Leaving stuff out: what doesn't get into a book
Why did 'Reading at the Toilet' by Holbrook Jackson not make the contents page?
Everybody has different ways of pulling a book together but I don’t think mine is especially unusual. It boils down to assembling a vast amount of material and then hacking away at it until about 90% has gone and a fine distillation remains. Or as Michelangelo put it: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” Though in my case it’s a bit less High Renaissance and a bit more Tony Hancock.
Sometimes the whittling process is quite easy and not just a question of taking out all the adjectives. More often, there’s simply too much material to fit in. In this newsletter I’m going to reveal how one of my books - Shelf Life, published by the British Library - went through this process in 2018. For those of you who have unaccountably not yet read it, here’s the PR spiel:
Books; reading, collecting and the physical housing of them has brought the book-lover joy – and stress – for centuries. Fascinated writers have tried to capture the particular relationships we form with our library, and the desperate troubles we will undergo to preserve it. With Alex Johnson as your guide, immerse yourself in this eclectic anthology and hear from an iconic Prime Minister musing over the best way to store your books and an illustrious US President explaining the best works to read outdoors.
Enjoy serious speculations on the psychological implications of reading from a 19th century philosopher, and less serious ones concerning the predicament of dispensing with unwanted volumes or the danger of letting children (the ‘enemies of books’) near your collection.
Long story short, it’s a person selection of largely forgotten/underrated essays that I’ve enjoyed about books and reading. This is the final list of contents:
* The Enemies of Books by William Blades (1881) - especially good on the dangers of letting children near your shelves
* Unpacking my library by Walter Benjamin (1931) - a classic on the joys of book collecting and our relationship with books
* A Lesson in Fiction by Stephen Leacock (1910) - a witty guide to the ‘modern’ novel
* Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading by Charles Lamb (1822) - focusing on the decorum of reading, books' appearances, and outdoor vs indoor reading
* Books for Holidays in the Open by Theodore Roosevelt (1916) - what the US President packed for alfresco reading
* Bibliomania by John Ferriar (1809) - a poem about the delights (and dangers) of enjoying the printed word
* The Uses of Reading by Rudyard Kipling (1912) - his thoughts on why books are necessary for leading a good life
* On Reading and Books by Arthur Schopenhauer (1851) - a fairly serious piece on how and who not to read
* On books and the housing of them by W.E. Gladstone (1890) - DIY advice from the Prime Minister
* Of Studies by Francis Bacon (1601) - a brief explanation of the ways in which books maketh man and woman
* On Destroying Books by JC Squire (1919) - an extreme way to downsize your library
It represents about 50% of the pieces I assembled as Possibles. So what didn’t make the cut and why?
The one that really got away was Buchhandlung by Flann O'Brien, a selection of really funny columns he wrote for The Irish Times about a proposed business in which people with too little time on their hands to actually read their books could pay to have important pages dog-eared, intriguing bookmarks included randomly, intelligent notes added to the margin, and fake dedications inscribed from the author. This was my favourite out of the whole darn shooting match, but the gatekeepers of O’Brien’s literary estate didn’t so much decline to be involved as simply refuse to answer copyright queries and so we had to drop it at the very last minute. Very disappointing, but I’d urge you to track it down in one of the The Best of compilations of his work. Here are the rest - do follow the links if you’d like to try them out for yourself.
Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books by Georges Perec
An entertaining read centring on how to constantly maintain your home library at 361 books, but it goes on a bit and loses its flourish towards the end. Penguin have since brought it out in a slim volume of other short essays by Perec.
An anonymous essay from an 1859 edition of Fraser’s Magazine which is an early exploration of the concept that books do furnish a room. Pleasant, but a rather old-fashioned purple prosey style and too rambling.
On Reading Old Books by William Hazlitt
As a classic essayist, I’d have liked to include him on the strength of his name alone, and this piece on rereading starts with the marvellous line “I hate to read new books”, but at 5,000 words it has the girth of a novella. Often anthologised.
Of Books by Michel de Montaigne
Another fine author with whom I’d like to be associated and useful in diluting the English-speaking bias of the book. But again, rather ponderous for these screen-soaked times.
To Read or Not to Read by Oscar Wilde
A letter by the great Oscar in the Pall Mall Gazette from 1886 about not only what books to read but what not to bother with. To be honest, I’m not sure why we didn’t include this. It’s very short and quite entertaining. Hey, that’s life.
The Bibliotaph: A Portrait Not Wholly Imaginery by Leon Vincent
Too like the poem on bibliomania already included as a must-have. And again, too long.
The Man of One Book by Isaac Disraeli
On the pros and cons of focusing on a few good books rather than fetishizing a high notch count on our bookshelves. Not too long, but a bit wishy-washy.
On Buying Old Books by Charles Brook
Worth including for the title of the collection it appears in alone, There's Pippins and Cheese To Come, but frankly too mild.
Reading at the Toilet by Holbrook Jackson
Part of his longer The Anatomy of Bibliomania which failed to deliver on what was a very promising title for an essay.
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