When I found out that I was going to change my job at the university, I assumed the rather luxurious rooms I’d been working in for the past few years would have to go. In keeping with the experimental nature of the job, I thought I’d be given some little cubbyhole up the top of a daylight-pierced wooden staircase with a view over the dustbins, and I’d have to give up my spacious quarters with their riverfront location. I thought I could come to terms with this; the more pressing problem was what to do with my books. I read somewhere once that a professor collects books the way a ship collects barnacles, and that’s certainly true for me. Put down anchor somewhere and the barnacle problem multiplies exponentially. So I got some new bookcases at home (on the very last available spare wall) and started transferring my books, two carrier bags at a time, every day I was in college. For a long while I didn’t make much of a dent in my collection, but traipsing down seven flights of step with as many books as I could physically carry did make me fear for my arms. I thought I might end up with the physique of a gibbon; very attractive on a gibbon, less so on me. I roped my husband and son into a weekend trip and we carted back the motherload. Soon all I had left were the bits and pieces that I didn’t absolutely have to have in comforting proximity, but which I didn’t really want to cull, either. Theorists like Judith Butler, Lacan, and slightly out of date feminist literary criticism which I’d traveled through and out the other side; odd French books, like Edith Wharton and Milan Kundera in translation; all my German undergraduate texts which, twenty years later, I could no longer read but remain dear to my heart. This was far from rational. I ought to have invited the German students round for a free for all, but then my eye would fall on a little volume by Goethe entitled West-Oestlicher Divan, which was colloquially known as East-West Sofa Bed among the students because we had absolutely no idea what the title meant (and to this day I am none the wiser). And the memory still makes me laugh. I couldn’t really give that away.
So there I was, waiting to transfer my ragbag collection of C-list books when the college authorities astounded me by offering me the same rooms for another year. Naturally I was very happy to stay in my penthouse suite, but I couldn’t face transferring all the books back again. After all, the question of rooms would come up again in a year’s time, and I didn’t really need them there for reference. But I can’t help thinking how odd my shelves look, every time I’m at work. The main bookcase is almost empty, the others contain collapsing stacks of books; in the English bookcase Marina Warner’s Joan of Arc and Naomi Wolf’s Fire with Fire prop up Claire Petulengro’s Love Signs (and I’m not even sure how she got there). When students sit down in the main armchairs, they are at eye level with a medium sized pile of French cinema books (which I researched a little without acquiring any kind of speciality) and on the top, the only book whose title is clearly visible, a Susan Suleiman volume on art appreciation called Risking Who One Is. And that is a fair comment on my book shelving situation, as I see the students peering at my ransacked collection and figuratively scratching their heads and I want to say ‘these aren’t my real books, you know’, and sometimes I do.
It always strikes me how curious it is that books become our intimates. How they reveal so much about us, it seems. How distressing it can sometimes be when a book you love has fallen flat with a person you love, or how piercing an attack on one’s reading tastes can feel. I can still remember an undergraduate friend of mine scanning my bookcase and hoiking out a novel by an author whose name I’ve forgotten, no one famous anyway, no one canonical, that concerned a missing portrait and an old love affair. ‘Oh honestly, Litlove, he said. ‘The things you read.’ I felt momentarily, briefly, cheap, like I’d been caught out making a ghastly social faux pas. I do wonder what it is about reading a story that reflects so acutely on one’s inner world. I’ve known people judge their friends far more harshly on whom they let into their minds than on whom they let into their beds. And it rose to a crescendo when I worked in the local bookstore, amongst a young, highly literate staff who were crashing book snobs. There were so many authors who weren’t even allowed near our precious shelves for fear they would lower the tone. I don’t appreciate this sort of behaviour, which amounts to a kind of book xenophobia. I think you should read what gives you pleasure and that’s an end to the matter. But even so, I feel oddly naked and exposed in my college rooms, with a ramshackle collection of just-about wanted books. My books were my friends and companions; they backed me up in discussions, they were a material reminder of why I was there at all, what it meant to me. They were my long-view history through the winding corridors of education, the stuff my dreams of teaching and writing were made of, the ideas and insights on which I had grown up and become a woman, a mother, a critic. I felt we were in this thing together. And so every time I’m in college I feel a sharp pang of longing for my books, quietly blanching their spines in the sunny conservatory at home. But not quite enough of a pang to carry them all back again, two bags at a time.