I’ve been a book collector from a very early age. I was lucky to have an aunt who was an avid reader, and I caught the habit from her. I shall always be grateful. The season’s new Arthur Ransome was my most eagerly awaited Christmas present.
History, biography, literature, poetry, politics and current affairs form the bulk of the collection of more than 10,000 volumes which I and my partner have assembled over half a century. Not only do they line the walls, they are piled up on the floor in every room of our quite large house. Assembling this library has been one of the chief and most constant pleasures of our lives. Holidays spent exploring old-fashioned bookshops in the side streets of country towns remain a pleasant memory. Sometimes they yielded rare and unexpected treasures. Book fairs, catalogues, and latterly the internet have spurred us on. Constantly arriving parcels arouse anticipation. We sometimes think that books breed in the night in our house.
The silly people who have hardly ever read a book in their lives and gape at our collection asking incredulously “have you really READ all these?” get metaphorically shot. They do not realise that books may be synonymous with knowledge, and even wisdom – though many, of course, contain the opposite.
Our books are a friendly and reassuring presence. Not only their contents, but also their physical appearance, colourful bindings, feel, and sometimes smell, are comfortably familiar. But now that we are growing older, and less robust, the effort of moving around so many heavy tomes while searching for the one you want – which is inevitably nearly always at the bottom of the pile – is causing us problems. Sadly, we recognise that the time has come when a sizeable part of our collection must find a new home. This is going to be a complex business, as some of our books are rare and quite valuable. And it is going to be a big emotional wrench to part with them.
I sometimes have the fantasy of all the hundreds of authors down the ages who have written our books materialising and having a great big party. There would be several hundred of them, so we would have to hire the Albert Hall. We would also have to have a contingent of riot police standing by, as there would be bound to be a good many warm disputes, and perhaps fisticuffs – for instance, between Charles I [if he really did write “Eikon Basilike”] and Oliver Cromwell, or Edmund Burke and Tom Paine.
I suppose I got this idea from Hendrik Van Loon’s charming “Lives”, in which he and his wife, assisted by Erasmus, entertain assorted historical characters at a series of dinner parties. But although it will never happen, I do sense the company of the living authors, as well as their writings, amongst us. So we are never alone.