The title is from Groucho Marx: “Outside of a Dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” which is both funny and a demonstration that homilies about reading are stupid. The subtitle – A Bibliomemoir – is a term and category I have made up, and do not wish to define. What is a bibliomemoir, then? It’s one of these. Read it and find out.
INTRODUCTION: The Battle of the Books
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
“Lot 147 then. Lovely item!”
The auctioneer’s eyes flicked towards the left hand wall.
A ferrety porter in a green apron pointed out the object.
“Showing here, sir!”
“Who’ll start me at £100 then?”
I stood along the left side of the room, my catalogue clutched damply in my hand, trying to look nonchalant. An audience of about fifty people wandered in and out, settled on their chairs, drank coffee from plastic cups. A middle aged women in a hat with a red feather had bid excitedly on many of the items, waving her catalogue in the air. In the back row a silver haired man was reading quietly to a toddler.
Our local auction house had weekly sales of sub-antique household furniture, which were great fun for picking up the odd coal scuttle, rocking chair, or threadbare Oriental rug. Occasionally I might spend a tenner on a job lot of books with one or two first editions in it. The pickings were not bad: prosperous towns with large houses often disgorge interesting bric-a-brac. While Leamington Spa’s treasures weren’t as rich as those of, say, Bath or Cheltenham, there were bargains to be had.
But this was not one of the weekly sales, but the monthly Fine Art Sale, which was not for the likes of me. In 1974 I only made £1800 a year, and I had never spent more than £16 on an item for the house. I was very nervous, scanning the room for possible competition. A local dealer? Perhaps one of my University colleagues?
“£100? £100? Who’ll start me at £50 then?” His eyes moved towards the back of the room, where a clutch of dealers were smoking and chatting noisily, apparently paying no attention.
“I have £50.”
He moved upwards slowly in increments of £5. I bided my time, prowling like a nervous lion, ready to pounce. The bidding reached £85 and the pace slowed. I raised my programme in the air, but wasn’t noticed. I raised my whole arm. Me, sir, pick me!
“New place. £90. Thank you sir.”
The dealer at the back nodded once more, and I increased my bid to £100. There was a pause as the auctioneer peered round the room. The dealer shrugged and went back to his conversation. The laws of nature were suspended. Time stood still. The gavel poised in the air.
“All done then? Last chance. Do I hear £110?… I’ll take £105 if you like.”
A final leisurely look, and the gavel hit the podium with a satisfying crack. I lowered my arm, which had stayed suspended in the air as if I were acknowledging applause after scoring a goal.
I was exultant. The very same item had been offered in a previous Fine Arts Sale, at an estimate of £300 – £500, and I had watched as it failed to sell. No way could I afford that much for a bookcase, however grand. I had a theory though – I had lots of theories in those days – which was that large bookcases were white elephants: if a person had a lot of books he was unlikely to have a big house, whereas people with large houses weren’t likely accumulators of books. So big bookcases need to find just the right buyer.
That would be me, and this one was a beauty. Made of Victorian mahogany, it divided into six sections, the three top ones fitting onto the slightly protruding bottom sections, making a unit twelve feet long by ten feet high, with fifteen adjustable shelves that would hold, I reckoned, about a thousand books. My then-wife Barbara and I had recently refurbished a gracious Regency terraced house in the middle of Leamington Spa. It had four double bedrooms, a large sitting room with a balcony overlooking the garden and original wide-planked reddish Canadian pine floors, and an undistinguished marble fireplace, which we thought rather posh.
In the process of furnishing the house, the recurrent problem was where to find room for all my books. I was not a book collector, but I acquired them avidly, and for any variety of reasons. I bought books to read immediately, books to read sometime in the future, books that were useful for research, books that looked good to me or might look good to others. Many I bought for no reason at all, on one whim or another. And after a time there was nowhere to put them. The alcoves were all shelved, occasional bookcases bedecked the walls of the hallways, bedrooms, kitchen and study. Piles of books grew like spores, and prospered. The house was infested with them.
And now, with the mere raising and eventual lowering of a hand, the problem was solved. I paid £20 to have our new bookcase delivered, assembled it on the left hand wall of the sitting room, opposite the fireplace, and spent a sweaty weekend organising and shelving, constructing an exhibition of my life as a reader. There were books from my high school and undergraduate years, like the tatty but heavily annotated A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.From my time at Oxford, working copies of all of Matthew Arnold, my annotated Lewis Carroll, long runs of Lawrence, Joyce, and Eliot. And most significantly there were my Conrads: all of his books, many in first editions, as well as all of the available critical books on him, which I had used doing my D.Phil., many of them stained with sweat and tears. Then there were all of the books, with their heavy apparatus of notes, annotations, marginalia and insertions, that I had used while teaching at The University of Warwick: hundreds of volumes of philosophy, psychology and literature, the tools of my former trade, each volume weighted with the memory of courses, syllabuses, and seminars taught. There were books that charted my various enthusiasms: tomes on Chinese porcelain, a series of books on Oriental painting, shelves full of art books and exhibition catalogues, plus a mass of books about various sports: John Feinstein on golf and basketball, Mike Brearley on cricket captaincy, Hunter Davies on football, George Will on baseball, Nick Faldo on himself.
When, some twenty years later, Barbara and I divorced, we came to the neat agreement that she would keep the house and its contents, and I would have our smaller London flat and its contents. The only exception to this admirably simple plan was that I would be allowed to retrieve my books whenever I was able to house them. But a divorce is seldom a simple or amicable thing: people don’t do it because they trust each other and know how to negotiate their differences. A year later, when I moved to a larger flat with my new girlfriend Belinda, I rang Barbara to ask when I could pick up the books? Never, she said. She was entitled to the contents of the house, as we had agreed, and if she had once (she acknowledged) allowed me to think of them as mine, she had changed her mind and was keeping them. Given that I had refused to return a Roger Hilton painting that I had given her as a gift, but which was still in London, why should she return my books?
I was stunned. She was quite right about the painting, and I had behaved badly, but I had never expected anything as forensically undermining as the kidnapping of my books. I’d been outsmarted, mugged, and denuded of a great treasure. I howled, I hooted, I imprecated. I cursed Barbara and I cursed God. These weren’t books, things of paste and ink and paper. They were my as close as I came to a soul, they contained my history, my inner voices and connections to the transcendent, and she had excised it, as in that novel of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy, where children’s daemons are surgically removed, and they waste away and die. Ex-wives know where your soft spots are, and this foray was wonderfully exact, as if beamed by micro-surgery into the secret places of my heart.
The books were not of any interest to her. They were mine, they were archaeologically mine. If you dug through and into them, layers of my life were progressively uncovered. What hurt the worst was the loss of my Graham Greenes, which had been Bertie’s bottle books. Though Barbara had breast-fed our first child, Anna, by the time baby Bertie was born, some six years later, she had decided that anyone who goes through childbirth deserves a rest. I rather agreed, and was happy to give him his middle-of-the-night feed with a bottle. He would beam up at me, his silver-gold hair radiant as spun moonlight, and slurp away happily. I developed rather a neat posture in which I could tuck him into the crook of my left arm, place the bottle delicately in his mouth, and keep open a paperback Graham Greene in my right hand. I read fifteen of them before Bertie started to sleep through the night.
I later bought, from Greene himself, a set of his Collected Works, each of the twenty volumes signed by him, which he’d formerly kept in his flat in Paris. I associated them, naturally enough, with Bertie. They were gone as well.
My books were gone. The effect was tremendous, unexpected, physically distressing. I felt dizzy and nauseous, I kept having to sit down to regain my equilibrium. My books were gone. It prompted the questions, at once psychological and metaphysical: Was I still me? Who am I, with no books?
You may think this was an over-reaction. It was. Nobody died, yet what I experienced was a form of grief. After the initial pain and disbelief there was an aching sense of loss. If there was something clownishly self-indulgent about this response, the intensity of my reaction was fuelled from other sources, from the accumulated frustration, anger, and hurt that the loss of love entails.
But as time passed – we’re only talking six months here – what I increasingly and surprisingly felt was no longer a sense of loss, but one of release. All those books, all that dust, all those metres of shelf space crammed higgledy-piggledy with paperbacks with their spines coming off, assorted hardbacks with torn or missing dust wrappers, maps and guidebooks stuffed into corners, bits of stuff and guff and fluff. For a rare book dealer I treat my personal books with shocking disregard. I cram them into shelves, dog-ear pages as I read, remove dust wrappers and then lose them. I suppose I still regard most books, as academics do, as mere objects of utility.
Though there may be comfort in large numbers of books, there’s very little beauty. The art dealer Anthony d’Offay, who began as a rare book dealer, once told me that of all the serious art collectors he knew “only two” have large numbers of books anywhere in the house. His point was not that big-hitting art collectors are semi-literate, but that almost all of them regard large assemblages of books as ugly. Viewed in this way (you have to skew your head to the side and look carefully) what you see when you look at a lot of books is paper in various stages of decay. Over time it progressively becomes yellowed with age, musty, acidic, bowed or brittle, ready for decomposition. It takes longer for paper than for humans, but the process is the same, and the results similar.
I like to think that when Philip Larkin memorably said “books are a load of crap,” he was not trying simply to shock. Perhaps he was also observing something about books as physical objects, and about the properties – the genesis and eventual decline – of paper? Paper begins when trees are reduced to vat-fulls of yucky mulch; the books that are one of the results of this process can fertilise and nourish, to be sure, but there is something ineluctably physical, something that suggests decay and death, something disgusting about them.
And the curious feeling that was gradually unfolding in me, I recognised, was relief. Books, if not exactly crap, were certainly a burden. It felt free to live in a space that wasn’t shelved on all sides, surrounded and defined by books. Large numbers of books seem to consume the very air. There’s something insistently aggressive about them, something clamorous: “Look at me! Read me! Remember me! Refer to me! Cite me! Dust me! Rearrange me!”Perhaps this is why working in libraries has always made me feel anxious. Academic friends reminisce with delight about hours spent in Duke Humphrey’s Reading Room at Bodley, the Beinecke at Yale, the Ransom Center at Texas, the old Reading Room at the British Library. I’ve spent my time in each of them, anxiously plotting an escape.
Too much unread, too much unknown, too poignant the sense of the futility of writing books. The British Library has millions of the damn things. Looking at the stacks I am often struck, not by the range and determination of man’s quest for knowledge, but by the utter fatuousness of it all, the vanity.
Samuel Johnson – himself heavily represented in libraries – makes the point with characteristic zest:
“Of many writers who fill their age with wonder, and whose names we find celebrated in the books of their contemporaries, the works are now no longer to be seen, or are seen only among the lumber of libraries which are seldom visited, where they lie only to shew the deceitfulness of hope, and the uncertainty of honour.”
If books are a joy to visit, they are a relief to escape. My books were gone? I didn’t need them anymore, they’d done their work, and I’d done mine. All of a sudden there was a new sense of lightness. This didn’t merely consist of more space in which to hang pictures, it meant that I felt less surrounded by my own history. I was a bookish person. I still am, only without many books. It was a giddy sensation. I felt deracinated, disassociated. And free.
I suppose you need to be a certain age (I was 55) to feel thus unencumbered; I would have taken it worse twenty years before, when I needed the books not merely as working tools, but as objects of self-definition. But now? Now they had become memento mori, and I was glad to take my eyes from them. I came to feel that if Barbara hadn’t initiated the process, I would (or at least should) have done it myself. I began, even, to feel grateful to her, for releasing me from these fusty appurtenances. She’d always had an acute sense of the fatuousness of academic life. Well, now all those books were her problem.
After all, readingis what matters, and has always mattered to me. I can’t not do it, any more than I can stop eating or breathing. Left on my own for the briefest of moments – on a bus, in the toilet, waiting for the dentist – I am acutely uncomfortable without something, anything, to read. In extremis I take my wallet out and read my credit cards. (One of them has five sevens in the number!) I can’t stop reading without feeling anxious, and extinguished: I read, therefore I am.
We are accustomed to talking of things and events “influencing” our “development”: of the formative power of parental support or abuse, gifted or sadistic schoolteachers, changes of faces and venues, disappointment and delight in the pursuit of love, successes and failures in search of some goal or other. When we think of such experiences we too often neglect the way in which reading, too, has made us. Who would I be abstracted from what I have read, how would I have been formed? If I try to extract some sense of myself now, at the age of 64, which is in some way independent of the myriad effects of my reading, there is only puzzlement. The same sort of bemusement that occurs when I wonder what it would have been like to have been an astronaut or a lion, grown up in Bangladesh or Peru, met an angel or been abducted by aliens.
I am inconceivable without my books. You can’t take them away, they are inside me, they are what I am. Yet when the relations between reading and living are considered, it is often in passing, and frequently results in a formulation similar to that once made by Angela Carter: “You bring to a novel, anything you have read, all your experience of the world.” That’s an unremarkable thing to say. What else would you “bring” to a novel? A prawn cocktail? But if you reverse Carter’s formulation, and also claim that you bring to life everything that you have read in novels – some version of the Emma Bovary thesis – you get a much more interesting, and less studied, topic.
How do books make us? I don’t know. Putting the question at this level of abstraction suggests a topic for a psychologist or sociologist, and I have no taste for such generalities. What I want to know is how my books have made me. To recall, to reread and to reencounter the books that filled my mahogany bookcase, and continue to fill my present self.
What fun to pursue such a train of thought. To go into my (sparsely) book-lined study, turn that reading lamp inwards, and to reflect. To look at those (few) books in the dawning recognition that what they furnish is not a room, but a self.
Short-listed for the PEN/Ackerley Award 2010
Some Reviews and Responses
The Spectator (Selina Hastings): “extravagantly enjoyable, lively, candid, and wonderfully well-written…. It is this voice that makes Outside of a Dog so irresistibly appealing. Rick Gekoski is a superb narrator, vivid, colloquial, funny and tough. He is an inspiring literary critic, engaging vigorously with his chosen texts; and he has a novelist’s gift for creating character.”
The Sunday Independent (Christian House):”a wonderful account of a life immersed in books….The unifying force is the quality of Gekoski’s writing, which reads like a performance from a seasoned raconteur: extremely funny and seamlessly structured….a heady mix of great literary invention and populist product….Many of the books form springboards for his polymathic rambles. It’s a message lucidly and gracefully delivered in this warm and witty volume.”
Metro (Tina Jackson): “Gekoski reveals himself to be a benign raconteur, infusing his tales with learning leavened with wit and warmth…. the result seems to be a man who loves books but also has a great lust for life.”
The Economist: “Clever, man and boy, Mr Gekoski casts a critical eye on the beat generation, on his own shortcomings, on the rise of feminism and the ever deadening hand of university life…. This is a book for anyone who has ever wondered how many books there might be time to read: funny, wistful and filled with a longing finally satisfied.”
The Guardian: Synopsis of reviews.
The Financial Times (Emmanuelle Smith): “A funny, irreverent melange of literary criticism and autobiography.”
The Irish Times (Eamon Delaney): “Gekoski is an awkward character who likes to rock the boat…. a reader’s reader and his enthusiasm is palpable. He is also an ambitious reader. This child-like enthusiasm for unconventional experience is endearing… you don’t know where he’s going next. This is an exasperating read at times but it is utterly compelling. God bless his honesty.”
The Independent (Jonathan Sale): “What this book lacks in canine chit-chat it makes up for in provocative memories of volumes which Rick Gekoski has read…. Outside of a Dogis like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch without the football.”
The Telegraph (Michael Arditti): “Above all, both [Susan] Hill and Gekoski embody the virtues of wide-ranging, deeply felt and considered reading. In an age of Google web-bites and supermarket discount sales, this is much to be cherished.”
Rare Book Review (Colin Steele): “a wonderful raconteur…a frank, witty, and always entertaining description of an extrovert life. Outside of a Dog is wonderful company for whenever and wherever you read.”
The Economist: BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009
The Scotsman: BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009
The Listener, New Zealand (Guy Somerset): “Cheer and intelligence are the qualities that shine through his books. Gekoski is a tremendous racanteur…and Outside of a Dog tells many great stories.”
The Melbourne Age (Dianne Demsey): “Gekoski has a way with words. With wit and insight he describes the impact writers… have had on his life, and conversely the way his life impacts on his reading…. (he) continues to explore the marriage between books and life, providing the reader with much pleasure and insightful illumination”
The Evening Standard (Diary): “Writer and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski’s new book Outside of a Dog, published last week by Constable, explores the role that 25 seminal books — from Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’ to Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ — have played in his life. Peter Ackroyd, on hearing Gekoski’s original intention to write such a ‘bibliomemoir’, commented archly to the author: “Darling boy, why don’t you write about something interesting?” Given the book’s rave reviews, might Ackroyd be reconsidering his judgement?”
The Literary Review (John Sutherland): ““a remarkable journey through the book world….in which Rick Gekoski has done many good things in return for the good things books have done for him. Not the least is this funny, touching, rawly candid memoir. I love the man.”
The Sunday Telegraph (Anne Chisholm): “a comically self-aware account, half confessional, half boast, of his life as a compulsive reader…This is an intelligent, consciously disarming book, packed with ideas, jokes, good stories, small triumphs and larger regrets.”
The TLS (Eric Korn): “a subtle and successful bookman…With his nose alert for dry rot, Gekoski rarely goes out by the same door as in he wends.”
The London Review Bookshop (Christmas Choices 2009): “Rick Gekoski is as witty and entertaining as he is well read.”
The Telegraph BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2009 (Penelope Lively): “Great fun.”
Canberra Times: “frank, witty and always entertaining…. Outside of a Dog is wonderful company for whatever and wherever you read.”
The Sydney Morning Herald (Catherine Keenan): “wry, earnest and frequently charming… the simple elegance with which Gekoski presents these insights , how neatly he intertwines ther literary and the personal. One of the joys is that it cuts through the truisms about books being civilising or enlarging… It reminds us, first and foremost, that books matter. There is something both welcome and fresh about this.”
The Los Angeles Times (Susan Salter Reynolds): A “delightful memoir. What’s different here is that Gekoski doesn’t go gooey about books — there’s no hagiography, just companionship and some good advice…. an effervescent witness to literature.”
PN Review: “Gekoski is one of those ornaments of contemporary literary culture….[with an] urbanely persuasive, often amused tone of voice…”
Blog Reviews: Natalie Galustian; A Common Reader; Stuff and Nonsense; The Crime of it All
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