I mentioned in my last post that I spent a number of years out of Ireland when I went back to college and studied for a Masters and then a PhD in Creative Writing. This involved spending time in a variety of rented (and borrowed) accommodation, usually surrounded by books and always by the sort of creative clutter I appear to require in any writing space I inhabit. The number of books surrounding me seemed to increase mysteriously and exponentially over the four or so years I was away; when first leaving Dublin, I only brought with me those books that seemed vital to my creative process: Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, my collected Kavanagh, all the Kerrie Hardie collections I had to hand and Raymond Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall, to name a few. But added to these were the results of all the visits to second hand bookshops, antiquarian booksellers and charity shops that crossed my paths in Norwich, Paris and Bangor (quite the jetsetter, was I). I seem to remember owning several copies of Richard Ellman’s masterful biography of James Joyce (the most common book to turn up in a second hand store, I discovered), a copy of Mrs Beeton and several beautifully bound copies of obscure Victorian poets and novelists.
I came to inhabit the new places I lived through familiarising myself with their bookquarters; Norwich may have disappointed on so many other levels, but that little area around the cathedral, where antique shops jostled with booksellers along the narrow medieval streets, remains one of my most vivid memories of the city. Paris was all about the second hand, English-language bookstores; I was spending four months in a top-floor apartment with no television and only French-language radio, so I fell upon the Red Wheelbarrow and, naturally, Shakespeare & Co, with all the fervour of a gourmand having finished the Atkins Diet. I read voraciously and indiscriminately, and the piles of books grew higher and higher around my desk by the window. Of course, when, after four months, I had to leave the little deux piece with several scores of bags of books (and a few clothes), family members and friends were called upon to provide a mule service and bring cases of them home. To my eternal shame, I never called upon the one friend of a friend who’d kindly brought a batch home with her to retrieve those books. How cavalier was I with what I thought was an inexhaustible resource.
But how things have changed. I read this yesterday and discover that the days of books are not only numbered, they are actually in the minus sign already. The advent of digital technology, the proliferation of electronic media, has put paid to the art of book printing for ever, so it would seem. We are now embracing our e-readers, our kindles and our iphones, and forgetting for ever the dusty smell of old paper, the velvet rub of aged leather binding. And this notion profoundly depresses me; I’d have never have gotten the feel for Norwich or Bangor or Paris if I’d been wandering around, head down in some screen or other. Technology has its uses, but its tyranny is to take our eyes and senses away from the world around us, and to focus us into a small narrow square of plastic and flashing cursors. The book, on the other hand, has the tangible link with everything that has gone before it – previous owners, the atmosphere of the second shelf down in the rare books section, the faint whiff of whatever coffee stained the fly-leaf.
And yes, I am aware that by writing this blog (and not trying to publish a pamphlet somewhere to post on the gates of Trinity College) I am participating in the electronic media phenomenon that is threatening to make my beloved books extinct. But this little screen I’m typing into is still surrounded by books and magazines, the floor around me is still covered with volumes that have been exciting me for decades, for months, for days.
I’d love to hear from others about their favourite bookshops, or best book finds – you’d never get the same charge from a kindle, unless you accidentally dropped a cup of water on one!