Telling a man by his books
In response to popular demand, expressed variously in other people’s blogs as a ‘meme’ or a ‘tig’ (neither of which terms I understand), I join other contributors in answering four challenging questions – challenging, because blogging, emailing, cycling aimlessly round Wandsworth, listening to Radio 3, and watching the 24-hour news programmes on television leave virtually no time for reading books; and that ‘virtually’ is perhaps mildly dishonest. Nevertheless, here goes.
How many books do I own? I have no idea. We gave lots of boxes of books to charity shops when we moved to a smaller house two years ago. Those that remain occupy, I reckon, about 30 to 40 metres of shelves, but as the books vary so enormously in thickness, from thin paperbacks to hefty tomes, it’s impossible to convert the mileage to numbers.
What’s the last book I bought?
The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, Philip Bobbitt. An extraordinary and ambitious attempt to find a pattern in history, full of fascinating and detailed accounts of events that cast light on his basic theses. The Prologue comprises nearly 200 lines of the Iliad(in translation, a rare concession).
What’s the last book I read?
Blair’s Wars, John Kampfner. A useful chronology based on many anonymous interviews, although most of its revelations have been in the public domain from other sources by now. I’ve been reading it partly because I have a rather vague plan for an article comparing the Kosovo and Iraq wars, and their uncanny parallels.
What are the five books that mean the most to me?
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, 1621. For its wonderful cornucopia of words and word-lists, its vivacity (despite its subject), its sense of being drunk on language and ideas. Impossible to read from start to finish (432 pages of small print in my Everyman’s University Library edition) but lovely to dip into from time to time.
The Prose of Sir Thomas Browne, including especially Urne Buriall, 1658. Another great celebration of our glorious language, gems in every long paragraph, full of scientific curiosity and diversions.
À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust. Not just by way of boasting that I’ve actually read the whole thing, although I do and have, but because it’s one of those works that actually transforms the way you experience your fellow humans, enabling you to appreciate and enjoy the way the same people keep coming back into your life in subtly (or sometimes dramatically) different roles, yet retaining their essential personalities re-adapted as necessary. (Like the next entry, below, it’s of course rather more than a single book, but that can’t be helped.)
A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I have to apologise for this, partly because it already figures in another blogger’s list, partly because it’s 12 books rather than one. But it has the same extraordinary effect as the Proust in presenting a sort of constantly shaken kaleidoscope of characters in ever-changing roles, and in addition is one of the funniest series of books ever written in English. Worth reading for the immortal Widmerpool alone. And Powell has a beautifully idiosyncratic prose style which affects all who have read his books, notably establishing the ablative absolute in its proper and honoured place in English, other writers generally neglecting that pleasant trope.
The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, edited by R. W. Burchfield I have to include this for a number of reasons: (1) It’s quite simply the best book about the proper use of English, sensible, tolerant (too tolerant sometimes), almost always providing the answer to one’s questions about what’s acceptable and comely; (2) it’s not just a revision of the two earlier editions of Fowler, great though both are, but in reality a largely new work of indispensable reference; (3) Burchfield’s ‘Acknowledgements’ include an absurdly over-generous compliment to my own occasional contributions to his linguistic store-house, accumulated while he was preparing the book, a compliment of which I’m inordinately proud; and (4) Bob Burchfield was such a lovely man, such an austerely conscientious scholar and polymath, and such a warm and human friend.
Of course reducing such a list to five, even when two of them are themselves multiple books, is bound to be misleading. For example, there’s no room for poetry (where are Auden, Yeats, Hughes and Plath, Heaney, Whitman, or my kinswoman Ruth Fainlight?) or a host of novels (both the Amises, Waugh, Le Carré with whom I was briefly at school, Greene, Ruth’s husband Alan Sillitoe?) or books on politics (Hennessy, Watkins, Rawnsley, lots of biographies?) or affectionately much-used works of reference from the OED to the ODQ and the indispensable Twentieth Century Political Facts by David and Gareth Butler. Where are the collections of books about Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular, setting the loud echoes of my past life flying? Well, you can’t have everything. And, as I say, there’s not much time for reading the printed word these days anyway.