Reading until the lights go out

Why Clive James’s new collection of essays is a perfect mid-January recommendation

Updated - September 23, 2016 12:48 am IST

Published - January 17, 2016 01:46 am IST

"A variant of book guilt is also about the lifelong struggle to find space for books.”

"A variant of book guilt is also about the lifelong struggle to find space for books.”

To be a reader is to be acquainted with so many forms of book guilt — and to anyone wracked by such episodes, may I point you to Clive James’s latest collection of essays, Latest Readings . And if, like me, you treasure that rare gem of a reader’s diary that nudges you to reassemble and perhaps supplement books on your shelf to be reread in a suggested sequence, this is an absolutely perfect mid-January read.

When James, the great and flamboyant poet-memoirist-critic who was born in Australia but has made his home in Britain, found out in 2010 that he had leukaemia (“to go with my wrecked lungs”), he threw himself into a planned book of poems, and into reading as much as he wanted. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out,” he writes, “you might as well read until they do.”

As he goes on to write about what he read — mostly, reread — the effect is of staggering abundance. He opens a single book, and before you know it, a reference, a memory or even a random thought has taken him to a few dozen more books in no time. A few pages into Edward St. Aubyn’s novel Lost for Words , he knows he’ll have to go back and reread the Patrick Melrose series. But then, he wonders at the popularity of the Melrose books in America, where “it is as if novels have to be individual, like people”, with exceptions like Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books. And before you know it, he has reread Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, finally read Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, finding her “right up there” with Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens tetralogy, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time — and far above Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (but so what, for some of us Durrell must be reread too).

Predictably, as far as literary criticism goes, these essays are too slim to be lasting appraisals — though his essay “Naipaul’s Nastiness” catches the impossibility of definitively judging V.S. Naipaul, or of satisfyingly separating the man from his work, especially novels like A House for Mr Biswas . Criticism is found in more wholesome form in James’s earlier work, but here one gets a more organic picture of a dedicated reader surrounded by what he loves: books.

Transported along with his library by his family from his London home to Cambridge, he heeded the limited shelf space in his new environs by resolving not to buy more books. But! “But with the renewed urge to read, I found, came a renewed urge to buy.” And James, we learn soon enough, is not an inhibited book browser and buyer. Reaching for his copy of V.S. Naipaul’s Literary Occasions , he recalls buying it “in New York in 2004, in the days when I could scarcely visit the Strand bookshop without spending a thousand dollars. (By the time the parcels of books reached London, I had forgotten what was in them, so the whole deal worked out like Christmas squared.)”

A variant of book guilt is also about the lifelong struggle to find space for books, leading to this definition: “When is an extra bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don’t have to build it.” As James takes his reader briefly through his failure to prevent his new house from resembling a book warehouse and then more expansively through the non-shelf shelving he’s resorted to on kitchen counters, on a footlocker, on the floor, it’s a tour through beloved and some still unread books. It’s a reminder of how life-affirming this indulgence is. “We are often told,” he concludes, “that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on computers. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.”

It’s a love that can call for guile. At his favourite bookshop, James meet an old and respected professor and, finding that he too is under orders from family not to bring more books into the house, there follows an exchange on “the protocols and techniques of book-smuggling”. Elsewhere, we find clues to some of these techniques, many of them all too familiar. A decision to buy Sally Bedell Smith’s Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House is rationalised by telling himself that it’s a birthday present for his daughter, though of course the book is lent right back to him.

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