Other people’s bookshelves

For the last month or so I have been working in a new place, away from home.  A friend’s mother, knowing I was struggling to find the space to live and write in my small flat, very generously offered me a room in her house, so four times a week I cross the park to a pretty white house and climb the stairs to what was once the bedroom of her eldest child.  There I write.  It is a very nice arrangement and working well.

There are books in the room.  Other people’s books are utterly fascinating to me.  Often it’s because you learn a lot about a person by knowing what they read.  In some cases – as now – there is the pleasure of noticing that someone has read the same sorts of books that you have read.  This, you think, is a person I would like.  But there’s also something odd about it.   Seeing a familiar book on someone else’s shelf fills me with the urgent desire to reread it.  Why should that be, when the same book has sat quietly on my own shelf for several decades, pretty much ignored?

The eldest daughter of the white house across the park read D H Lawrence and Dostoevsky in her teens, as I did.  Like me, she enjoyed Daphne du Maurier.  E M Forster is here, and Henry James and Elizabeth Jane Howard.  I know them all.  I have them all.   It is peculiar that the power these books exert over me should be greater than that of my own copies.

Is it simply that the books are trying to distract me from work?  After all, the reading life is always in competition with the writing life – and it fights dirty.  But I don’t think it can be so simple.  After all, Lawrence sat on my shelf for years while I was a few feet away writing The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black and he was as quiet as a mouse then.


If it was a different edition I could understand a book catching the eye and sparking a desire for reacquaintance.  A new jacket can freshen up any author.  But the previous inhabitant of this room is about my age, so these are the very same Penguin paperbacks I already have.  It must be something else.

Perhaps it is less about the books themselves and more to do with the fact that they belong to a stranger.  These books look like my books, but they are not my books.  They have been read – reread maybe – by someone else, a person I know little of.   Another’s hand has turned these pages, another’s eye scanned these words and lines and paragraphs.  This matters because it is the reader that makes the book.  An unread book is full of potential, but it is only half a thing; without a reader to complete it, it is inert.  Only a reader can bring a book to life, and every reader brings something fresh and unique to the reading. The owner of this copy will have noticed things about Mrs Morel that passed me by.  She will have evaluated Paul’s nature differently from me and therefore judged him differently.  Some thirty or more years after first reading it, what she remembers will not be what I remember.  This copy of Sons and Lovers – in every measurable aspect identical to my own – has revealed to its owner a face I have never seen.   What is more, this copy reminds me tantalizingly of all the books that Sons and Lovers is capable of being, beyond hers and mine.

One day I will reread Sons and Lovers.  Inevitably I will read it personally, with reference to my own values, experiences (of life and other books) and preferences.  At the same time I will try to open my third eye, to catch a glimpse of what it is that a thousand other readers might see in those same pages.   It is a useful practice for a writer.  Those ‘thousand other readers’ are the ones whose responses I must tune into with every sentence I write.