The story of our lives is intricately bound with the books we read along the way
There are some people who find cooking therapeutic. They love the mechanical peeling, chopping, cutting, grinding that allows them to switch off from the work day. They enjoy the meditative process of stirring the pot and watching their labours evolve into a dish that their family can enjoy. They love the rituals involved in putting a meal together.
I am not one of these people. What I find therapeutic is rearranging my bookshelves ever so often. Well, okay, now that you mention it, I do suffer from a mild form of OCD, but that’s neither here nor there (not there! Move it an inch to the right. Ah, that’s much better!) I find joy in going through my books, cataloguing them under categories and arranging them according to size or subject matter depending on my mood.
But ever so often I find myself distracted by a book I haven’t picked up in years. I start to leaf through it, and before I know it I am engulfed by memories: of the time I bought it, where I was when I first read it, the friend I lent it to, the discussions we had about it.
See, that’s the thing about books. They don’t just tell a story, they become stories in themselves. A whole history develops around them in your mind. They spark memories, they evoke emotions, they make you happy, they make you sad. They become the stuff of nostalgia.
And that’s before you even start to re-read them. Then, there’s the pleasure of coming across a line that made such an impact on you the first time you read it. There’s the added bonus of concentrating on language, style, characterization and plotting, because you are not intent on galloping to the end (you already know how the story goes). There are those rare moments when an oft-read book yields up new gems of wisdom because you are now in a different stage of your life. And then, there’s the added poignancy of reading an author who is now dead, but still speaks to you from beyond the grave. (Picking up a P.D. James at random, I stumble upon her meditations on the best kind of death, and I start to wonder if she achieved that in her own life.)
I glance through the memoirs of Cherie Blair and am struck by the impermanence of politics; less than ten years after it was written Speaking For Myself already seems dated and of little historical relevance. I start reading Jodi Kantor’s book on the Obamas, and wonder why this collection of tittle-tattle once removed made such an impact at the time.
And then, there’s the ‘What was I Thinking’ section. Did I really pay good money to buy a hardback copy of Judith Krantz’s Dazzle? It’s hard to believe that I was so young and so stupid at any time? Why on earth do I have so many Jackie Collins paperbacks, when I have no recollection of reading a single one? I must have done so, since my motto is to leave no book unread on my shelves. But, as I glance briefly through one, I can’t comprehend why I ever wasted my time on this drivel.
But I am happy to report that I wasn’t always stupid when I was young. My well-thumbed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird stands testament to that, as do the tattered pages of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (which still reduces me to tears of laughter, no matter how many times I read it). My copy of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s may be falling apart but the tale of Holly Golightly remains as fresh and effervescent as ever with every re-reading.
I wander into the next room to visit my collection of Agatha Christie (every book she ever wrote) and I am transported back to the high ceilinged room that was my school library, where I first discovered the queen of mystery writing. The book was The Ordeal of Innocence, and I still remember the edge-of-the-seat suspense I felt as I raced to the utterly-unexpected end, reading by torchlight in my bedroom so that nobody could tell I was up way past my bedtime.
It was my early love for Christie that led to my subsequent discovery of – and pleasure in – such suspense writers as Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Donna Leon, Minette Walters, and yes, P.D. James. The lone copy of Dorothy L. Sayers bears mute testimony to the fact that I tried – and failed – to get into the adventures of her creation, the perfectly named Lord Peter Wimsey.
I made much the same journey with the spy thriller genre, and that is dutifully recorded on my books shelves. I came to it via John Le Carre, starting with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, written before I was born, and going on to such classics as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Smiley’s People. My appetite suitably whetted, I went on to feast on Charles McCarry’s tales of super spy Paul Christopher (if you haven’t read him yet, do read the books in order; I didn’t and still bitterly regret it), and then went on to revel in the tales of Israeli spy/assassin Gabriel Allon (though I must confess I am now beginning to tire of Daniel Silva’s increasingly formulaic take on the spy novel).
But whatever my current views on authors and books, I could never bear to give away a single title. These books don’t just tell the stories that the authors wrote; they are also the story of my life so far.