Shelf Life by Alex Johnson

British Library Publishing have been rather spoiling me recently with unexpected review books; “The Pocket Detective” was an unexpected treat, and another perfect-for-me volume popped through the letter box recently in the form of “Shelf Life”. An anthology of writings about books and reading collected and annotated by Alex Johnson, it contains some real gems from a dazzling array of illustrious writers.

If you love books, you most likely also love books about books, and so this is going to be an essential collection for you. It not only covers the reasons for reading, the pleasures and benefits it brings, and the dangers of not reading enough, but also spreads its net wider. So we consider the problems of physically housing a library (a subject familiar to all bibliophiles); the dangers of letting children near your treasured volumes; and, lawks a-mercy, the difficulty of destroying them (excuse me while I have an attack of vapours….) Although I jest a little; I know that charity shops have been swamped by donations of vast amounts of unwanted “50 Shades…” books, so J.C. Squire does maybe have a point…

It isn’t all flippancy though; the rather grumpy Schopenhauer discusses the psychological implications of random, trivial reading (he’s obviously not a fan of chick-lit then, nor of Hegel it seems from his comments here…) He also urges caution in reading too much and not allowing yourself time to think about the book just read, encouraging giving yourself the mental space to assimilate the reading. Theodore Roosevelt warns against swamping one’s soul in the sea of vapidity which overwhelms him who reads only “the last new books”. And the book also includes what might perhaps the most famous essay on books, Walter Benjamin‘s “Unpacking My Library”, which I’d read before and which never fails to delight.

By Michael D Beckwith [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most absorbing of the essays is that of Gladstone (the famous British PM) who discusses the issues surrounding the construction of your personal library, and the vagaries of cataloguing, wrestling with the eternal problem facing the bibliophile of how and where to categorise and shelf those pesky volumes – proving that nothing changes in the world of books! Intriguingly, while I was reading this particular part of the book, I invested half an hour in a somewhat lightweight but occasionally diverting little series on BBC2, “Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide To Britain“; in a strange case of serendipity, during the episode I watched the brainy pair visited Gladstone’s personal library which I’d just read about, and it was lovely to actually see the place. It’s housed in a building which also offers hotel rooms, so that you can stay overnight and look at the books – heaven! 🙂

Needless to say, “Shelf Life” is packed to the gills with gems and I could have quoted half of it. However, I’ll share a few of my favourite lines with you:

Charles Lamb on the condition of library books: How they speak of the thousand thumbs, that have turned over their pages with delight!

Theodore Roosevelt on how a reader’s choice of book may reflect their state of mind: If he does not care for Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Sebastopol, and The Cossacks he misses much; but if he cares for The Kreutzer Sonata he had better make up his mind that for pathological reasons he will be wise thereafter to avoid Tolstoy entirely. Tolstoy is an interesting and stimulating writer, but an exceedingly unsafe moral adviser.

Gladstone on the importance of classic works: Books require no eulogy from me; none could be permitted me, when they already drawn their testimonials from Cicero and Macaulay. But books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man… In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary.

“Shelf Life” is a real delight of a book. Johnson, who has a number of blogs (including a very interesting looking one all about bookshelves!), clearly knows his stuff and the selection of essays here is wonderfully varied, entertaining and fascinating. I mentioned the dreaded C-word recently when I blogged about “The Pocket Detective” and I fear that “Shelf Life” is another essential potential gift for the book lover in your life. And, hey – it will add to your pile of books about books so that you’ll have the perfect solution to one aspect of shelving your books by having to give them a dedicated space of their own! 🙂

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