Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Shelf Full

When you start out as a collector of books you just have a few. You put them on a shelf. And in the way of things that shelf soon becomes full. After that it’s only a short jump to owning several shelves, all of them packed. You don’t throw anything away or pass it on. It may become useful at some indeterminate time in the future. You may need to check that reference. Remind yourself of just what it was that author said. The books multiply. They arrive in floods. They flow around the room.

You can hold the catalogue in your head too. You know just where everything is. Then, after a further few years of book collecting, you find you no longer can. The stacks and piles surround you. Things you want disappear. Something must be done.

When this happens, and it has happened to me many times in my life, decisions need to be made. Keep, chuck, donate, sell – which?

I always believed that books were an investment. I was brought up that way. Books held intellectual, cultural and economic value. You could use them, in hard times, as a means of barter. You could exchange them at second hand shops for cash. You could sell your rarities for high sums. You could, if you were Richard Booth, the self-styled King of Hay, donate the dross to poor pensioners who could heat their winter rooms by burning burn them in their stoves. Truth is it hasn’t worked out like that.

Books today appear to have a rapidly decreasing intrinsic value. No one wants them anymore. The second hand shops have all closed and the market for rarities is shrinking fast. Where once a decent hard-backed ex-review copy could be resold for a few pounds you are now lucky if you can find a jumble sale willing to take it for nothing. Charity bags shoved through your letterbox want clothing not paper. At Amazon you download the digital rather than delight in the smell of print on paper. Well, a lot of people do.

But to hell with all that. I come from an older world. I’m back in the study where my new Ikea Billy Bookcases now line the walls. I’m engaged in the big job. Reorganising the home library. The pamphlets, those unwanted nuisances even when they were new, are mostly now in a box. Or several boxes. When they first came out they were only visible when you held them in your hand and you only did that for a few brief moments. Then they were consigned to the literary past. Instant gratification before dissolution. The early Anglo-Welsh Triskel pamphlets of John Tripp and Leslie Norris, the wonders of Bob Cobbing’s seemingly endless Writers Forum, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s cards, booklets and folded sheets, Topher Mills’ Red Sharks with their bindings still intact. My own second aeon delights, D M Thomas, Thomas A Clark, Will Parfitt, JP Ward, William Wantling, Geraint Jarman, David Callard, all with their staples rusting and their glue coming undone.

There’s a shelf of Beat Generation originals that I hold extremely dear. My early paperbacks of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. My City Lights first editions. My hardback obscurities. Norman Mailer’s The White Negro. Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Howl. Below them the books by the Angry Young Men. John Wain. Kingsley Amis. And the fellow travellers. B S Johnson. Alexander Trocchi.

Next I’ve set out my collection of concrete poetry. All embracing when it arrived and flourished between the early 50s and the late 70s. Reduced to three and a half shelves now. I’ve all the major anthologies, books by the masters, European material, American stuff. In the centre are my books by Jackson Mac Low. The genius of repetition and process, of system writing, of variations driven by mathematics, of permutation and alignment and chance. His was a poetry that challenged the whole idea of what could be poetry. Verse’s Alban Berg, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, poetry’s John Cage.

He came to Cardiff. I got him to read at No Walls in the Marchioness of Bute pub where Boots now stands in the centre of the city. He gave us the works: chants, murmurings, declarations, repeats, glorious showers of verbiage that may have held no inherent narrative but thrilled the audience nonetheless. What Mac Low was presenting us with was idea rather than emotion, light bulb moments rather than sentiment, poetry that worked not because of what it did but because of what it was.

I check my titles. I’ve half a dozen. None of them signed. I rarely remembered to ask. Jackson came back to the flat and slept on the couch. I presented him with a copy of my own early visual stuff. I’ve no idea if he read it or not. He never wrote to say.

After a while he worked out that having heard how words arrived at by process often sounded one could create them anew, avoiding process all together, right out of the middle of the head. Abandon the process and write as you imagine process to be. Read his Twenties (Roof Books,1991) Here are 100 separate poems “that were written intuitively and spontaneously”. Although he does qualify this when he says that “it might be misleading, however, to call these poems ‘intentional’, in that each word, etc., was written as soon as it came to mind or (in some cases) when I saw or heard it. I hardly ever revised..” Jackson Mac Low died in 2004.

How much Mac Low is there out there free forever on the net? Copious amounts at as it turns out. But as much as I have on my shelf? I doubt it. Let’s keep it that way.


Anonymous said...

Started to happen 17yrs ago ... with the internet ....David John Steer

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I sold my second-hand bookshop... turnover had been decreasing for a couple of years so in 1999 I sold up. I think that 'book towns' are still getting by though, places like Hay?? But it is difficult to sell second-hand books now and I had to give a load to my local charity shop the other day when even 6 years ago I could have sold them and probably pocketed £40.

Even though I have a Kindle for one off reads I still like to have my books around me and spent a lovely couple of days recently unpacking 20 boxes of books brought back from France onto specifically bought for the purpose shelves. Less wall insulation though and more insulation for the heart and mind : ) - Lynne Rees

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this one, Peter. No kindle can ever replace the joy of having the hard copy of any book, especially non fiction. The shelves here are groaning under the weight of our and our childrens books (new and second hand) and I have far too many piles that haven't made it onto a shelf. I need to visit Ikea soon, too :-) Julie Eirios Nicolson

Gav said...

When I retired I set about reducing my accumulation of books (mainly non-fiction) by about 50% to make room for more.

I found sturdy case that was just small enough to lift when full, and took it down the charity shop.

"Can you use these?" "Oh yes. Are you leaving the case?" "No, I want that."

I'd take a case-load down every week, so as not to over-load them.

After a few months I asked if they were actually selling the books. "Yes, see, you have your own shelf."

Anonymous said...

Just for a little debate ........ Surely it is the contents of a book that counts ..... Not whether it is made of Paper or Electrons? Both my wife and I are book lovers ... But we have almost given away all our massive collection of paper books .. And have iPads instead.... The sense of freedom we are feeling is intoxicating. The whole information paradigm has changed ..... There is more information now than ever available to us ... and it seems ridiculous to keep our own paper copies of it in our overcrowded homes. Dave John Steer