Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Extra Shelves

WHEN IS AN EXTRA bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don’t have to build it. In my house I am under steady pressure from my most frequent visitors—wife, two daughters—not to turn it into a book warehouse like every other dwelling I have ever been in. Some of my critics are shameless in this regard. In my wife’s extended kitchen there are piles of books which have been there for years. Her magnificent scholarly library extends in an orderly manner through several rooms, but somehow it reaches the kitchen as Antarctic ice reaches the sea. Kitchens are strange attractors. In the kitchen of my elder daughter, who lives next door to me, there are bookshelves built into every free space, but on top of each top shelf there are piles of books lying horizontally, giving the general effect of a bookshop in Haye-on-Wye. Nevertheless, because these women have supervised my latest house since its beginnings, I try to respect their wishes for neatness, which they kindly associate with my comfort. Therefore, in the kitchen-studio which acts as my principal room for reading and writing, the floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases on either side of the room should take care of my traditional holdings plus any new influx. In practice, however, some nonshelf shelving has appeared. On the kitchen counter, where it meets the wall beside the door, my complete set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time stands between a horizontal stack of all the discs of season four of Game of Thrones—kindly sent to me by the producers—and another horizontal stack of some of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, not yet read. The Flashman novels are popular among my friends and I have always promised myself that I would get around to them. Now that they have invaded my kitchen, they must be dealt with. Elsewhere in the kitchen, on a footlocker beside the couch, a couple of those invisible L-shaped plastic doodads provide support for a vertically arranged display of about half the Patrick O’Brian novels, which look so good in paperback. Thanks to the generous lending policy of my elder daughter and her friend Deirdre Serjeantson—a very learned woman, who is also good for advice on Elizabethan poetic imagery—I had already read the whole Jack Aubrey saga, but when I spotted a bunch of the individual volumes on Hugh’s bookstall I thought I had better start my own collection. Madness. Horizontally on the footlocker are also arranged some biographical books about Hemingway. Double madness: they don’t even look as if they are standing in a shelf. They just look as if they are lying around.

Upstairs there is a whole floor of the house which has similarly not only been taken over, but where the taking over is being taken over. Most of my books about twentieth-century politics are up there. I sold off my complete set of Martin Gilbert’s biography of Churchill, but all of Gilbert’s books about World War II and the Holocaust are there. My rationale for this particular cull was that I would be unlikely to find time to read the Churchill biography again, even though one of its volumes, Finest Hour, is among the great books about Britain’s salvation from barbarism. On the other hand, all six volumes of Churchill’s own history of World War II are still there, as if I will have time to pay them another visit. But I probably won’t, so their presence is really talismanic. We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be in the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.