‘Every library is autobiographical,’ writes Alberto Manguel in his enchanting book The Library at Night. Quite so. His own sounds impressive – many thousands of books, reflecting his mind, his tastes, his interests. The same is true of any mildly book-infested home. The shelves say something about the person who has stocked them; they say much. They are the tangible account of what has gone into that person’s mind. The library of the mind is rather more ephemeral; the contents have pages missing, some areas are murky, others have degraded and are in need of conservation, there are black holes in which items can barely be seen, but everything there has had an impact, an influence, at some point, has enlivened, enlightened, illuminated.
At eighty-four, I have to see my relatively meagre assortment of around three thousand books as a record of where my mind has been over about eighty years (the Beatrix Potters of my childhood are battered but cherished, a seminal influence, I know, for their linguistic elegance). I seldom get rid of anything; I need this confirming backdrop. There is an element of intertextuality, too; here and there, what has been read meshes with what has been written – that book on the shelf primed the writing of a particular novel or story. But, mainly, this is the accumulation of interest and influence over a lifetime.