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.

What predominates? Well, fiction, I suppose, but only in being the single largest section – a roomful, in roughly alphabetical order, from Chinua Achebe to Stefan Zweig. Indications of preference? Everything that was written by William Golding, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, a hefty array of John Updike, Philip Roth, Mary McCarthy, Alison Lurie, Ian McEwan . . . But I know that quite a few are now out of favour – Barbara Pym, Anthony Powell. You fall in and out of love with an author. The classics are dutifully present, but presence does not necessarily indicate their significance for me; a glance towards the end of the alphabet – Turgenev, yes indeed, but Trollope I have never come to terms with. And, as I look along the shelves, I find myself pulling down a title here, a title there – haven’t read any Willa Cather for years, or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

In total, the non-fiction shelves would swamp fiction. Much history; we are in deep here, from the sombre dark-blue, gold-lettered volumes of the Oxford History of England that represent my own university curriculum, well over half a century ago, heavily weighted in favour of political history, the Lewis Namier-directed tendency of the day. But these are sidelined by the sort of history I later found, and knew that I had been needing: Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, Steven Runciman, Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane, and on to our own times – everything by Simon Schama, Peter Hennessy.

I can see the mind of my twenties, thirties, forties, finding archaeology: Hengeworld, Tomb of the Eagles, Inside the Neolithic Mind, even Archaeological Theory. Colin Renfrew and Barry Cunliffe all over the place. No finicky specialism – everything grist to the mill, from deepest prehistory to the Romans. And a significant foray into palaeontology, which has even leapt out of the pages of the books and solidified into a row of fossil ammonites propped up against them, those delicate coiled shapes that confirm the existence of unimaginably distant life. Stephen Jay Gould is the commanding presence here, backed up by Daniel C. Dennett, Edward O. Wilson – scientists able to write for the layman. And this area segues into a general section of popular science, with Richard Dawkins to the fore, alongside Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and others. Stout tomes, all of these.

Whole shelves are devoted to Egypt; one of fiction, two of history and related matter. Of course: I was born and spent all my childhood there, the place is still some part of my identity. The fiction is largely by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz with a scatter of others, such as Nawal El Saadawi. Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy was an illumination for me, a portrayal of urban Egyptian life in the first part of the last century, alongside which my parents and so many others were living out their very different expatriate lives in polyglot, cosmopolitan Cairo. Mahfouz has told me about the practical and emotional life of this society, and then there is the swathe of books that have filled in the facts, the backdrop. Bread-and-butter history – P. J. Vatikiotis’s The History of Modern Egypt, Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples – and plenty of more vibrant matter, from Victorian Amelia Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile to accounts of the Libyan campaign of the Second World War, war correspondents and military history. These last were supporting material for my novel – Moon Tiger – which depended on such reading, on archival footage at the Imperial War Museum, and my own nine-year-old memory of that time, that place, of how people looked, spoke, behaved, in those fraught years of 1941 and 1942. And there is more – travel books, memoirs, everything Egypt-related that I have pounced on over the years. There are two Egypts to me: the one I have learned about, and the distant but vivid, ever-present one in my head.

The sitting room has a single hefty section, nothing but ‘life writing’, as it is called today – biography, autobiography, memoirs, diaries, letters – again in alphabetical order so that I can lay hands on things, from John Aubrey to Virginia Woolf. I lay hands on Virginia Woolf quite often – the diaries more than the novels, supreme diarist that she is, dashing it all down as it was, uninhibited, candid, giving the reader a person and a lifestyle. But life writing has spilled over into the room next door; what a lot of it there is, what a commanding literary form. Here, it is trying to edge out poetry, which has pride of place, and what a mercy that poetry is mainly slim volumes, bar the Collecteds and the Selecteds and the Anthologies, so that a great many poets can be crammed into a few shelves, from Abse to Yeats.

Elsewhere in this room there is much miscellaneous work, an assortment of culture and comment. Peter Gay on the Victorians, Robert Irwin on The Arabian Nights, Marina Warner on a number of things, Philip Larkin’s All What Jazz – eclectic and diverse, the shelves here. Travel, from Peter Fleming and Eric Newby to Colin Thubron and Redmond O’Hanlon, and a significant clutch of the landscape history that taught me how to look at the world, and gave me an image for the performance of memory: W.G. Hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape, Maurice Beresford’s The Lost Villages of England. And, one long black-jacketed shelf of the treasured Buildings of England, Nikolaus Pevsner’s great undertaking, county by county, the complete set, the bulk of which I bought out of my first book advance in 1970; the rest of the money I spent, more practically, on a new fridge. The fridge is long gone, but the Pevsners enlivened and informed travels around this country for the next
forty years.

Miscellaneous is rampant here, shelf upon shelf, flitting from subject to subject. There is a row of books on birds. I can’t call myself even an amateur ornithologist, but I am bird-inclined, always notice birds, always look for birds. Sometimes I take down Birds of Australia just to wallow in the splendour, the diversity. And there is more: a book on bats, another on woodlice. These will be acquisitions from before the age of the internet, when you had to go out and acquire a book to support some arcane area of interest rather than just spend a few minutes on Google. I suspect that both the bats and the woodlice were for fictional purposes – they were somehow intrinsic to a particular novel.

There is a shelf of gardening-related matter: garden history, botanical books, books on plant hunters. Gardening has been a preoccupation, an enrichment, and has spilled over into what I have written. The books have expanded the activity itself and put it in context, placed it in time and space, given it ballast, let me see where it comes from and why gardening is a time-honoured pursuit.

Four translations of The Aeneid by different hands were certainly the fodder for a retelling of the travels of Aeneas that I undertook thirty years ago, but the spur to do that was childhood immersion in the Homeric stories in the form of Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece (my original copy still on the shelf ) – playing out all the action in my head in a sun-soaked Egyptian garden.

There is more, of course, much more. I have skipped past anthropology, architectural history, a stack of great slabs of books on art – Samuel Palmer, Ivon Hitchens, William Nicholson, Howard Hodgkin – among which have crept further slabs on dinosaurs and comets, by virtue of size and shape. I have simply dipped in, come up with what seems to be an identifying sample – the reading that has taken me beyond my own experience, that has given me stimulus and sheer pleasure, that has sometimes directed what I would come to write myself.

A writer’s reading is perhaps peculiarly acquisitive, but anyone’s personal library would have this reflective quality – here are the wanderings of a particular mind, the forays hither and thither, the obsessions, the addictions. Books Do Furnish a Room – the title of Anthony Powell’s tenth volume in A Dance to the Music of Time. Indeed, and even more do they furnish the mind.



Photograph courtesy of Daniela Silva

Chère Madame
Threshold | State of Mind