A collection of book collections
“There’s a reason that every book ... is shaped like a suitcase.” ~ Sergei Dovlatov
During the insomniac hours of darkness that haunt me, often just after climbing into bed and occasionally in the blue-black early hours of morning, I sometimes turn over a question to distract myself from this sleepless misery. Though my body is somnolent – too exhausted, in fact, to get up and read as per the common advice – my mind is somehow wide awake and running the machinery of thought at full speed. So I give it something to do and wonder about this:
What would I pack into a bag for safekeeping, leaving everything else to be consumed by the fire or abandoned to the disaster forcing me to suddenly flee my home?
I allow myself to assume that essentials – phone, wallet, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. – are already taken care of. So what non-essentials will I pack? I don’t designate a particular number of items; I imagine a fairly average suitcase, the kind with a single zip running along the rectangular body of the luggage and which opens on its side to reveal an empty space lined with some soft material, and then I proceed to fill it with what could be reasonably assumed to fit within that.
Mementos and memories? Being organised to a pathological degree, letters from my now gone grandparents, aunt, old friends, and love letters are all filed tidily into a shoebox along with a small collection of photographs documenting my childhood, teenage years, and adult life as shared with my partner. This go into the right angle of a corner of the suitcase.
Manuscripts? All my current writing projects exist as 1’s and 0’s on my computer and on the iCloud (in whatever form information takes there), so I can always access that again. I have a first draft of a still unpublished novel – distinct from the typed up version taking digital refuge in the cloud – in two hardback notebooks, and I would like to hold onto these. They are tucked into the right angle of the corner opposite the box of memories.
Books? Well, which books? The first editions and signed copies demand a place in this luggage-cum-lifeboat – these are of value not only to myself but to the wider literary world and future bibliophiles.
I ask myself then: Which books might describe me, or might describe the progress of my life? If I can list such books that document, through my reading, the history of who I am, perhaps those should be the books I preserve for myself?
There is still plenty of space in the suitcase. But (to quote the writer we are about to meet) this foreword is beginning to drag...
THE SUITCASE, BY SERGEI DOVLATOV
If I try to recall when I first knew about Soviet Russia – let’s say heard about it, because we often encounter a thing long before we know it – I bump up against visual memories, mere mental snapshots, right at the edge of the thickening fog that prevents us accessing our own consciousness before the age of about three. Having been born in 1986, the maps in my earliest classrooms displayed the words Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – an exotic nonsense phrase usually abbreviated to USSR – over the large mass of land meaninglessly to the right of the place my teacher’s finger pointed at to show me where we were in Canada.
My relationship with this now defunct state expanded when I read one of the books that constitutes part of the childhood literature I read by myself and for myself before the age of nine. It was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Again, the very idea of these “Soviets” was essentially romantic – they were distant, unfamiliar, and came to me in words I did not recognise. My reading of the Tintin book only required that I understand that the Soviets were the baddies, but I came away from that reading with the additional understanding that these were people who lived in a country called Russia.
I grew up and learned a few more things about the formerly communist regime, though not enough to prevent me going around calling myself a communist for a brief rebellious period in my twenties. My fuller education on the topic came as a result from reading the books of pre-Soviet writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and writers suffering under the Soviet regime, principally Solzhenitsyn, the Strugatsky brothers, and Joseph Brodsky.
My first contact with those people now as distant in time to me as they were in geographical space was through a small book by Sergei Dovlatov called The Suitcase. (As the instigator of this very idea to pack memories into a bag, this book automatically gets placed into mine.) The Suitcase begins with Dovlatov having emigrated to America with his wife, with whom he now has a young son. One day, the mother sends the son to sit in the closet (a strange remedy for misbehaviour), where an old suitcase is discovered. Dovlatov takes it to the kitchen table and unpacks the few items it contains, from a “decent double-breasted suit” to “Finnish nylon crêpe socks”. These are the physical remains of his life in the USSR.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, BY HERGÉ
On the inside of the lid to this suitcase are photos of artistic celebrities, the most prominent of these being Joseph Brodsky. At the bottom of the case, beneath the folded clothes, mothballs, and memories, is a single sheet of newspaper from which Karl Marx’s portrait stares. “On the bottom was Karl Marx,” Dovlatov notes drily. “On the lid was Brodsky. And between them, my lost, precious, only life.” This is why he almost calls the resulting book, which documents some of the memories that escape from the folds of those forgotten clothes, From Marx to Brodsky. It is a title that appeals to the wish for a narrative thread through the sequence of accidents, coincidences, and fortune good and ill that we call life.
What, I wonder, would I title the book of my own life using the same formula? I would take books as my markers, rather than photographs of celebrities. From Tintin to... To what? The most recent book I finished reading was Roth’s The Human Stain. So – From the Land of the Soviets to the Human Stain. Or, more simply, From Tintin to Roth. Not quite as exciting.
I am certain at least that I would have to begin an account of my life in literature with Hergé’s Tintin books. There were undoubtedly earlier picture books I chewed on with toothless gums and nursery books read to me, but my relationship with them now is purely of a practical nature; they taught me to read and to love reading in an abstract sense, but beyond that I question how much they shaped me. I do know that there was a book read to me when I was a small child, which I associate with my grandmother, and which I cannot think of now without momentarily losing the ability to speak. It is called Love You Forever and my vision blurs writing that much. But I honestly could not say whether my earliest memory of that book precedes my earliest recollections of turning the pages of a Tintin comic and following the pictures left to right.
So I will stay with Tintin as my first books, because they continued to grow with me. They began as picture books before graduating to texts that required reading. Our local library only ever had the same four or five titles, so I borrowed them in rotation and noticed more each time I did, and so I learned that books are not “dead”, not frozen curios that offer finite material in one reading, only to be traded for a new book and its contents.
I read Tintin as a boy in Canada to learn and to grow, and I continued to read Tintin as a teenager in England to escape a less colourful reality in which the maps were all explored. I inevitably went off reading those comic books as I entered my late teens, because I had become a serious reader who had no time for such folly. (In other words, I was an unbearably pretentious young adult rejecting the anti-intellectual restrictions of my small town upbringing.) Finally, in my late twenties, I rediscovered the joys of a childhood I’d come to think of (mistakenly) as largely joyless by revisiting, in an effort to exorcise old ghosts, the Tintin books.
As I had amassed something of a personal library, I decided to give these books a place on one of my shelves. They look very smart lined up on the top of a tall bookcase with their coloured spines creating a rainbow from which I can select a Tintin story to read on rainy days when I am feeling nostalgic. And while the stories – the familiar frames of simple images and genre-crossing tales with the boy-reporter, the drunken captain, and the loyal canine companion – still remind me of the very different person I was in that life I used to live, they also evoke the man I’d become when I rediscovered the joys of childish adventures. In this way, these books have continued to grow with me.
So Tintin will be another book (cheating – set of books) to go into the suitcase of safekeeping.
A SMALL COLLECTION OF FORGOTTEN READS
I think of my life in literary terms as the Age of Learning to Read, then the Age of Reading Widely, and then the Age of Reading Well.
While that second era (circa my mid-teens to early twenties) was vital in my development as a reader and a writer, there were some casualties to the method this epoch employed. I read so much and so compulsively, like a desert-island survivor’s first meal, not nibbled at but consumed with wild abandon, that much of my reading went through me without my digesting very much of its nutrients. I would rapturously fly through a book and then move on to the next. As a result, there are books I know I have read and yet couldn’t tell you a thing about.
Some of these unfortunate victims are:
1984 by Orwell; I honestly don’t know how many, if any, of the few thoughts I have on this book (read when I was about thirteen) are my own or have been adopted into my pool of opinions from other readers writing on this famous novel.
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor: I remember something about every paragraph ending halfway through a sentence. That, and I was miserable reading it.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk: I wonder if what little I recall is of the book or from the movie.
A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin: I know I loved it at the time, but now I don’t remember why.
All of these forgotten books will receive a more attentive reading by me, and so a few of them deserve a place in my suitcase. As I think back to those books now, I wonder what made me devour them so urgently that I didn’t give them the required care and love; it was an effort to “catch up” on the education I had missed in my own schooling. I believed that if I read enough “great” books, as a matter of quantity rather than quality of the reading, I would be the sort of person I wanted to be.
This goal was to me what the double-breasted suit is to Dovlatov in The Suitcase. A bargain is struck between Dovlatov and his put-upon editor: Write “three socially significant articles by the New Year” and his bonus will be a much desired suit. Dovlatov sets off enthusiastically to tell these remarkable stories, much as I pursued the goal of reading as many remarkable stories as I could. Dovlatov hopes for a grand suit as his reward, and I hoped for a great education.
In the end, his efforts are scuppered at every turn by the kind of random absurdity that previous chapters in his book have characterised as a distinct trait of living under the Soviet regime. Ultimately, the story he has to tell is not anything like what his editor had in mind, and it comes decades past his deadline – it is the story of his failure to find a story. I cannot tell you much about many of the novels I read at that time in my life, but I do have the story of my failing to learn much from those stories.
Dovlatov did get his double-breasted suit, but it came to him as the unexpected outcome of an absurd twist in the original tale. I did eventually become something like the kind of “educated” I’d envisioned for myself (though now I know it is a never-ending journey of discovering how little I know) and it came as the result of my failures to truly learn through my reading.
HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING, BY SUSAN HILL
Is a forgotten thing lost forever, or can it leave some impression, contributing to the shaping of the subconscious if not the conscious mind, a cognitive history that is marked ineradicably by the words and ideas that have passed through it in the same way our bodies bear the “indelible stamp of [their] lowly origin”?
One of the turning points in the way I was learning came when I read Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. It is, sadly, one of those books I struggle to recall many details from. And yet, I remember two important aspects to my reading of Hill’s year-long account of reading through her own library: The first is that I glimpsed what it is to live a life not filled with or nudged by or tweaked in its shape by literature, but determined in its entirety as if the reader were literature’s golem, moulded by the words and ideas of countless writers. I saw what a literary life looked like, and I wanted it for myself.
The second aspect is a paragraph that I can almost picture in shape and that I can recall, not verbatim, but in its most vital essence. Hill wrote a damning indictment of speed reading that shamed me and shook out of my head the last remnants of the fallacy that more books equated to more understanding. I will allow myself to scour the book for this passage and reproduce part of it here:
“Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers. Fast reading ... will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.”
I so wanted all of the great novels I read to “burrow down into [my] memory and become part of [myself]”. I desired to be – in a way I could articulate only by pointing to those writers (Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Durrell, Roth’s young Zuckerman) who embodied the idea – built out of books. As I scan the words in Hill’s book that have passed through my eyes and into my brain once long before, this time taking them to heart, I find a passage that expresses what I mean (and I must wonder whether this is the origin of the idea in my mind):
“If you cut me open, you will find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every [book] I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me.”
Which is why I – along with everyone else who appreciates all that humanity has achieved so far, and who is not so arrogant or unserious or facile enough as to think the great minds of yesterday have nothing to do with today – wanted to soak up the wisdom of the ancient epics and to culture myself with the classics.
I did not, however, become a serious reader until I stopped fixating on “serious” literature. By which I mean that I granted myself the less-than-humble permission to determine my own canon for myself, to judge novels by my own criteria, informed by the many traditions that I am the product of, from Athens through the Enlightenment to Postmodernism, and yet distinctly of my own patchwork making.
“But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.”
I won’t say that Hill’s book was the direct reason I begin the university course as an adult learner through which I eventually got my degree in English Literature, or why I created Art Of Conversation, which is my life-long autodidactic course in the humanities. But Hill’s book did precede those studies in a not unmeaningful way, which vouchsafes it a place in my suitcase for safekeeping.
PACKING MY LIBRARY, BY ALBERTO MANGUEL
There was a time when my library, carefully cultivated and clipped only under duress or because finances meant that selling one or two titles was my best way of buying another book, was culled from some fifteen hundred to four. I moved to another country where storage was an issue and I had to travel light, so I reduced my books to the four that I thought would occupy me for the duration of my time away, due to their size and depths to be dove into over and over, so that re-reading would stretch out the lifespan of each novel.
For six months, I lived off of those four books, as well as a small pool of circulating texts passed on to me by English-reading travellers offloading novels to make space in their bags. If you’re interested, the four books I chose as my travel companions were Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch, and Ariel by Sylvia Plath. I can no longer recall what my criteria were for deciding on these books.
Each of these books, including the one I struggled most with (no points for correctly guessing that it was Foster Wallace’s endurance test of a novel) and the one I was disappointed by (Zweig’s one novel seems to prove that the novella was the form he excelled in; stretching the latter into the former makes for a tedious read), are now inexorably entwined with place. The Sea, the Sea read in a walled-in garden in Mexico with an ocean of sky above and sun-bleached grass beneath dry feet, with the memory of a grey-sleet England in February only days behind already fading, and the anxiety of being immersed in the new dissipating to become contented confidence – that version of The Sea, the Sea will always be singular and embodied by the physical form in which I read it.
In Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel’s melancholic account of collapsing his collection of thirty-five thousand books into the soulless detainment of storage units due to a sudden move from his home, Manguel writes:
“Johannes Gutenberg created the illusion that we are not unique and that every copy of the Quixote is the same as every other (a trick which has never quite convinced most of its readers).”
Indeed. To believe that two books with the same cover and identical font on paper of a matching cream and density are precisely the same – to ignore, in other words, their private relationships with your fingers at their corners; to disregard the darkness at one edge of half the pages where bath water touched them for a lazy moment before being urgently dried with the softest setting of a blow-dryer; to shrug off the memory that exists only when evoked by re-reading a particular line that this sentence was once read at the same moment a bee landed near your elbow; to overlook the belief, however unfounded yet unshakeable and pleasurable enough that you wouldn’t rid yourself of it even if you could, that in spite of the known fidelity in the mechanism of modern printing, this particular book somehow contains a version of the story unique to you alone – to believe anything like all of that is to believe that identical twin siblings are the exact same person. These things are complicated. To simplify them is to make life that much less beautiful.
My copy of Manguel’s Packing My Library has been stripped of its dustcover, which I found unwieldy (the small hardback book kept sliding out of this wrapper as I read) and a little ugly. I may not be the only person in the world to own a hardback edition of this book sans dustcover, but I am the only person in existence to own this version, made naked for my particular reasons, motivated in turn by my own personal preferences. It may not mean much, but it doesn’t mean nothing, and I learned this during that period when I was deprived of all the other books I had made my own with individual markings, folded corners, creased pages, covers smudged with food eaten during a reading, and so on.
One of the great joys in reading Manguel is that it is like strolling with somebody who happens to have been friends with Auden, Borges, Calvino, Dante, Eliot, Fitzgerald (Penelope and Scott), Goethe, Homer, Ibsen, Joyce, Kafka, Larkin, Mann, Nabokov, Orwell, Petronius, the great Quixote himself, Rilke, Stevenson, Twain, Updike, Verlaine, Woolf, and Zola, and who is happily following the bumblebee flight of association through anecdotes about all these writers and their works, drunk on words and ideas.
In Packing My Library – which carries the subtitle An elegy and ten digressions – Manguel occasionally exposes a certain unease over his proclivity towards perambulating around a subject, exploring its many detours and byways, instead of driving straight at the heart of the matter. “I stop to admire a quotation or listen to an anecdote,” he frets. “I become distracted by questions that are alien to my purpose, and I’m carried away by a flow of associated ideas.”
Manguel is in good company with this hyperactive curiosity – even Dante, on his incredible journey through Purgatory towards Heaven, cannot help but become distracted by the shade of his old friend Casella, whom he implores to sing an “amoroso canto”, for which his impatient guide Cato rebukes he who would dawdle instead of making straight for God.
Dovlatov too is constantly digressing from the central thrust of whatever tale he is telling (these tales themselves being a digression from the day he’d been having when he unexpectedly discovered the suitcase that prompted these reflections) and then apologising for or dismissing these deviations as if there is some inherent narrative to be followed, and with it an intrinsic meaning to be discovered at the heart of this suitcase and its contents.
The foreword with which he begins his book ends with “But, as usual, this foreword is beginning to drag...” as if there is some preordained destination he is eager to reach. The tangents, however keep coming: At one point, he tells us he must “make a small mathematical digression” concerning how he came into possession of the crêpe socks now in the suitcase; he course-corrects later by writing that “we have been side-tracked once again”; he begins an anecdote about a gift from a French artist, but before he can pull at that thread, stops himself because “that story is to come”; and that divagation comes a few lines before we learn that his editor bellows at him, “You’re always getting side-tracked!”
But we’ve digressed...
PACKING MY LIBRARY, BY ALBERTO MANGUEL (AGAIN)
After those six months with a drastically reduced library, I decided my home in the future would always be where my collection of books was. I thought, like Manguel did, that “once the books found their place, I would find mine”. Many readers have felt this way, whether their library was a single shelf in the corner of a small flat or an entire room full of a lifetime’s reading. This matters for the reason Manguel offers for his own zealous collecting: “My library was to me an utterly private space that both enclosed and mirrored me.”
This might strike some as a rather grandiloquent theory for what they will see as, at best, a hobby or, at worst, an obsession with hoarding. Granted, there can be as many prosaic motivations for collecting books as noble reasons, from wanting to impress visitors with one’s cultural refinement to simply setting oneself a challenge – these books are here to be read, so I’d better read them. The notion that our relationship to books can be more than one of owner-and-product and can speak to our relationship with ourselves, our communities, our culture and history, and the world at large is one that is felt more easily than articulated.
Manguel, however, has always done a beautiful job of articulating these dynamics. He has been, for me, an erudite guide through the life of the mind by way of a life of literature. But in my reading of his joyous, curious books, what he has particularly emphasised of the life of literature is life. Books are a way of living. They are a way of directing one’s path through what Nabokov calls this “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”. They are also a way of describing one’s life, as Manguel writes:
“I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.”
“I know that my full, true story is [in the library], somewhere on the shelves, and all I need is time and the chance to find it.”
But Manguel never does find his complete story in books, and neither does any other reader, because the story is always being written. Change is the theme against which the narrative of life unfolds – change, difference, repetition with variation, mutation: all the ways in which life continues. However, our books can come remarkably close to describing at least who we are in the present, and sometimes who we were, in ways that allow us to see ourselves more clearly.
Packing My Library must go into my suitcase, not as the definitive Manguel book, but as representative of the relationship I have to his writing as a whole. I look now at my relatively full case and scan the titles I have tucked inside and wonder if this could really be the best selection of books for ... for what? For preserving for posterity? For my own future reading? As representative of the life I have lived so far, or the life I hope to live? Is this collection descriptive or aspirational?
On another sleepless night I will place an entirely different group of books into the imaginary suitcase. There is never one absolute suitcase of books, just as there is never a categorical account of who I am. Manguel recounts a story about Borges commenting on the supposed inferiority of a translation or later draft of an original text, as if that original is somehow decisive. “The concept of a definitive text,” wrote Borges, “belongs only to religion or to fatigue.” Manguel goes on to relate this to how books describe our lives only contingently:
“Like Borges’s text, I have no definitive biography. My story changes from library to library, or from the draft of one library to the next, never one precisely, never the last.”
INSTEAD OF A CONCLUSION
These days, my interests have turned to the past, to what was and what remains of what was. My tastes are now opening consciously to those formative influences in the books I devoured as a young reader, from those first Tintin comics to the terribly written and terribly thrilling Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. That book alone almost sent me down a what-might-have-been alternate road in which I became a palaeontologist; perhaps I did become that in some way, with my attention focusing more and more on unearthing the past.
In the end, the title for the story of my life could be From Tintin to Tintin. Or There and Back Again (to borrow from another recently rediscovered gemstone from the treasure trove of experience in the dragon’s lair of childhood).
I sometimes wonder whether a meaningful education, or even life itself, is ultimately Joyce’s “commodius vicus of recirculation” – that is, the expansive space in which we circuitously return again and again to what was and what remains of what was. We add to the supply of that which we revisit by experiencing novel things and reading new novels, but are any of these things truly original, created ex nihilo with no reference to pre-existing material? Is there anything new under the sun?
Our libraries seem to reflect this view. They are collections of books we have read, waiting for their moment to be re-read, and books we hope to one day read and so relegate – no, elevate – to the past tense. I wander the shelves of my growing collection and rediscover old truths, and in rediscovering I discover things new to me, which then await their own rediscovery one day.
The view from the library, though, is not only over one’s shoulder and looking backwards; there is an inherent investment in the future with any collection of books that matters. Captain Nemo, in his mighty ship 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, houses in his library all those voices he believes deserve to be spared the destruction he wishes on the rest of the surface world. This is, in essence, what all of our libraries are for; we all seek to safeguard those words we have needed and deemed important and know will likely need to be heard again one day, perhaps by somebody else. In this sense, our libraries are suitcases in which we pack special belongings for safekeeping.
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• The Suitcase, Sergei Dovlatov (1986)
• The Adventures of Tintin, Hergé (1929 – 1976)
• Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill (2010)
• The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin (1871)
• Packing My Library: An elegy and ten digressions, Alberto Manguel (2018)
• Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (1951)