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A Book of Books

By Philip Womack

When I left university, I started to keep a list of every book I read. I suppose that, now I no longer had to read books, I still wanted to prove to myself that I was expanding and growing. It quickly became an obsession. The list lived on my computer; during the closing pages of a novel I would experience a strange kind of pleasure at the thought that soon I could enter the book’s name into my document, where it would jostle with its fellows. For that is how books grow and live: they intermingle with the other things you’ve read, and spread and find points of contact. My computer, however, went the way of all pieces of technology, and imploded. So I bought a blank, lined, hard-backed book from the British museum with a picture of Antinous on the front (symbolising what, I am not sure, but I like it), and started to keep a reading journal. Now I have a book about books. It is a meta-book, a living, ever-increasing object. I read over it and annotate it from time to time.
I number the books carefully, write down the date I finished the last page, the title and the author, and whether I reviewed it for somebody or why I read it. If I have met the author I will try to insert an anecdote or two. I started the Reading Journal on the 6th October 2008, neatly, with Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (a suitably numberful title to kick off), and now, on the 2nd August 2010, I have got to no. 203, with Kehua! by Fay Weldon. On these pages Tobias Wolff chats happily to Tarzan’s Cheetah, whilst E M Forster and Ferdinand Mount look gravely on, sharing a witticism. One begins to see strange connections between people: Chesterton and Chaucer, for instance, share a deep morality. There are coincidences, surface and deeper: I read Joe Dunthorne’s lovely first novel Submarine and followed it (unwittingly) with Something in the Sea, a much less lovely (indeed rather frightening) debut by Yves Bonavero. The Iliad (which I am constantly reading and re-reading: I put it down as a book if I’ve read one in Greek) sits next to Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars, a novel about the poet Catullus: next to it is James Scudamore’s Heliopolis (a big star) and then Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I met the novelist and poet Adam Foulds at Adam O’Riordan’s house (both, I have just realised, named after the first man). The latter is a poet too: his pamphlet, Home, looks across at Fould’s novel about poets, The Quickening Maze. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is followed by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; amazingly, the book I read next was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Sometimes a book will cast somebody in a new light: Sabatini’s Scaramouche comes before Rimbaud by Edmund White: what more flamboyant, Scaramouche-esque person could there be than the young French poet? On every page, in my faltering handwriting, in different inks, sometimes rushed, sometimes neat, these entries collide. 
It is more than whimsy: as a reviewer it is a useful tool, a way of writing out something that has been scratching in my mind before I settle down to the actual business of the piece. I can flick back to remind myself of what I thought; revise my opinions (as with The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell: ‘hard to tell whether it’s bilge or brilliant or both’, I wrote initially. Half a year later I inscribed ‘pretty sure it’s bilge’). 
I have so many unread books, sent to me solicited, unsolicited, review copies, books by friends, books bought; they sit in a tottering pile by my sitting room door, calling to me. Making the transition to a ‘read’ book is something of a rite: a book is placed in its alphabetical position, catalogued, loved. Sometimes I rearrange the unread books; often I feel uneasy about whether I will ever manage to read them all, for the pile never shrinks. But one day, perhaps, they will all have their entries in my blue Reading Journal.
One day I wonder whether I might actually publish it as a book, interweaving it perhaps with memoir. For the moment, it is the second thing I would save from a burning house.

Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators.  His book reviews appear regularly in The Telegraph and The Literary Review.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An interesting idea. Perhaps I should keep one of these.

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