bookshelves proper, although we carved out more space in a glass cabinet that had belonged to my paternal grandmother.

Those aren't my books, either – they're our books, Justine's and mine. The survivors of a couple of moves and of a progressively diminishing space, they were about to be cut down to what could fit in a mere couple of boxes as we prepared the make our biggest move yet. My books – that is to say, the ones I had accumulated before moving out of my parents' place four years earlier – had already largely been disposed of, and besides the dwindling disposable income there was the awareness that eventually we would have to leave most of them behind anyway, and so I had progressively taught myself to stop hoarding.

It wasn't easy, however: hoarding books is something of a family trait.

In an effort to recall what it was like to grow up surrounded by books, I cast my mind back to the few times when I wasn't: whilst staying at my maternal grandparents', who owned as I recall two books: Jack London's The Iron Heel and a biographical work whose title I forget by Nonna's hallowed Sandro Pertini; or during the cumulative six weeks or so in the year that we spent holidaying in our caravan, when once you ran out of whatever reading material it was that you had packed you could fall back on a Topolino comic book with the first part of a two-part story ('Topolino e il triangolo delle Bermude' – I still hold out hope to come across part two some day), and a handful of mystery books from the Giallo Mondadori series, including, from memory, a Perry Mason and something by Rex Stout. And if the holiday happened to be abroad, there was little one could do but read those again, because read something one must.

Another way to think inversely about our house full of books comes by way of a thought experiment: what if my parents had been born one hundred years later, and had hoarded digitally? What if their books had been lined up not on shelves but in folders, or hard drives? I think back on the single, beleaguered Italian aisle at Victoria's library, on the value of those particular books occupying that particular physical space, imposing their useful limitations on it. What is the digital architecture that could simulate the space, replicate its instructional value?

Because growing up in that house full of books was in itself an education. It helped too that boredom still existed, back then, that when there wasn't anything on television there really wasn't anything on television, and that Topolino came out only once a week, so eventually I'd have to reach for one of those books: in gloriously age-inappropriate fashion, at first (War and Peace - at ten?), and later supplementing or undercutting the school canon. I plucked Borges, Cortazar, Ocampo and Roth, Kraus, Böll, Kafka, Musil, Nietzsche from my sister's library, and Calvino, Buzzati, Brecht, Mann, Pavese, Levi, Marquez, Corti, Ginzburg from my parents'.

And then Clavell, Simenon, The Sorrow and the Pity, Remarque; books on Etruscan pottery and the erotic art of Pompeii or Greece; Ottiero Ottieri and other political writers from the Sixties that Mum studied for her dissertation; Marguerite Yourcenar, the Greek lyricists, Ennio Flaiano; every two weeks, a new Giallo.

I didn't seek any of these books out, nor did anybody encourage me to read them; they were simply there, available. Even the ones I didn't read – that is to say, the vast majority – contributed to the education, naturalising the idea that vast tracts on history or Western philosophy might occupy a family's living space, and that the systematic treatment of those subjects wasn't the exclusive prerogative of educational institutions. It was, after all, largely via that library that my father had educated himself, reading amongst other things all of Livy in a parallel text edition, quite possibly teaching himself a fair bit of Latin in the process. My self-education wasn't nearly as heroic, but then unlike him I did actually go to the school where many of those things were taught.

(A book that my father used partly to improve his French. I remember staring often at that cover with utter fascination when I was a small child.)

I don't recall when it was that I bought my first non-comic book, nor what it was. It's quite possible that it was an issue of Urania, the bi-weekly periodical of science-fiction novels and short stories, for it was a genre that I had to pursue largely on my own, as I did fantasy, albeit a little less energetically. The boxed Nord edition of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series survives somehow.

I think I can more or less trace how the cocktail of these two genres, via the tutelage of Poe, Dick, LeGuin, Douglas Adams and Stefano Benni, moulded my current taste in fiction, but sometimes I wish I had more photographs of that growing library. What did I read at age eighteen, twenty, twenty-five? I feel that if I had a record it would go some way towards reconstructing what I was like back then – a notion that, if not altogether naïve, is certainly overstated: I doubt in fact that you could tell all that much about my family by examining their library, and besides books can also be a crutch, a fetish, or slowly close in on you.

There can be such a thing as a house with too many books. Such is perhaps ours nowadays for Mum: there are so many books she won't touch ever again, and conversely, so many that she would perhaps be glad to revisit if only she could locate them in one of those dreaded second rows behind. It's quite hopeless, and cannot be helped. Perhaps our house now is made of books, and if you removed them it would cave in, as was literally the case for a section of our library for a time.

No, I shouldn't be sorry that I stopped hoarding nor that I had to make choices. Choices are good. I just wish I had chosen better.

The thicker of the blue books in this enlargement from the pre-departure picture at the top of the post is Cesare Pavese's translation of Moby Dick. How foolish of me to leave it behind. I took Italian books that for the most part I could have readily found in New Zealand, as it turned out, and books in English that are still widely available, in libraries or for repurchase. What I should have taken more of were Italian translations of foreign literature – the Russians and the Germans, the Spaniards and the South Americans: Borges or Tolstoj in English seem so foreign. And even when it comes to my other language, Pavese's version still seems a more native text than Melville's own.

I also regret not having taken some books that had more of an object value. The thick green one above is my very tacky copy of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, which I'm pretty sure is also the first book in English that I ever purchased. I still can't account for its loss, which was likely a packing panic mishap, but beside the ultra-soft fake leather cover with the gold lettering it had another notable characteristic: I knew it so well I could find passages in it based on where they appeared – whether on an odd or even page, towards the top, middle or bottom, according to how the paragraph was shaped, and so forth. It was the first book I studied out of pleasure, and it made it valuable not only from a sentimental but also from a practical point of view – I simply don't know Poe as well in any other edition.

The larger point of all this is that, having to design a small library in a short space of time, I made some bad choices, failing to anticipate the kind of selection that would be most meaningful and useful to the future me. But the libraries from which no book is ever subtracted, like my family's, don't strike me as a desirable model either, and the digital alternative, without dimensions or weight, even less so, in spite of the obvious advantages, including its planetary portability.

No matter how imperfect our libraries, there is a value in furnishing our houses with books, and be encumbered by them, as one is encumbered by one's culture. Whenever I visit home I am reminded of this burden in a variety of ways, and books are perhaps the most visible of all signs, and the most densely symbolic. The high shelves in particular look down on me like a near-impenetrable wall of ancestral knowledge, a palisade of books that I know quite intimately as objects, ornamental masonry. Like the spine of the Giudizio Universale by Papini, an author whom my father loved.

I have the lifelong option of picking up that book, turning the same physical pages as he, feeling differently about those written words no doubt, but nonetheless establishing a connection that is not solely of the shamanic kind, for a printed book is also an instantiated material form which conveys its own meanings via typographic notations, formal elements and what Don McKenzie has called 'the very disposition of space itself'.

I may, or I may not, and it is an accident of our family's history and circumstances that the book is still there, and the option still open. But it still means something to me that it is.

I wrote this ahead of Jolisa's latest, and my being away prevents me from taking part in that discussion, but if you've got this far you may be interested in both the post and its comments thread.
The McKenzie phrase is from page 17 of Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts.