Wednesday, 4 January 2012

50 Books

Lovely books. All middle class people like books - they are like the clothes of your home. You might leave a copy of Milton's Paradise Lost on your coffee table left open with a tantalising illustration by Gustave Dore; you might keep a large picture book of Venice in the hope of trapping someone in an intolerable and inescapable conversation about your tedious picturesque holiday there. Perhaps you have a travel shelf of Lonely Planets, Rough Guides and far flung languages that point to how cosmopolitan you are; or a book of cocktails on the fridge illustrating your cosmopolitan tastes; an eclectic array of erotica to intimidate guests into submission. In the loo are stacked magazines the size of books demonstrating how very a la mode you are, alongside retro photos of the good old days. Books are a paean to the ego. The gaudy haute couture of the soul.

Well this is all very well and good as long as you read them. Otherwise, as the metaphor goes, it would be like talking about fashion while wearing last season's George by Asda. And haven't we all heard people talking about books they obviously haven't read and been torn between the shared social embarrassment of exposing them and the gnawing demand of justice to shout "Mr Emperor! Mr Emperor! You've made a dreadful mistake."

Tangentially, one of the funniest experiences of my academic career (now retired) was being in a master's level seminar where an American student was giving a presentation on Jean Rhys's Good Morning Midnight. I believe she probably had read the book (a novel narrated by a woman), but for some reason still assumed that Jean [Zh-awn] Rhys was a man and laboured the entire presentation under this misapprehension. The supervisor, a fabulous man Anthony Fothergill, proceeded on a rambling discussion of gender and narration that recognised the lamentable faux pas while preserving her from the worst degree of humiliation.

Well this was during my studies at the end of which I believe I had read around 90% of the books I owned. To my very great shame the intervening years of greed, great wealth, laziness and lack of libraries has greatly increased my possession of books but less so my consumption of them so that I'm probably down to a lamentable 50%, and spend more time alphabetising them than reading them. Hence my New Year's Resolution this year is to finish 52 books within the year.

And may I recommend it to all who have more books than they deserve - it's not too late to start. But I'm in a bright and cheerful mood now because within the first week of the year I have just finished book 1 - Hilary Mantel's fludd - an absolute gem of a novel and the funniest thing I've read in years. Here's a little excerpt for your moral improvement:

Mother Perpetua would tell the children, with her famous, dangerously sweet smile: 'We have no objection to Protestants worshipping God in their own way. But we Catholics prefer to worship Him in his.'

The Protestants were damned, of course, by reason of this culpable ignorance. They would roast in hell. A span of seventy years, to ride bicycles in the steep streets, to get married, to eat bread and dripping: then bronchitis, pneumonia, a broken hip: then the minister calls, and the florist does a wreath: then devils will tear their flesh with pincers.

It is a most neighbourly thought.

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