Memoirs of a Common Reader
This inquiry takes as its starting point the question, How should one live?
— Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge
Can we actually know the universe? My God, it’s hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown.
— Woody Allen, Getting Even
I was drinking coffee at the corner table of a little place by Wensum Street when Emma tried to jump out the window. I went back the following week to see Tom bury Granpa Joad by the side of the road, and once more to follow Giovanni Fidanza—Nostromo to his friends—gallop across the dark mountains of Sulaco to save the silver of the mine.
That corner table was something of a home from home for the two or so years that followed my aborted—and in retrospect ill-conceived—effort at a degree in Biology. I came home from London licking my wounds and took a job scrubbing pots and moonlighting as a commis chef in a little French Bistro on Elm Hill, in Norwich. The restaurant was a picture. It occupied the ground floor of an old Tudor house at the top of a winding and cambered cobblestone lane.
There, in the basement kitchen, I worked long weekends from dawn to the early hours: a plongeur washing pots on Friday and Saturday, and a commis preparing for the following week on Sunday and Monday—when the hum of four fridges bounced off the empty chairs and filled the vacant restaurant. To cut through all that reverberation I listened to the radio, chipping potatoes a sack at a time along to The Archers omnibus, tending to puff-pastry and preserves to Poetry Please, and knocking up mayonnaise, rouille, and Roquefort butter with Words & Music. With a share of the tips on top of wages and meals at work with the odd off-cut to take home, I did fine.
Actually, I did more than fine. I had taken a room in a landlady’s house a college friend of mine had occupied a few years earlier. The landlady—I’ll call her Imelda—was an eccentric Doris Lessing type: a little ornery and distant, but kind and giving too. She looked like one of those Troll dolls that was popular in the 1990s:the untamed hair, the large flat nose, the stubbed brown bare feet protruding from under a full length white linen dress. Her eccentricity began with a belief that the year was somewhere around 1973, a notion her lodgers (usually Spanish or Italian students from the university) were happy to indulge as she set the price for her rooms accordingly. I think they would have felt bad if she had seemed to miss the money, but really she let her rooms for the company. She abhorred a vacuum, liked a lot of life in the house, and, when the mood took her, was always the first to suggest a party or a communal feast. The oven was an Aga. She did not own a microwave, and though a fridge had been purchased for her lodgers, she distrusted it herself, preferring to allow her perishables to breathe in the larder. The mold that accumulated on her jams and cheeses was regrettable, of course—but such is life, her sigh seemed to say as she scraped it into the bin.
I divided my abundant free time between reading and looking for books. I had chosen the right place. As the legend goes, there used to be 52 churches in Norwich. Only a handful are used today for their intended purpose, and the rest exist as galleries, concert houses, theatres, and places for the arts and crafts (one of which was run by Imelda). Some of that spirit—of preserving the used and out of date—has run over into an abundance of secondhand bookshops. In time I came to know them all.
One of the delightful things about secondhand bookshops is their disorder, their disorganisation. The bookseller—a wonderful, occult people—may know why Langston Hughes is sitting on top of André Gide, why David Copperfield is hiding behind Mrs. Dalloway while The Idiot hangs in the rafters beside a tome of Turkish history, but they will never impart this to the humble customer. This ought to be infuriating, and it is, until you come upon and become compelled to read at once exactly the book you weren’t looking for. It is a black magic, and it has shaped my education.
I went at it with all the verve of a late starter. The first thing I learned was that anything in the 1970s Penguin Modern Classics series, titled in Helvetica Bold above details from Picasso and Cezanne, would be good. I read Conrad, James, Woolf, Catherine Mansfield, and Orwell, dog-eared with veined spines and small tears at the base. I found Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy and Ibsen in older, smellier and more venerable Everyman Library editions. I found perfect little Chatto & Windus hardbacks that might be essays by Huxley or Strachey in bottle green or blue with patrician gilt lettering. Occasionally there was a gem—Flush perhaps, in a Hogarth Press second edition—or some curiosity, like Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller. Often, if I found nothing else, I would buy some two pound token of thanks, a retrospective entry fee for the man at the back of the shop for the sufferance of watching me browse and moon for an hour or two.
I read in my room, or standing by the Aga, a piece of toast dripping honey into my free hand—but most evenings after dinner I would walk over to Take 5, a chameleon place at once a café, a pub, and a cheap restaurant. There was a bar and fireplace—so far, so pub—but these occupied an airy interior filled with spindly tables and Thonet chairs that scraped on the floorboards. A glass dessert case to one side of the pumps held cakes and a crumble or a bread and butter pudding, and a chalkboard menu advertised omelettes and soup and a few modest plates of tapas. Occasionally someone would place an order, and there would follow the distant sound of plates and pans, a microwave door, the glass washer fired up to rinse a spatula or wooden spoon over the general chatter and a soundtrack of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Local art by friends of the staff dotted the walls, placed, for reasons that would become apparent, where they were least likely to be seen. Below one such piece, hung in a nook made by the chimney stack and the outer wall, was a corner table, and there I could drink coffee and read undisturbed, eavesdropping and people-watching between chapters.
The pub was the place the local drunk would stumble into on giro day, knocking over chairs on his way to the bar with paycheck in hand, and refusing to leave until someone could coax him back to the street. Where college students came for nervous first dates passed in stilted tones. Where cabals of faculty from the cathedral school over the road would collect to drink red wine and plot against department heads.
Places like this have long been beloved by readers and writers, and it’s easy to see why. A room of one’s own is all very well, but in the deafening silence when the empty page gapes and the pen runs dry, here is life and talk and the plain commerce of civilization. A rest from the special duties of home where every claim to the attention, “Would you like another cup?” or, “Is anyone using this chair?” is a call and response of custom and convention, as a ship approaching port in foreign parts.
There are few things more melancholy than the spectacle of literary fossilisation. A great writer comes into being, lives, labors and dies. Time passes; year by year the sediment of muddy comment and criticism thickens around the great man’s bones. The sediment sets firm; what was once a living organism becomes a thing of marble. On the attainment of total fossilisation the great man has become a classic. It becomes increasingly difficult for the members of each succeeding generation to remember that the stony objects which fill the museum cases were once alive. It is often a work of considerable labor to reconstruct the living animal from the fossil shape. But the trouble is generally worth taking.
— Aldous Huxley, On The Margin
Huxley was discussing Chaucer in On the Margin, but the fact is that most of the books we study in schools and universities, right up to the 20th Century, are presented to us in such a manner. They are molded and mediated by teaching points in a curriculum, or exploited for an argument of literary theory. The wonderful thing about literature, and particularly the novel, is the communion that takes place between reader and writer. It is said that we can know no other human being as we can know an author and her characters. Preparing a reader for a book with comment and criticism, or the prompts of prospective essay questions, is like so much milk in a cup of coffee—it sweetens and makes more palatable as it dulls and mellows the raw taste of the thing itself.
As a philosopher, I’m often troubled to find I have a stake in what I’m arguing for. Bertrand Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, looks less than favorably on St. Thomas Aquinas because before he had begun to work he knew the answers—there they were in Catholic theology—and all he had to do was build the bridge to get there. The search for knowledge should progress mathematically, as one question follows another.
And so after writing an essay arguing for the ethical value of literature, I’ll worry if it’s all an elaborate plan to justify to myself and others the hours I spend in an armchair reading novels. I’ll bemoan the standard of English education in state schools or quote Epictetus on the folly of science of an evening with friends in the pub, then wonder on the walk home if I’m only excusing my indifference to books at a young age or my shoddy biology marks. In the same way, I worry if my antipathy to theory and criticism is less a worthy principle or an allegiance to my friends, the authors (who, after all, expend considerable quantities of ink in memoirs and letters, journals and essays on the fatuity of criticism—particularly when directed at them) and more nostalgia and laziness.
Never forget that quotes can come back and bite you when you least expect it: on the very page after he cautions against the unwanted difficulties of scientific speculation, Epictetus says of those who merely read, “Who, then, is making progress? The man who has read many of [the great Stoic philosopher] Chrysippus’ books? Is virtue no more than this, to have made the acquaintance of Chrysippus? Just as if I were talking to an athlete and said, ‘Show me your shoulders,’ and he said, ‘Look at my jumping weights.’ Get out of here with you and your jumping weights! I want to see the end result of the jumping weights.”
I even worry about my education. I left the study of science—of wanting to know the universe—for the study of philosophy and literature for the best and worst of reasons: to know how to live. It is the best of reasons because the pursuit of knowledge is not a means to some other end—a hurdle to clear on the path to a position in commerce, say—but an end in itself, and bound up with the most intimate decisions of private life. And it is the worst of reasons because it is utterly selfish. We are taught—implicitly if not explicitly—to cultivate our talents that we may contribute to the society that bore us. The man of commerce, even as he works merely for his annual remuneration, works indirectly for the benefit of the national economy, and for the public services I so blithely utilize.
Maybe it's good to worry. Maybe worry is some small sign of integrity.
You can’t burn down a library for words
have wings and have already risen
before you can say anything about anything,
before the ash and the ashen wind
curls around the doorways of the tombs
of the saints: manuscripts exist on and off
the page, just as the bones of the holy men
walk on, salt, gold and knowledge,
and the metamorphosis of knowledge,
in their marrow, which is the marrow
of the earth, of people thinking on their feet
as and when they need to; for the library
is a total library with parallel worlds
of aisles and angels, catalogue and code;
where, for all you know,
I might have lived these long years
ex-libris, waiting for you to borrow
and return me with your marginalia
of questions, of exclamations,
your spot-on scrawl and doodle.
— Rachael Boast, "Total Library" (Ahmed Baba Institute, Timbuktu)
It may be summer in Britain, but leaves of every color and size are taking to the wind. In Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, Moray, a thousand pages a day are being boxed up and shipped out from closing libraries. Large books, little books, thick books, thin books. A colorful book filled with pictures beside a sober tome of close print on onion skin paper. A local history by the lady who grows dahlias in the vicarage up the road behind a book of poems by a kitchen servant who died on a cold November evening of a stomach illness three hundred years ago in Osaka, Japan. Scrawls and screeds, poems and plays, photographs and philosophies.
Though I have written here of my love of secondhand bookshops I could have easily written about libraries, which I like quite as much, and worry that books are becoming not more accessible but less. Whether they go with a bang, in leaping flames, or a whimper, “As part of the council’s three year budget strategy. . .” the end of a library is sad because it is so incontrovertibly a symbol of decline. Despite the best efforts of government, there is no way to spin the removal of art and knowledge as progress. If the novel is a communion between reader and writer, the secondhand or library book is often a conversation between a community of readers who know each other only by their scribbles, or their coffee stains, or their bus ticket bookmarks. It’s sad that someone might miss a chance to meet a piece of marginalia that rhymes with a thought of their own, some spot-on scrawl and doodle that lights a bulb above their head and stops their hand halfway to the apple crumble.
Occasionally I drop in at the café when home for the holidays. Many of the staff I knew have moved on and I have lost the hard won privileges of table service and tabs. But perhaps I have changed as much as the place has. Though I love to read novels more than anything, I have taken up the study of theory and criticism.
Oh, and I take milk now, too.
Chris Ivins holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Warwick and is an alumnus of the University of Bristol. He works in the civil service. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.