WATCHING England suffocate stuporous Sweden in the quarter finals of this year’s World Cup my contempt for jingoistic pundits reached a new level when one former footballer remarked that anyone who was not engrossed in the stultifying spectacle unfolding on the screen but was instead reading a book ought to ‘get a life’.
What the pundit failed to appreciate was that those of us who might prefer to read rather than watch a ninety-minute yawn are the ones who are indeed getting a life – in fact many lives – while the poor saps glued to the gogglebox have no life worth speaking of. As the growing number of ‘bibliomemoirs’ attest – Laura Freeman’s The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, Rebecca Mead’s My Life and Middlemarch and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – the discovery of reading in childhood is a passport to worlds real and imaginable and without end. Bookish children have essentially the same story to tell, how they found succour from the banality of existence which, when not frightening or disturbing, was simply dull beyond words.
I was not a bookish boy, or I don’t believe I was. Every hour of the day and often well into a murky Scottish night, I played football, in the street, on patches of bare grass, in mud-clogged fields with jerseys for goalposts. I dreamt not of following in the footsteps of Wattie Scott or Bobby Stevenson but of emulating the likes of Willie Henderson, Jimmy Johnstone or, my hero among heroes, silky Jimmy Greaves. Musselburgh, the compact seaside town on Scotland’s east coast where I was born and grew up, did not boast of any examples of writers whose paths I might follow. There was a celebrated footballer, however, who did come from the place known as the Honest Toun. John White played for Scotland and, like Greaves, Tottenham Hotspur, whose fans knew him as ‘the ghost’ because of his ability to drift into the penalty box as if out of nowhere and score. I still remember the day he died. It was the summer of 1964 and I was delivering the Edinburgh Evening News when I read on its front page that he had been fatally struck by lightning while playing golf. He was just 27, his young life cut short just like that a year earlier of JFK, to whom he bore a passing resemblance.
What I and my football obsessed friends took from White’s story was that we too could make it if we had but talent enough. It was a possibility, albeit an unlikely one.
On the other hand, to want to be a writer was as alien to my peers as to have an ambition to be an astronaut. I knew no one in my family’s social circle who earned their living by writing. It just wasn’t a career option. Later, though, I learned that Musselburgh did have a literary heritage of sorts. A nineteenth-century poet, David Macbeth Moir, after whom streets were named, and who has lately had a Wetherspoons’ pub named in his honour (who needs an OBE?), was one of ours. I learned, too, from Alan Bold’s biography of Hugh MacDiarmid, that it was from my own dentist, a bibliophile and Scottish Nationalist, that the fiery poet had been given a free set of dentures.
Typical of most of the families in the council estate on which I lived, mine possessed few books. Comics were the gateway to literature. The route to books was through a box brought weekly into our primary school classroom. You would have thought it was a Christmas hamper given the rapaciousness with which we fell upon it. Thereafter I was introduced to the local library where floral-aproned female assistants crept around as if in slippers and hissed ‘shsssh’ if you sucked too loudly on a toffee. What drew me there in the first instance I have no memory. It may simply be that one day I ducked in out of the rain and fell in love with the atmosphere. In contrast to our home there was space, quiet and shelf upon shelf of books all carefully arranged as if one parade. I have often wondered what it must be like to be, say, a football pundit and have never known the embrace of a library and the sight of numberless books and the promise they contain. When I grew older and acquired my own library I often took consolation from the knowledge that I had books aplenty to keep me entertained and engrossed for as long as it was possible to live. The idea that I might find myself stuck in a lift or on a desert island used to fill me with horror. I never left the house – still never leave it – without a book in my bag. I know: I really ought to get a life.
It is chastening to realize that reading for pleasure is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first significant step towards it was taken by Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg who, in the 1450s in the German town of Mainz, as Keith Houston describes it in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, ‘pulled and released the lever of a makeshift wine press, and everything changed’. By the invention of moveable type, Gutenberg made it possible to produce books quickly, cheaply and in increasing numbers. Without him, the modern world would be impossible to imagine. Of course it was several centuries before the ownership of books became the norm. Even in the nineteenth century, when industrialization, mass-produced paper and the introduction of mass education and with it the ability to read pushed down the cost of books, it was still too expensive for many people on the lower rungs of society to afford them. The reading public may have expanded exponentially but those with the wherewithal to own books remained largely in the minority. Public libraries, thanks in large part to the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, helped satisfy demand. In the main, however, they were conduits for information and education. Amusement was not a priority and local authorities, many of whom only reluctantly introduced libraries, did their best to discourage it. Their message was clear; read if you must but it had to be literature that was of an improving, elevating nature. If you were a fan of religious commentaries you were in heaven.
This attitude pertained well into the last century. In the early 1930s, when QD ‘Queenie’ Leavis produced her hugely influential and persistently snooty study, Fiction and the Reading Public, she could confidently assert that, ‘In twentieth-century England [she meant Britain, but we’ll let that pass] not only everyone can read but it is safe to add that everyone does read’. But it was what people read – newspapers in the main – that disturbed Leavis. ‘A Sunday morning walk through any residential district will reveal the head of the family “reading the newspaper” in each front window; in the poorest quarters the News of the World is read on the doorstep or in bed; the weekly perusal of the Observer or the Sunday Times, which give a large proportion of their contents to book-reviews and publishers’ advertisements, is in many cases the only time that even the best-intentioned businessman or schoolmaster can spare for literary education.’ Time then as now, it seems, was at a premium. Books, it was perceived, were voracious swallowers of it. If you were going to read one it had better be of the sort that was worth the effort. It was like having a diet exclusively of vegetables or fruit. Junk food, like junk fiction, was proscribed by the panjandrums who ran civic life. Surveying the fiction shelves of public libraries, Leavis noted the absence even of ‘the significant work in fiction’, such as the novels of DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, TF Powys and EM Forster. ‘Apart from the fact that three out of the five are held by the majority to be indecent, a fact suggestive in itself,’ reflected the imperious Leavis, ‘four out of the five would convey very little, if anything, to the merely literate. A librarian who has made the experiment of putting “good” fiction into his library will report that no one would take out South Wind or The Garden Party, whereas, if he were put two hundred more copies of Edgar Wallace’s detective stories on the shelves, they would all be gone the same day.’
What turned book borrowers into buyers, at least on these shores, was growing affluence and the advent in 1935 of Penguin Books. For the first time a book – a paperback that fitted snugly into a proper pocket – cost no more than a poke of chips. Now homes where there had been no books had a shelf or two filled with them. Then came the Second World War which, far from stunting the company’s growth, helped spur it on. While many readers recall with affection the first ten titles published by Penguin, which included novels not only by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie but also by Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, few are aware that it was also the publisher of bestselling manuals like Keeping Poultry, Rabbits on Scraps and Aircraft Recognition, which were designed to help fill empty bellies and bolster the war effort. Didactic such books may have been but they were books. For some it was the first step towards bibliomania.
Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library and Edmund White’s The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading are the memoirs of hopeless addicts who will go to their graves with the shakes. Manguel’s publisher says he is ‘a lover of books’ but he is much more than that. Appointed the director of the National Library of Argentina – a post once held by Jorge Luis Borges, to whom Manguel used to read – he has written copiously on books and reading. In an earlier book, A Reader on Reading, he made an attempt – in fact many attempts – to define the ideal reader, the final one being: ‘Literature depends, not on ideal readers, but merely on good enough readers.’ To become a good enough reader rather sums up Manguel’s life. It has been his equivalent of reaching the South Pole or the source of the Amazon. One of his earliest memories, he recalls, was of a shelf full of books on the wall above his cot from which his nurse would take down one and read to him. The obvious comparison is with RLS and his nurse, Alison ‘Cummy’ Cunningham, who had no need for books because the stories with which she beguiled and terrified him were all in her head. The shelf above Manguel’s bed was his first library, the beginning of an inextinguishable obsession and a relationship, unlike the human kind, which will endure. ‘I remember arranging and rearranging my books according to secret rules that I invented for myself,’ he writes, ‘all the Golden Books series had to be grouped together, the fat collections of fairy tales were not allowed to touch the minuscule Beatrix Potters, stuffed animals could not sit on the same shelf as the books. I told myself that if these rules were upset, terrible things would happen. Superstition and the art of libraries are tightly entwined.’ Was Manguel, I wonder, who is 69, a few years older than me, ever the kind of boy who dreamed of becoming a Maradona?
Packing My Library is sub-titled ‘An Elegy and Ten Digressions’. The digressions seem almost to be diversions, leading readers away from Manguel’s own ‘elegy’. That is not say they lack interest; on the contrary they tell stories of writers and books which allow him to ponder on things that all readers must ask themselves from time to time, such as: does literature achieve anything in a society? Books are generally believed to be good for us, that they help us live better lives. Few books, for example, rejoice in the morally bad; baddies get their comeuppance, nice people – in general – succeed in the end. So what if not everyone lives happily ever after; in the main the current that runs through virtually all literature is positive and redemptive. ‘Of course,’ writes Manguel, ‘literature may not be able to save anyone from injustice, or from the temptations of greed or the miseries of power. But something about it must be perilously effective if every dictator, every totalitarian government, every threatened official tries to do away with it, by burning books, by banning books, by censoring books, by taxing books, by paying mere lip service to the cause of literacy, by insinuating that reading is an elitist activity.’
Manguel knows of what he speaks. The son of a book-loving Argentinian diplomat, he left his home country for Europe in 1969, shortly before it fell under military dictatorship. He lugged his library with him and wherever he went he added to it. Over the years it grew like giant knotweed until he had over 35,000 volumes. With his then partner, he settled in France, in the Loire Valley, where for fifteen years he housed his books in an ancient barn. The way he describes it, it seems idyllic, but like all idylls it was illusory and ephemeral. ‘I thought that once the books found their place, I would find mine. I was to be proved wrong,’ Manguel relates at the outset. What we never discover, however, is what it was that proved him wrong. Thus Packing My Library has an inherent sense of frustration, of the unsaid – or the unsayable? – of a reluctance to trust the reader, even a reader who may be just good enough.
What cannot be underestimated, though, is the loss of a library which, if arranged chronologically by date of acquisition, would be tantamount to an autobiography. Those of us who collect books know deep down that they are reminders of who we are and were and what we were doing at a particular time and place. For Edmund White they are as integral to his life as his family and friends. Some may quibble over him calling reading an ‘unpunished vice’ but coming from a writer who has survived the Aids pandemic it is surely excusable. He is a survivor and is thus in celebratory mood. Granted life when so many of his generation died, he spends much of his time reading, knowing full well that no matter how quickly he reads there will always be something he would like to read but can’t. We readers are like that; there is guilt inherent in the neglect of books unopened and unread. We know we ought to give them a chance, but when? White’s latest brush with death – he suffered a massive heart attack towards the end of 2014 – brought home to him the importance of reading in his life. When he woke up after he had been unconscious for three days he had lost the desire to read. ‘The letters remained stubbornly crisp and sharp and separate, isolated, resistant to flow. They didn’t resolve into words, nor words into paragraphs.’ Normal service was resumed when ‘a handsome young friend’ – it has never taken much to turn White on – brought him a copy of Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s A Useless Man. ‘I remember Ronald Firbank once said, upon entering a bookshop, something like, “Do you have anything in my line, you know, something dreamy and vague?” That was was precisely what I was looking for, and here it was.’
For 222 companionable pages White relives his peripatetic existence. He is chatty, incisive, opinionated – he was a judge of the Booker Prize the year it was won by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a decision he appears not wholly to have approved of – and in reminiscent mode. Reading The Unpunished Vice is like eavesdropping on a conversation, albeit not one between football pundits, and wishing you could join in. Who cannot warm to a man who insists, ‘I love research, and in my next life I want to be a librarian’? He writes about his mother and father, friends and lovers, writers he admires, about teaching creative writing, of living in Paris, of being gay and Buddhist, of falling under the influence of older men and women and reading whatever they recommended. ‘I never read the standard children’s classics,’ he confesses. ‘No Wind in the Willows. Only recently did I get round to Treasure Island.’ And, on almost every page, he champions books I felt I must read immediately: Daŝa Drndić’s ‘excellent novel’ Trieste, Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, to which White was guided by ‘the great Chinese-American novelist’ Yiyun Li, Yasunari Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain (‘my favourite novel by him’), Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono, whose name to my shame was new to me, and countless others. It is a reminder that there are so many more lives yet to get.