I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember but, until just a few years ago, I could never really pinpoint why. Then I realised. It’s all about making connections with other people.
I first realised it when I asked the prison librarian to do a search for any books they had on the philosopher Francis Bacon. She ordered me his Collected Works and, when it arrived, I found that the copy she’d given me was nearly a hundred years old. The pages were all different sizes, as was the custom back then, and this had left them yellowed and tatty. But there was also a burn on the top edge of the book.
I couldn’t help but imagine someone reading it over a candle perhaps decades ago. Perhaps because they were a teenager and were meant to be in bed. Or perhaps because they were stuck in an air raid shelter during the war. Or perhaps because it was so long ago that domestic electricity supplies just didn’t exist at the time. Whatever it was, I found the connection I made with everyone else who read that book almost as interesting as the book itself.
This happened again a few years later. I ordered a Gaelic – English dictionary. When it came, it had a price of $1.75 written in pencil on the inside cover. I couldn’t resist imagining where it had come from for the price to have been in dollars. Was it from America, Canada, Australia? Perhaps somewhere more esoteric? Then I found out.
When I began reading it a small slip of paper slipped out from between the pages. It was a cutting from a newspaper. On one side was part of an article about Salman Rushdie, describing how he felt to not be able to leave his house in the present tense. This helped me to date it at about 1989, when Ruhollah Khomeini put an order out for his execution for writing The Satanic Verses. And on the other side was a small advert for a second hand book shop in Brisbane, Australia. But the book was published in Britain and had a price in GB Pounds printed on its back cover. Suddenly this book had a whole history. I guessed that it had been printed and sold in Britain. Bought first hand, probably by a Scot (since it was a Gaelic – English dictionary), and then sent to a relative who had emigrated to Australia as a gift to remind them of home (since I don’t think many people would take a Gaelic – English dictionary on holiday with them). But the present probably wasn’t of much interest to this relative, who donated it to a local second hand bookshop, who priced it up for $1.75. This must have been bought by yet another Scot on holiday (since an Australian probably wouldn’t send it as a gift to someone who is actually in Scotland) and then brought back when they returned. Since it ended up in library stock it is likely that either this person had a clear out, or passed away, either way resulting in it being donated to the local library where it found it’s way to me.
All of this is based on guess work and assumptions, I know. But it actually doesn’t matter if I’m right. These books had a real history. They had been somewhere. People had held them, read them, loved them. And every person that had read these books was now connected by them. People who would probably never meet. But people with a small period of shared history. They all read the same copies of the same books.
And that was when I realised. I’ve always loved books because there isn’t just a connection between people who read the same copy, this is a connection between everyone who reads any copy of the same book.
Take my copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies for example. I know I’m the only one who has read it because I bought it first hand. But there will be plenty of people who have read their own copies. And it’s those people that I find myself thinking about when I read it. I know how I feel about the opening lines to the first elegy:
“Who, if I cried out, might hear me – among the ranked angels?
Even if One suddenly clasped me to his heart
I would die of the force of his being. For Beauty is only
the infant of scarcely endurable Terror, and we
are amazed when it casually spares us.”
I know what that does to me inside. But have other people felt the same? Or, more interesting still, have other people felt differently? And who are these people? What is it about their lives that makes them react to this in a different way? Is it something about their personalities? Or perhaps something in their upbringings? Maybe even something about the circumstances in which they find themselves at the time of first reading? Whatever it is, I find it fascinating. Because it all comes down to human connections. And, in prison, they are few and far between.