For six months I have been living in London, in a small flat with only a little room for bookshelves. My library – well, 95% of it – accumulated over 45 years of reading is now in storage 50 miles away.
Sometimes I wake up in the night and worry about my books. Are they cold? Will the glue deteriorate in the winter temperatures and will they fall apart on that day in the future – three years from now? four? – when I open up the boxes and shelve them once again? I have placed great faith in the little sachets of granules I packed with them; they are marked DO NOT EAT like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
The boxes are labeled so in theory I can reclaim any book if I choose, but in practice this is less than easy: the books are packed behind and beneath other stuff – tents, garden chairs, a thing that looks like a cross between a side table and a jigsaw puzzle but is really a sculpture, and – well, just more stuff.
My book group recently selected Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World for its next meeting. I have already read it, but am more than willing to read it again. My copy is in storage. What to do?
I could go and fetch it. The journey to the place where I have stored my books takes about an hour each way. Plus the time it would take to locate the box. And pack everything away afterwards. It might take three and a half hours. A new paperback costs £8.99 and my rail fare would be more than twice that. Clearly the only sensible thing to do is to buy it again. Yet I’m reluctant. My copy is one I bought when I was a postgraduate student in Bristol. I purchased it in the University Bookshop, next door to the library; in the days when paying my rent and my university fees was a feat I managed only precariously, and a new book to be read for pleasure was a rare and prized treat. To reread the book now is not only to renew contact with a story, a character I have read before, but to revisit the mind of that reader I was then: deeply imbued with French literature of the late nineteenth century, familiar with contemporary literary theory regarding autobiographical fiction. What she made of Ishiguro’s book is not what I, today, will make of it. And so my reading of it will be double, a new reading for now, shadowed by the memory of a reading back then. To reread is not only to circle back in time to a book, but to rediscover yourself and measure the distance – and the closeness – between who you are and who you used to be.
But it doesn’t need to be the identical copy for this to happen – or does it?
While I was considering all this, I realized that I can’t go to the next book group session anyway. I have a diary clash. This lets me off the hook. I am not going to be forced to choose between the rational purchase of a paperback and the irrational investment of half a day of my time in order to retrieve a thirty-year old copy of a book that is just the same except that it already has my name in it, in a hand that is no longer mine.