More than a year after doing the grown up thing and buying a house Your Girl Reporter is finally sorting through the books that just got thrown on to shelves when we moved. How did I live with such disorder for so long? A well-ordered bookshelf gives me a sense of peace and well-being that is hard to match and goes all the way back to my childhood in Hong Kong.
In the bedroom I shared with my sister in our flat in Macdonnell Road, there was a low bookcase between us, so that first and last thing were my books. That’s where it began, the endless idle-minded task of moving them around, by author… by typeface… by subject… by colour – the possibilities went on and on.
One day it was perfectly logical for Kafka’s Letters to Felice to snuggle up next to Ronnie Barker’s Christmas joke book, the next a vile travesty and the rearrangement would begin again.
It was a habit I largely shed with childhood but traces of it remain. One reason I left the task of finally sorting my books for so long was I knew that, once begun, it would spark that endless internal debate of how best to organise them.
My ‘favourites’ was the only shelf that made the move intact. In pride of place: The collection of Sherlock Holmes stories that Dad gave me one Christmas, at the suggestion of Dick Hughes; proof copies of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (the last book Dad gave me) and Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker.
But after that it gets murky. There are sensible sections, eg Hong Kong, Philosophy, Biography, People on the Telly, but then there are endless recalibrations. Does The Falcon and the Snowman go next to Le Carre? Is Le Carre where he is (next to Graham Greene) because Favourite Authors or because Spies?
Then there are crazy magpie things that I have found jammed between sensible histories and style guides – former Australian prime minister John Howard’s fridge magnet against terror! Not one, but two!
And there are the ghosts of books long lost or left behind, each one recalled in the shadow of the survivors as they take their places on my shelves.
I miss the edition of Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews on the cover, left in a taxi on the way home from the Christmas fair at the old Hong Kong cricket ground. I miss my first copy of Lord of the Rings which finally fell to pieces one summer, loved to death and each replacement a sorry echo of that old paperback.
I miss the entire shelf of books lost to Britain’s notorious rising damp and cherish the damaged survivors. A copy of Ivanhoe, resplendent in its many gate-folded illustrations of medieval life (Favourites), and We Bombed in New Haven, a play by Joseph Heller (Plays, although Catch-22 is in Favourite Authors), both carry the scars of mould and mildew but I cannot part with them.
My reading habits have always been voracious and broad. At high school I was never without a book in my hand, at the ready for any opportunity to snatch a few paragraphs, and it would sit on the corner of my desk during lessons, firmly just out of reach but a pointed reminder, I hoped, to my educators to keep it interesting.
A teacher remarked one day on the variety of my reading habit. She picked up my book – a romance called The Promise, if I remember rightly – and laughed, before demanding to know a bit more about how I chose a book.
She had noticed, in no particular order, Le Carre’s Honourable Schoolboy, John Fowles’ The Magus and Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police. And now a sappy pink-covered romance.
And that’s why I’d chosen it, I told her. I’d never read a pink book.
There are books I read slowly – I took Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake so slow I decided life was too short to read the rest of the trilogy, no matter how brilliant the writing – and others at high speed, tearing through paragraphs and wolfing down the plot in a single sitting.
When the current Mr Baxter first crossed my threshold he risked the future of a great relationship by touching my books. That usually prompts another round of rearrangement – even if they’re each returned to their current rightful place by the trespasser.
And what finally clinched the deal for Your Girl Reporter? A long distance, late night phone conversation – he in England, me in Australia – which turned to John Steinbeck and how many books he had written.
Yes, by golly, we always did great phone. But I digress. Because in the heat of that call he did something remarkable. He answered the question by going to his bookshelves… and counting.
From that moment I turned all my feminine wiles to the urgent task of luring him and his books to a new life with me Down Under. When Mr B’s possessions arrived after their long journey across the seas the delivery men noted the number of boxes marked ‘books’ as well as the number of books already present at their destination.
“Yes,” said the soon-to-be Mr Baxter, “we’re going to be doing a lot of reading.”
Our collections took a little while to get to know each other and we realised early on that one key to marital happiness was to leave our books to live largely separate lives. That didn’t stop me plundering my way through his shelves without a thought to whether he had similar sensibilities to mine.
There are many doubles, which we managed to add to last Christmas when we each gave the other a copy of Andrew P. Street’s The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott. Gift of the Magi, indeed (yes, O’Henry!).
With the arrival this Christmas of Street’s new book, I am likely to be forced into another tough decision – Australian Politics, or will he graduate to Favourite Authors?
Thank goodness for the Australian summer and an opportunity to ponder these weighty matters from the comfort of a shady spot in the backyard where a little light reading will resolve the issue.
I’ll be back at the end of January, with my bookcases in good order and a clutch of new material for the blog. Thanks for flying with me for another year. It’s been fun.