Philip Larkin on Books
- November 15, 2018
- By Admin: mrbauld
I am quite the wrong person to write this foreword.’ I should never call myself a book lover, any more than a people lover: it all depends what’s inside them. Nor am I a book collector: when a don asked me how many books I had, I really couldn’t reply, but this didn’t matter as all he wanted to tell me was that he had 25,000, or 50,000, or some improbable number. I was too polite to deliver a variant of Samuel Butler’s ‘I keep my books round the comer, in the British Museum’, yet at the same time I felt a wave of pity, as if he had confessed to kleptomania or some other minor psychological compulsion.
Yet my life has lain among books: what minor psychological compulsion makes me strike this disclaiming attitude? Perhaps a question of age: I grew up when the written word was ceasing to be a major entertainment industry. Society was turning away from the state of affairs that made it possible to live comfortably in, say, St. John’s Wood with a couple of servants, and bring up a family, by reviewing and reporting and writing trivial ‘middles’. Then again, the writers one admired-Lawrence, for instance, or Auden-tended to dramatize a Literature v. Life conflict, and leave no doubt which side you should be on. If you weren’t careful, you would end up ‘with an animal for a friend or a volume of memoirs’. Thirdly, well, books-and particularly the kind designated ‘antiquarian’-were politically suspect. The workers didn’t bother with them: they were the badge of the rentier. The pink-boarded Left Book Club volumes were all right, and the first Penguins, but any hint of ‘musing among silent friends’ marked you out as an enemy of the people.
Nevertheless, I have always been a compulsive reader, to match one compulsion with another, and this has meant that books have crept in somehow. Only the other day I found myself eyeing a patch of wall in my flat and thinking I could get some more shelves in there. I keep novels and detective stories in my bedroom, so that visitors shan’t be tempted to borrow them; the sitting-room houses the higher forms of literature (and my jazz books, a far from exhaustive collection), while the hall I reserve for thoroughly worthy items, calculated to speed the parting guest. None of them can be called remarkable. At best they are items bought on publication which now qualify as ‘modern first editions’. At worst they are picked from a bad bunch on a station bookstall. I remember that John Malcolm Brinnin says somewhere that he never saw Dylan Thomas read anything but a paperback shocker. Still, they are read, not like Michael Fane’s nine-volume Pater ‘in thick sea- green cloth’ that I doubt ever got opened: read in bed, in the bath, at meals. Within reach of my working chair I have reference books on the right, and twelve poets on the left: Hardy, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Barnes, Praed, Betjeman, Whitman, Frost and Owen. True, I reach to the right more often than to the left, but the twelve are there as exemplars. All in all, therefore, I should miss my books. I like to think I could do without them-1 like to think I could do without anything-but indubitably I should miss them.
It may be that a writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization. Of course the symbol changes: the fine book, its materials, its craftsmanship, its design, was eloquent of a civilization founded on means, leisure and taste; today the symbol is the paperback, hurled in hundreds of thousands against the undeveloped areas (Asia, Africa, the young), spreading what we think is best in our thought and imagination. If our values are to maintain a place in the world, these are the troops that will win it for them, but victory is not a foregone conclusion. And what is won abroad may all too easily be lost at home. Perhaps George Orwell best used the book-as-symbol in a way satisfactory to both sides: you remember how in 1984 he made his hero, Winston Smith, treasure a book that he had acquired from ‘a frowsy little junk shop’; it was, Orwell tells us, ‘a peculiarly beautiful book’ in paper and binding alike. Only, the pages were blank. For a writer, the image is a powerful one: the books the past has given us, the books in which the bookseller deals, are printed; they are magnificent, but they are finite. Only the blank book, the manuscript book, may be the book we shall give the future. Its potentialities are endless.
Foreword for the programme of the Antiquarian Book Fair,1972