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The moral tyranny of books.


I KNOW SOME people read one book at a time and would not think of juggling half a shelf’s worth, let alone a whole bookcase, as I do. They are probably doing it the right way. I congratulate them on their moral rectitude. I developed the habit of promiscuous and faithless reading as soon as I became able to read. At the end of my final term at school I had to ask a friend to help me carry back all 36 books I had on loan from the library. By then I was already into the habit of buying what I could as well. I don’t buy as many now as I used to but I am like an aged roué still picking up more desirable beauties than he can manage, and perhaps with the same decreasing pleasure.

Somewhere along the line a head-shaking moral compulsion lodged itself in my conscience (I’m sure many people understand this) – “you’ve bought this book and now you have a duty to read it.” All those unread, half-read, abandoned tomes stare at you in mute condemnation from your bookshelves. They mock you for your weakness and condemn you for your immorality.

But still you can’t help yourself. Books beckon like Sirens. You chuck a few of them out, pack some off to the charity shops, flog a couple on Amazon. Then replace them. Ah well, at least few of us get to the stage where we rent lodgings just for our valued volumes, as Thomas De Quincey did.

I have come to think of it as a kind of sickness for some of us — and not just to feel smug over the things we have read but also those we’ve failed to finish.

I have come to think of it as a kind of sickness for some of us — and not just to feel smug over the things we have read but also those we’ve failed to finish. In my own case, for instance, I’m dallying with a varied assortment, including Moby Dick which I began to read again after a gap of forty years. Last year I had swiftly made my way over fifty chapters then faltered. Since then I have progressed only another thirty chapters, but am steadily and relentlessly as Ahab, Ishmael and the crew of the Pequod making my way towards the final encounter with the whale. Movement on a recent biography of Edward Thomas stalled after Christmas. On Gilbert’s life of Churchill I am moving at a halting snail’s pace, as I am on Robert Tombs’s The English and Their History. I am two thirds of the way through Roy Horniman’s forgotten classic, Israel Rank, which is the novel on which the film Kind Hearts and Coronets is based, but am confident of finishing it within a few weeks.

Of more ancient texts I can claim some points for heroic defeat: up to page 208 out of 600 of Thomas Carlyle’s now neglected The French Revolution (in very small type); and, when I was at school, page 502 of the first volume of War and Peace.

THINKING ON THESE things I delved back into Montaigne, who (I had forgotten) admits of his own habit, “if I be a man of of some reading, yet I am a man of no remembering.” Homer nods and Montaigne forgets. That makes me feel better. If the great man can forget so easily then the rest of us can surely share in his absolution. I admit I remember almost nothing of many of the books I’ve read. I accomplished The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann twice. It took me half a dozen goes before I managed the first time but all I can remember from that double reading is Settembrini blowing his own brains out in a duel, and the impression that this was a truly great novel.

So here I sit with the double-parked shelves in front of me and volumes to right and left, wondering what is the point and feeling somewhat guilty. Articles and listicles frequently appear in papers and magazines, goading you with titles you ought (there’s that moral imperative again) to have read and testing your (dis)honesty. Nobody knows if you have read Ulysses or not, especially if they haven’t read it themselves. But when you have read a book and forgotten everything between its covers, it’s almost as if you were bluffing anyway.

So I feel no animosity against those who practise the bluffer’s art (students are, of course, masters of it). There are too many books anyway. You can learn to navigate your way through these difficult waters by reading Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It will save you many hours of solitary concentration. I recommend it, whether I’ve read it or not.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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