I have a copy of Art in Theory, 1900 to 1990 which has travelled through two decades with me, barely read. Gradually, the red rectangle on the broad spine has lost its colour, a faint pink now. The power and pressure of a thick book; there’s more work in a book like that than a person can stand. Every entry is the culmination of a lifetime’s thinking and strife. No thinker got anywhere easily. And then we pick over the inky remains.
Once, I made twenty quid helping a man move from his flat to a room in a shared house. He was in his thirties, I was in my early twenties at the time. He seemed clever. He drank and smoked too much, and didn’t seem to have a job that took up much time, but there was the sense that he would have been at towards the top of any class he was in at school.
He gave us the money to hire a van for the evening, and we set about emptying his belongings into it. It was dark and windy but warm so we were soon clammy, going up and downstairs with his stuff. The pitiful cheapness of his things. Cardboard suitcase. Plastic bucket with the suggestion it was used for his night soil. A bulky PC, old back then, the sort that would be only in green and took floppy discs. And books.
Three boxes of classics. All from the one pound shop. Melville, Stendahl, everything by Conrad.
Had he read them? Who knows. And so what? He had them. He probably still has them.
When I first got to London I went to Charing Cross and picked up Anna Karanina and War and Peace. The girl at the counter laughed in a friendly way and said something funny but I was having none of it: this was a serious business. I had reading to do. Getting them home, it seemed they were nothing but lists of names and patronymics. But I found my important books not long after.
Sometimes it’s the titles: Of Animals Parasitic in Man. Oh God, the early microscopic images of these beasties are thrilling enough, but it’s the music of the title. Is this an iambic tetrameter? Whatever, a rhythm is clear, and it intimates more than parasites but parasitic notions, perhaps spiritual afflictions. Perhaps blights of the sort that wormed their way so far into friends of mine their only recourse was to retract so far from contact that they have fallen off the edge of all maps.
I see myself twenty years from now, on a train, with a book. I find myself in a quandary at my bookshelves before a journey. I get anxious at a pile of half-finished books. There are death books: I request that if I’m mangled in a wreck and can only blink then read me The Magic Mountain, and don’t translate the French and German but find a friend to read it to me as is. I will never read enough and for that I’m truly ashamed. Sometimes I open a book and my age is there, to be read as how far in the paper has yellowed. Sometimes a book can break your heart at the same time it mends it.