How Do I Love Books, Let Me Count the Ways
I have been asked to introduce my library, with pictures. Let me do it one section at a time. We all may regret this…
They’re very unpretentious as cookbooks go. Even Apicius (which I have in a French edition) consorts with the hoi polloi, although Taillevant sulks if I move him from the official shelf for historical cuisines.
Some of the books reside in a camel’s saddlebag, but I didn’t get you pictures of them. Some are hiding in my pantry. Some are in the wine cabinet. As I said, my cookbooks get around. They also get used, especially the editions of seventeenth century or fourteenth century or even nineteenth century food.
I like finding out about food as a facet of culture, which means time and space and class and all sorts of other factors enter into it, and my food books reflect all of this. The pile of all-the-same books at the bottom of one of the photos are author copies of my own historical cookbook. The food and the history make an unbeatably messy passion.
A lot of my big books are about the Middle Ages: they cover manuscripts and lifestyle and art. I also have reference books for my fiction, so big books about costume (the one containing dress profiles for the 1930s gets used a lot by my friends), from art exhibitions, about opera, about archaeology. I think my pride and joy must be my facsimile of the Auchinleck manuscript.
I have a select few graphic novels and bandes-dessinées. The literary end is in this shelf (Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is my personal favourite) and all the rest are with my computer or hiding amongst the cookbooks. By a “select few,” I mean maybe forty. Most of them are in French, so I can read comics and claim it’s educational. If I were honest, I’d admit that this is one of the fun parts of my library, where I go to relax. That’s why most of the comics are mixed in with the cookbooks. Fun attracts fun. Besides, I have the Asterix cookbook in both Spanish and English (there are two different stories behind this, one for each language), so really, they belong together. But The Arrival and Maus and When the Wind Blows are with the art books.
Some of the Arthuriana is reference (for instance, sitting currently on a pile of felt, Norris J. Lacy’s The New Arthurian Encyclopedia) and some is pure joy (Rackham’s illustrations of Mallory, for example, or Gates’ edition of The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne). My favourite right now is the prose Tristan, for it has all kinds of strange adventures. This has been my favourite volume on the shelf for a long time, in fact, although some of the chronicles tempt me.
“Go away, they said, “I’m busy.”
“I lend books,” I reminded them. (And I do. I’ve lost a very few books that way, but it’s worth it for the amount of pleasure I get in sharing my library.)
“Go away,” they said. “I’m still busy.”
I like my fiction. Without it, my life would be desolate and full of despair. This is why I permitted it to move me out of the main bedroom and into the small one: my fiction needed shelf space. How much shelf space? Well, this is C-G.
My fiction isn’t really a single category. I collect some types of books when I remember (young adult fantasy, anything with Arthurian themes, stories about Robin Hood or that use the Middle Ages, Australian and New Zealand speculative fiction, early novels, French science fiction, plays) but mostly I collect books I have loved and want to keep company with.
Many of my favourite books take the familiar and play with it just a little, rather than creating extravagantly different universes. I like to see people like us pushed sideways or backwards or given a single change in the world and having to deal with it. Marcel Aymé is there on my shelves, therefore, and Edith Nesbit, for they both play with lives in precisely this way. George Gissing is one of my perennial joys, and so are Nicholas Stuart Gray and Joan Aiken. All of them turn worlds entirely upside down (in very different ways) so I am consistent only in my reasoning.
I love the ecstatically lyrical fairytale like story, which is why I have Barry Hughart and Eleanor Farjeon (her Silver Curlew is always ready to be re-read) and I love tales of gentle hauntings and changing realities (Hope Mirrlees and Penelope Lively and Charlotte Sometimes). I don’t discriminate between books for children and books for adults, which is why, in my perfect world, I own everything Alan Garner has ever written, for he, also, doesn’t discriminate.
My comfort reading is often science fiction and fantasy series: Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey, Jennifer Fallon, Mercedes Lackey and others. Many others. There is a lot of comfort reading on my shelves. When I need an extra level of comfort then I turn to Georgette Heyer and Elsie J. Oxenham and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Thomas Hardy and Louisa May Alcott and Arthur Ransome.
I love older novels and have quite a few reprints of eighteenth and nineteenth century writers (and wish I had more) and the latest, zingiest science fiction (Lauren Beukes and Meg Mundell and Kim Westwood, for instance). I love the rich tapestries of Guy Gavriel Kay and I love school stories.
And of course, there are the plays. How could I forget the four hundred or so plays sitting on my shelves. Sheridan and Gay and Fry and Ionesco and Marivaux and Barrie and Beckett and . . . mostly male playwrights, and mostly dead. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favourite plays of all time, so not all the playwrights are defunct. I once saw a Stoppard play directed by Stoppard and it made sense of timing and it made sense of character interaction and it made me despair of ever achieving either in my own work. A few opera librettos have crept onto my bookshelves with the plays, and maybe a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I need a bigger house and a bigger income and more reading time, for just when I think I’ve defined my reading interests I discover an author like Kaaron Warren or Kate Forsyth, and my boundaries expand just a little more. If only my flat would expand to encompass my library.
If a non-fiction book covers the period before the eighteenth century, it’s in here. If it’s a primary source written before the eighteenth century (or Kemble’s prompt books, or Parliamentary papers concerning early Australia) it’s in here. If it’s to do with writing criticism or feminist criticism, it's in here.
That’s the quick guide. For more, you’ll have to visit. Drop in and I’ll walk you through. Bring a packed lunch and a compass, in case L-space claims you. You’ll end up with an armful of books to borrow and a reading list of everything from Cicero to Margo Lanagan.
Books mentioned in this column: