As I was moving from one study to another last week I started thinking about how dependent I am on the support of a certain set of books. It’s not that I can’t work without them, just that if I am working, I prefer to have them within arm’s reach. It isn’t even necessarily that I’ll need to refer to them (though I might) – more that they’re part of the comfortable scenery, reminders of my own intentions and ambitions (and conspirators in procrastination: if there’s something else I should be doing, you’ll quite often find me flipping through one of these books).
Here’s what’s on my desk:
- The New Oxford Book of English Verse. 1972 edition. Lime green jacket, blue lettering. Chosen and edited by Helen Gardner. Purchased for £4.50 in Hay on Wye a few years ago, during the literary festival, our annual pilgrimage. Once belonged to someone who signed their name (illegible) on the 5th of August, 1978. Some previous owner – maybe the same one – also pedantically (or appropriately?) added “D.B.E., M.A., L.Litt – Prof. of Eng. Lit. Oxford” after Helen Gardner’s name on the title page. I’m not always very good with poetry but it seems important to have some to hand, and I have a sentimental attachment to this particular bulky, out of date volume, because this is how I discovered Louis Macneice: flipping through my new purchase on the train from Hereford, the sun setting outside, the carriage cold, I found “Snow“: “I peel and portion/A tangerine and spit the pips and feel/The drunkenness of things being various.”
- Louis MacNeice’s Selected Poems is, of course, also on the desk. It has soft pages and smooth edges; my mother bought it for me one summer day in Bath and just to hold it, let alone to read it, is comforting.
- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.
- Zuleika Dobson. An old orange Penguin paperback (“This edition published…in celebration of the Author’s eightieth birthday, 24 August 1952″) that I bought in Boston, at a used bookshop in Brookline, one hot September night shortly after arriving back from Oxford for the first time. I was using it for research for a while, so it’s marked up and peppered with post-it notes bearing cryptic notes like “‘Mainly architectural…’ + femininity in Oxford” that could, out of context (or even in context) be interpreted to mean almost anything you want. The post-its were bought as a joke from Urban Outfitters and all have obscenities written along the edges, like “Ass” or “Balls” or “Fuck”, so that my attempts at scholarship cannot be taken too seriously.
- The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I have practically written my own book in the margins of this copy so I hope I never lose it, though in a way to read it fresh (without my own subtext) would probably be a good thing for me.
- The Elements of Style. I only keep this on the desk because I feel I should. I had a professor in college who said we should all own a copy, so I went out and bought one, and I have hardly looked at it since. Still, it lends gravity to the line of volumes, and I do like E.B. White’s essays.
- Graham Greene’s In Search of a Character. Stolen (or rather rescued) from a school library. It’s a slim book but I haven’t read the whole thing; I keep it there because of the introduction – “Neither of these journals was kept for publication, but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence” – and the first line of the Congo journal: “…All I know about the story I am planning is that a man ‘turns up’, and for that reason alone I find myself on a plane between Brussells and Leopoldville.”
-Brideshead Revisited. We have at least three other copies of this in the house but this is the original, bought at a book sale in Santa Ynez, printed in 1945, with its unmistakable Brideshead smell. In the back is a National Express ticket from January 2009, from High Wycombe to Oxford. I have never been to High Wycombe, so this is a complete mystery to me. Over the years this book has come to mean less to me than it used to, but it’s still inconceivable that I could ever sit at a desk and write seriously without it being present.
-The Origin of Species.
- An uncorrected proof of Isolarian by James Attlee, which I read during my first summer here. I guess in a way I think Attlee has written the book that I would have liked to write. At first I was sniffy about this, because I wanted to write it, but now I find it rather soothing, because seeing the book there reminds me that I don’t have to write that book, – the burden has been lifted! – that I have another book (or other books, I should say) to write instead. Also, it’s very good.
- Heart of Darkness. I remember reading this in my last year of high school. I got really into it (some of my notes and essays from that first reading are tucked in the back of this flimsy copy), and I think I mainly keep it visible to remind me that I know how to read, if you see what I mean.
- Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I think if Kirsty Young asked me what book I’d like on my desert island in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, this might be it. I don’t know why but I can’t seem to grow tired of reading it; the delight intsensifies with each re-reading. The book begins to smell worn and right, the pages stained with sunlight.
- Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan. Because the tension described by this line: “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other” is at the heart of (a lot of) what I think and write about.
- Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. For this line and a million others:
“So I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book. All I did was switch between two – empty – files on my computer, one conveniently called C:\DHL, the other C:\NOVELand sent myself ping-ponging back and forth between them until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way. The best thing was to do nothing, to sit calmly, but there was no calm, of course: instead, I felt totally desolate because I realised that I was going to write neither my study of D.H. Lawrence nor my novel.”
- Vile Bodies. There’s a chapter of this book written entirely in dialogue. It’s hilarious and devastating, hilariously devastating, devastatingly hilarious.
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I know this book pretends to be a detective novel, but it isn’t; it’s a love story about Oxford. I can’t remember who, but someone once told me it was “the best of the books about Oxford”, and I’m not sure I could honestly disagree. In any case I do remember that Wodehouse wrote of Sayers that, “It is extraordinary how much better she is than almost all other mystery writers”.
- The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton.
- The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard