I love books. Not just reading them. I love holding and caressing them, blowing dust off them, sniffing their musty pages, and especially standing before long lines of them contemplating all those titles ... all those stories.
A book is a feat of technology and craftsmanship. I’m talking about the paper, the ink, the glue, the spine, the covers. Sure, these days the crafting is mostly performed by machines. But, still, a book is an inanimate object — a leaved brick — capable of springing to life without resort to a password or a lithium battery. Books age — some gracefully, others like they’ve been left out in a storm — but it takes a lot to kill a book.
I’m no Luddite (at least not when it comes to reading). I’ll embrace the e-book, with all its revolutionary implications for how we will read and probably even what we will read. But I’ll do it when — and only when — the technology and the design combine to create a product as magical and as dependable as the paperback. And when some inventor comes up with a way that I can wander aimlessly around my house, browsing through my collection of electronic tomes in desperate search for the exact right tale to suit my mood.
Mind you, my book collection is an undignified mess. It urgently needs order — only I can’t decide what system to impose. And there’s an added complication: recently I took delivery of my first novel, Figurehead. Now that I’ve got over the excitement of picking it up and holding it (or some of the excitement, anyway) I have to decide where it should go on my shelves.
Adjacent to my favourite book, perhaps? But which favourite book? The Yes, Prime Minister scripts, which help me fall asleep most nights? Or in amongst Saul Bellow, who never fails to wake me up?
Or should I sit Figurehead with those books that I so loved as a child that I grew up wanting to be a writer? As a boy I was tiny, and I still have a picture book my parents gave me called Patrick Will Grow: “I’m glad Patrick is small,” Mother said. “I don’t know where we could put another bed.” “Patrick will grow,” Grandma said wisely.
If not Patrick Will Grow, then perhaps Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree series. These are the first books that I can remember trying to imitate: the child-heroes in my handwritten stories had great adventures and faced terrible dangers by going down a magic cave instead of up an enchanted tree.
My wife, in an uncharacteristically fastidious moment, recently suggested that I order our books in straight alphabetical order. At first I found that proposition horrendous, but I’m starting to come around to the idea. What I find most appealing is that despite the illusion of extreme tidiness, it will actually lead to wonderfully weird and random couplings: Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant satire on Fleet Street, Scoop, will share space with Steve Waugh’s autobiography; Frank Moorhouse’s Loose Living will stand beside Marlo Morgan’s whacky new-age Mutant Message Down Under and not that far from The Latham Diaries.
And Figurehead will be in most agreeable company. On one side, there’ll be a row of Margaret Atwoods. I’ll put Figurehead spine to spine with The Handmaid’s Tale in the hope that some of Atwood’s magic will rub off on me. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale I knew — again — that I wanted to write a novel.
On the other side of Figurehead will sit Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At one time (I was still at school) I re-read that book so many times that I could just about have recited the whole thing — definitive proof, surely, of the indestructibility of the paperback.