Time travel is curious thing. Better still, it’s not nearly as tricky as people like to make out. Sure, you can obsess over wormholes, DeLoreans and flux capacitors if you like but, in truth, time travel happens everyday without these things. In fact, I’ve been time travelling all week and I can honestly say I didn’t come anywhere near to reaching eighty-eight miles per hour. Instead, I’ve been unpacking books.
The first thing to say about books is that I’ve got a lot of them. No matter where I go, they attach themselves to me and rarely, if ever, let go. Having moved house a few months back, the time had come for me to address ‘the messy room’. That is, the one room of the house that, for whatever reason, is never quite finished.
There were books from my childhood, including an old hardback picture book of Dick Whittington, its edges worn. There’s also the book I wrote in Grade Three. I should clarify that when I say ‘book’, I mean pieces of paper that were folded together and stapled to a cardboard cover. I should clarify further that when I say ‘wrote’ I mean attempted to transcribe a Monty Python sketch I heard another student describe on the bus to school. You’ve got to start somewhere.
Adrian Mole holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know why but there was something about the story of a shy, nerdy aspiring novelist that I connected to. It seemed as if Sue Townsend wasn’t so much writing these stories as simply taking dictation. They perfectly captured what it was to be an adolescent boy – the anxieties, the hopelessly unrequited crushes and pimples. I could relate.
I have a few ‘prize’ books in my collection. These are the tomes I won either for academic excellence or, possibly, punctuality. Without exception, these are all very serious books with atrociously small print. Usually there’s some kind of sticker on the inside cover explaining what I’d done to deserve a book. I’ve not read any of them. They feel too special to enjoy. Ideally, these books would be mounted on the wall like hunting trophies.
Things took a dark turn in my late teens and early twenties. For reasons that elude me now, I decided the best way to demonstrate to the world at large that I was an interesting, sensitive young man was to buy certain kinds of books. It started with a Patrick White obsession – I spent weekends hunting down first editions all over town and regarded anyone who’d even heard of Patrick White as being something of a kindred spirit. But despite all my Patrick White first editions, not once did someone sidle up to me and remark what an interesting and sensitive young man I must be.
Things turned darker still. I started reading Camus, Sartre and collecting hardback editions of Francois Mauriac. Before I knew it, I was a complete Francophile. If these books didn’t represent who I was, they probably said something about who I wanted to be. Sometimes books are aspirational. But I was a long way from being Camus, Sartre or Mauriac.
I have a lot of books from my father. These fall into two distinct camps. There are those that he gave me, usually as a gift to mark an important event like a birthday or Christmas. Then there are those that I took, most likely with a promise to return promptly that, at least to this time, remains unfilled. (Where else am I going to get a complete set of Spike Milligan’s war diaries at this point?) The gifts are all inscribed – nothing too fancy – just my name and his, the event and the date. These books are like signposts. Books had been my father’s go to gift of choice. But, at a certain point, they stopped. Perhaps the risk of repetition was too great. The ones I took are, well, probably more comfortable staying with me at this point.
Different stages of my life have seen me buy different types of books. Prolonged periods of melancholy saw me buy a lot of Michael Leunig. There were assorted self-help books that probably followed my Michael Leunig marathon and then more cook books than I care to mention that I bought before every recipe you could ever want was available on the internet. Clearly, life had changed.
Books are shadows. You can’t shake them off. I’ve packed and unpacked my books more time than I care to mention and spent hours fussing over how to arrange them on the shelves. Books can’t appear randomly, there has to be some kind of underpinning logic.
And so it is that I’ve once more had to unpack my books. Reaching into cardboard carton after carton, I’ve pulled out fragments of my life before deciding what order they should go in. It’s almost as though they’re puzzle pieces and I am slowly putting myself back together.
Some books I’ve read multiple times – ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller, ‘The Heart of the Matter’ by Graham Greene and ‘The Man With The Gold’ – the autobiography of Mr. T. Others I may never get around to reading. I’m okay with that. Just the sight of them instantly transports me to another point in time. They connect me to other points in my life. Or, if you prefer, to other chapters. The end.