Since I have heard it said that you can find out a lot about people’s characters from their bookshelves, I thought it would be interesting to put it to the test. Books have always formed a kind of parallel universe in my life; I can usually remember how I came by them and what else I was doing when I read them. This is probably why I find it so difficult to discard them; a recent cull produced only four volumes to send to the jumble sale.
I have homed in on one of my bookshelves at random to see if the books that it contains say anything about me. I should perhaps add that it is one of thirty-six bookshelves in my dining-room, some of them stacked two deep, and there are others in most of the other rooms. This may dilute my objective somewhat, but still it provides a bit of fun on a snowy Saturday! I should also confess that, despite my husband’s best efforts, there is no logical order to the way in which my books are arranged.
- The Gunpowder Plot, Antonia Fraser. I read this in a hotel in Scotland, just after I handed in my notice to go to another job and my old boss was trying to persuade me not to leave. Great account, well-told, in which I was able to lose myself completely.
- Mrs Keppel and her daughter, Diana Souhami. Took this on holiday to France in 1996 and read it in the garden of a gite miles from anywhere (a place called Measnes). Excellent period piece that answered some of my questions about Violet Trefusis (a writer who intrigues me).
- The Bicycle Book, Geoff Apps. Not mine! Bought to support one of my son’s enthusiasms, circa 1999 (at a time when the author could have had no idea how topical his last name would become!).
- Condition Black, Gerald Seymour, and eleven other Gerald Seymours, all dutifully signed by the author, who presented them to me after I organised an author event for him (as a library supplier) in 1991. I have to confess that I haven’t read any of them, though my husband now tells me he has read them all, and I know that they have been popular with visitors.
- Waking: An Irish Protestant Upbringing, Hugh Maxton. I bought this in the late ‘90s from the bookshop at Goldsmith’s College (London) and read it on the train on the way home. My old supervisor, Bill McCormack (see Sheridan Le Fanu article) was teaching at Goldsmith’s at the time. He writes poetry as Hugh Maxton.
- In Praise of Folly, Erasmus. Given to me as a sample by Wordsworth Classics when the imprint was launched. I haven’t read this, either.
- Nothing Except My Genius, Oscar Wilde. A slim volume containing a selection of Wilde’s sayings and aphorisms, for dipping into. Not sure where it came from – maybe a Booksellers Association Conference ‘goody-bag’? Precious wit from one of my favourite writers.
- Restoration, Rose Tremain. In my view, the best novel by another author whom I much admire. A present from colleagues. I read some of it when I couldn’t sleep while staying in a dive of a hotel after a party to celebrate Hatchard’s 200th birthday (which both Princess Margaret and Salman Rushdie, at the time under the threat of the fatwa, attended. Security was tight!).
- Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson. A long and sombre book; well-researched, but for me it fails to capture the essence of Beckett’s genius. I have certainly read all of it, but (unusually) I don’t remember when.
- The Battle of Bosworth, Michael Bennett. One of a small collection of titles published by Alan Sutton about the Wars of the Roses, all of which I have devoured. I acquired them in the 1990s but have read them all again much more recently.
- Nature is Your Guide, Harold Gatty; Dowsing, Tom Graves; Flowering Bulbs, Eva Petrova: None of these is mine. With the exception of Dowsing (an interest of my husband’s for a while) I have no idea where they came from.
- The House, Deborah Devonshire. This is an account of Chatsworth by the Duchess of Devonshire and was given to me in at the launch which took place at Chatsworth. The occasion was memorable for two reasons: Harold Macmillan, the Duchess’s uncle, then a nonagenarian, gave a very witty speech; I fainted – it was a hot thunderstormy day – and had to be carried outside and deposited on one of those pieces of Victorian wicker garden furniture that is half chaise-longue, half bath-chair. (My son was born eight months later.)
- Back to Bologna, Michael Dibdin. A recent read that I much enjoyed, by a favourite author.
- Balzac, by Graham Robb. I was reading this book in 2006 when, by a wonderful piece of serendipity, I found myself sitting next to his wife, at the British Book Awards ceremony (she is a librarian).
- British Greats, John Mitchinson. Another BA Conference goody-bag acquisition. I’ve not opened it before; now I come to do so, it is interesting, in a coffee-table, lazy-afternoon sort of way.
- Kennedy’s Brain, Henning Mankell. I read this while in bed with ‘flu, Christmas 2008. One of Mankell’s most serious novels, it is about Africa, a continent on whose behalf he is a well-known crusader. I enjoy and admire all of his books.
This row of books gives a fragmentary account of some of the things that have happened to me. I’m not sure what it says about my character or brain, except that it certainly exposes me as a magpie! It also suggests that my husband and son are inextricably entwined, for better or worse.
I was a little dismayed when I studied the latest Public Lending Right [PLR] figures over the weekend. I’m a great supporter of Public Lending Right; I remember when it was first set up thirty years ago. Originally campaigned for by authors like Brigid Brophy and Antonia Fraser, and more recently Andrew Motion and Monica Ali, its purpose is to make payment (from a fund awarded by the government) to authors whose books are borrowed from public libraries. The Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society [ALCS] grew out of the original campaign. I met John Sumsion, its first director and the genius behind the system that computes how much each author should be paid, several times before his untimely death (he had previously worked in I.T. in the shoe industry) and am proud to be able to count its present director, Dr. Jim Parker, who has now been at the helm for twenty-five years, a good friend. He has not only worked tirelessly to support PLR in this country, but has also acted as its ambassador in many countries across the world. He is a published historian who has written brilliantly about the East India Company.
Back to this year’s figures, though. Unsurprisingly, crime novels feature prominently on the lists of books borrowed in 2011-2012. So far so good. I’m by no means a xenophobe when it comes to reading and appreciating the work of other authors, as my blog-posts will testify, yet I do find it a little disheartening to see that, of the twenty crime writers most-borrowed in British public libraries, American authors predominate and that only three British authors – MC Beaton, Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin – have made the top twenty at all. Yet more astonishing is that Ian Rankin, whose books account for 10% of all the crime novels sold in the UK (according to book-industry-produced statistics), ranks as only the twentieth most borrowed author.
Book trade research suggests that people who borrow books also buy books and therefore that libraries and booksellers are not in competition with each other, but have a symbiotic effect on each other’s activities. I wonder how the PLR figures fit in with this? Do people borrow books by authors different from the ones whose works they buy? Are the shelves of our public libraries more heavily stocked with books by American than by British authors and, if so, why? Or is it the case that people are so impatient to read the latest Ian Rankin, Stephen Booth or Peter Robinson that they don’t want to wait for it to become available in the library and so go out and buy it or order it online, at the same time taking out a James Patterson to tide them over? This last is the most optimistic explanation that I can think of, but I should love to undertake some proper research to substantiate my theory!