Sunday, 2 August 2009


I was supposed to be at Brighton Pride this weekend. Instead, I was kept at home, stricken with a sinus infection. I was sad to have missed the opportunity to see friends I haven't seen in a while, but secretly relieved to avoid the ritual meeting dance of the homosexual: the air kiss, the hair flick, the head tilt, and the inevitable exchange of gossip. It's not that I don't enjoy it - a little hate is excellent refreshment on a hot day - but I prefer it done with freshness and scandalous delight, instead of the prurient laundry list of peccadilloes and profanations relayed with an outrage which would be more convincing had I not seen most of my friends' livers crawl out their mouths for a rest from boozy embarrassment. There's also the additional benefit of not having to step over the twitching, drooling pile of jaw-grinding teenagers on the beach this morning, or trying to find a tolerable Bloody Mary in a town where there is neither any vodka left nor a single sober barman. The small things.

I put up bookcases, instead. This would not normally be a cause for alarm, but the history of DIY in my family is far from illustrious. My grandfather once constructed a shelf so uniquely non-euclidean that objects placed on it gradually slid off either end; the genius of this arrangement was precisely the slowness of its defeat by gravity (or the whims of some darker tutelary spirit which attended all his attempts at architecture) so one would be sitting reading quietly when suddenly a tasteless sub-Lalique figure would fling itself to its well-deserved doom. This, too, is the man who once managed to give five sides to a four-walled greenhouse. So, genetically, my construction of a straight-shelfed bookcase is a cause for rejoicing at the marvel of the human animal overcoming its wonky-eyed programming. I had thought two cases would support all those books of mine hitherto unshelved and leave space for new acquisitions, but no. Those books I had lying around in piles and hidden in cupboards have filled them 'til creaking.

I am not the strictest shelver in the world, but I generally try to follow the system laid down by Aby Warburg in the construction of his library, 'the law of the good neighbour' - that is, the shelf exists as a continuum of conversation, where a line of thought taken up in one book is continued, deflected or refracted in its neighbours. Thus one section contains an Italian edition of Warburg's never-completed Mnemosyne project, alongside Mary Carruthers' work on the medieval memory, Frances Yates' on the same subject, Anne Carson on Simonides of Keos, and two of Umberto Eco's fictions (The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum respectively, for both deal with the laws of analogy and connection, delirious or otherwise) alongside some John Crowley; to the other side of Warburg's book lie E.H. Gombrich, Leonard Barkan and Ernst Cassirer. I might think, then, where did I put that other book of Eco's? Baudolino? Alongside Borges' Book of Imaginary Creatures, Pliny, Swedenborg, de Quincey, unreliable narrators all.

This system, like all other systems serves only to conceal that as the library becomes larger, more connections uncover themselves. That is why Warburg never finished Mnemosyne; all arrangements are finite and conceal as much as they reveal. I could draw a line of Damned Popes from Dante (Boniface VIII), to Aleister Crowley (a fascination with Borgia), to Frazer's fascination with the trial of Pope Formosus, to Milton's sulphur-ridden archbishops in his pamphlets, to Austen's punctured country vicars. All this reveals is that the English have never been fond of prelates (and that, as a corollary, Dante was English.) With enough books, I may one day, eventually, trace in the welter of connections, the lines of my own face.

Things currently lying on my bedside table (a category interesting in itself):

- Leland de la Durantaye: Giorgio Agamben, A Critical Introduction, which began auspiciously by quoting my favourite section of Calvino's Invisible Cities (the inferno dei viventi), mentions Warburg and goes one to provide one of the most sensitive introductions to Agamben's thought I've seen.

- Gillian Rose: Hegel and Sociology, great but hard going, and does some very interesting things toward the end.

- Jane Hirshfield: After, good poetry which for some reason reminds me of the clear water of the river Exe.

- The Tempest, on which I am currently writing.

- Joscelyn Godwin's translation of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which makes me want to seek out a copy of the original text, which, in turn, seems impossible.

I wonder if I'm the only person who feels like exposing the contents of one's library is always *surprisingly* intimate and personal?


  1. No, you're not: which I which I, a brazen narcissist, clearly, have mine catalogued for all to peruse on librarything (and my blog): ERO (gulp) nestling with Steiner's After Babel, Barbara Pym rubbing shoulders with Susanne Langer.

    Rose IS hard, isn't she? I must admit I really struggled, and as a consequence 'Love's Work' is the only volume of hers which I pick up regularly.

    Talking of The Tempest, do you know Nuttall's little book on it, 'Two Concepts of Allegory'? Full of good things, as always.

    (Oh and on the subject of books, you cdn't post my Davenport Letters book back to me sometime, cd you? I'm having a reread and I'd like to have a look at it again.)

    I like Hirshfield a lot too--just trolling through Michael Longley's Collected at the moment, which is excellent.

    I laughed like a drain at the description of the shelf effort!

  2. Oh, and isn't the Hypnerotomachia fascinating?! I enjoyed Agamben's piece on it. I sometimes worry that Godwin is a bit bonkers, though: he did that very odd book called 'The Golden Thread' (I'm sure you know it), which was, I thought, unhinged around the edges. I liked his 'Harmonies of Heaven and Earth' though, despite its inexplicable failure to discuss Tavener--odd indeed for a book on music and mysticism.

  3. I've always thought Godwin was fantastically crazy -- a Pythagorean sorely out of his time -- but it's a fortunate species of insanity, which means the bulk of what he does is relatively trustworthy. Still, it would be nice to have an edition of the Hypnerotomachia with some kind of apparatus. I think there's one in Italian, which I'm not brave enough to wade through...

    I tried LibraryThing, but then realised I had to pay after entering 200 books, which made me a bit sniffy; I should also cede less time to my obsessive side, anyway.

    Having made it through a lot of Hegel & Sociology, I'm more convinced than ever that Rose was a brilliant mind, and she does some particularly interesting things to the Kantian imperative at the end of the book. I don't think it's as good a book as The Broken Middle, but it's certainly interesting as a coherent Hegelian project that avoids lazy proto-Marxism etc.

    I'll pop Davenport in the post to you tomorrow; he's really rather good. I've been reading The Geography of the Imagination on the tube lately - perfect essays for short journeys.

  4. I try not to put books next to each other that might fight - unless I am feeling very mischievous.

    Meanwhile, you've been tagged in the "Interesting Religions" meme.