Essays

The Little Room of Danger and Depth

By posted at 6:01 am on November 28, 2011 12

Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door.

It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented.

Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library.

On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it.

What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves.

In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death.

I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing “how to” books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced.

covercoverBack on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again.

Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too.

coverWhat started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek.

“Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?”

Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous.

covercoverAnd he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest.

But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making.

I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me.

All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner.

coverPart of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing.

But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it.

The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire.

 

Image credit: Kelly Schott/Flickr





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12 Responses to “The Little Room of Danger and Depth”

  1. Charles-Adam
    at 10:13 am on November 28, 2011

    “The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be.” I love that line, Nigel.

    I also really like your shelving system, especially the vertical scale from unread to best-loved. It’s interesting to think that your books, upon reading or re-reading, could move up or down on the shelves, depending on the effect they have on you…

    Anyway, cheers from a fellow bibliophile,
    CAFS

  2. Mark Haber
    at 11:13 am on November 28, 2011

    You are not alone Nigel! There is a 39 year old on the other side of the world (Florida) who has done the same thing. Although my library is not relegated to a single room (not yet) the shelves are scattered throughout the house. Yes, these books are also my anchor, my lifeline to some of my favorite memories. Some first editions. Some signed. But mostly trade paperbacks and books acquired simply because the cover grabbed me. I’ve always organized the books by region (Russians here, Latin Americans there). Like you, I’ve also been wrestling with the notion that this library thing is archaic but, like you, I’m now at peace with this. I’ve been building the library since my mid to late teens and it’s pretty respectable. Now, if only I could write as much as I read! Great article.

  3. Sara H
    at 9:55 pm on November 28, 2011

    Loved all of this. Can’t wait for the day when I can have a more permanent set up of shelves, for both books and music.

  4. Ali L
    at 6:26 pm on November 29, 2011

    I absolutely loved this essay! I think it is wonderful that you have created a library in your home free from technology. And you don’t even care that it’s small because it contains your beloved books. I recently moved to a condo, and my friends convinced me to make the spare room into a library. I have to begin shelving my books, and I suspect that I will be doing so over my Christmas break, but I cannot wait to make this room my library! I am not so much obsessed with shelving my books as I am with my books themselves. About five years ago I began buying all my books (this was after I threw away so many books from high school, college, and law school–what was I thinking?), and I am slowly creating my library. I know having a library is an antiquated and outdated notion in today’s world, but I don’t care. I love that I care about books and creating something for myself!

  5. Nigel Featherstone
    at 2:22 am on November 30, 2011

    Many thanks to you all. It’s just so good to know that the home library isn’t going anywhere. Homes must have a room for the soul, don’t they?

  6. Claire
    at 4:46 pm on November 30, 2011

    Fabulous essay and wonderful to read of your library growing with your reading and clearly your writing as well. Bonne continuation.

  7. Judy Krueger
    at 1:39 am on December 1, 2011

    Beautiful. I also have a library. It grows every week. I often think that someday, if all the libraries lose their funding, if the technology crashes, I will still have my library. It has more books in it already than I could probably read before I die. I will never be without a book and I can share with anyone within walking distance.

  8. annie morgan
    at 9:41 am on December 3, 2011

    Charming essay indeed. Our books surround us in every room. I can not imagine a living room without at least one bookcase, though ours having six might be considered a bit over done for some folk. Your essay is most evocative, I can almost smell the wood burning in the fireplace. thank you for this lovely digression so early in my morning.

  9. Ann Lee
    at 8:31 pm on December 5, 2011

    Hi, lovely, lovely piece! Many great lines, perhaps especially…”It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops…” I’m a similar age and I know that my godchildren will be very different. Perhaps they will visit some digital cloud with the same meaningfulness and nostalgia when they are older. Just found out yesterday that South Korea will spend about US3.5 billion ensuring that all school books and text books used in school will be digitalised by 2015. So kids will be used to text on their tablets (or whatever comes next) from very young…

  10. The Uninnocent & More | Red Weather Review
    at 11:44 am on December 7, 2011

    [...] Old school!  A room with no technology–just books.  Here. [...]

  11. Numbers for flying elephants, or a year of reading « Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot
    at 5:52 pm on December 10, 2011

    [...] follows is a list of five books I’ve read this year that have ended up on the top shelves in my library, meaning they’re books that I must risk life and limb to rescue if the house is burning [...]

  12. On the other side of the glass « Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot
    at 6:53 pm on January 21, 2012

    [...] went down there, the opposite direction, to my writing room at the front of the house and opposite the library.  It’s quite a big room, my writing room – it could easily fit in a queen-sized bed (which [...]

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