September 18, 2005

What I have written

It was Open House yesterday, so I went to Peckham Library. I'd never been before, which struck me as strange given that I'm a member of the library and live on a bus route that stops there, given how celebrated it is, award-winning, unorthodox, striking. I wasn't that impressed, if truth be told. The front of the building is covered in a grille which led me to ask whether it was up temporarily for repairs, while the furniture may be striking to look at but actually appears to be constructed mostly of stapled-on veneer, cheap to construct (the whole building only cost five million pounds) but expensive and tiresome to have to keep repairing. There is no air-conditioning, inconvenient in a building whose windows do not appear to open - and while the rear of the building is attractive, a few days before somebody had seen fit to lob something hard through one of the coloured windows from which its pattern is constructed. They were not, apparently, caught on the security camera that was specifically positioned to monitor incidents such as this, because there was no film, nothing inside the camera. There's a thinly-disguised metaphor there.

The metaphor was made more explicit by the fact that the library was anything but overstocked. Contrary to the claims of the bluff and ignorant Tim Coates, this has nothing whatsoever to do with a perverse desire of librarians to spend our budgets on computers rather than books, since the money for its PCs came in its entirety from elsewhere, from the government's budget for the People's Network: the emptiness of the shelves is a consequence of the emptiness of Southwark Council's coffers. The shelves were full of gaps, and messy from the lack of shelvers: books out of place, books on top of other books, books upside down, books the wrong way round. It was all I could do to keep from reshelving the place myself.

I might even have given it a go had not very the first book I saw been written by me. I had wandered over first, by instinct, to the chess section (794.1 on Dewey) and found it shelves with Sports and Games - and first on the shelf, the right way up and right way round, was a book I wrote some seven years ago. I was startled to see it: I might have been less surprised if the shelves had been more heavily stocked, if it had been just one item among many, but as it was, one of the few, I was surprised to come across it. I picked it up and turned straight to the label: it had been borrowed often enough, though not in the past year. I thought for a moment about borrowing it again, out of ego, or a sense of humour, but I thought better of it, put the book back and walked away.

I put it back after realising I didn't wasn't to open it again, didn't want to read the text, didn't want to see whether it still held up, didn't want to see whether I thought it was mature or juvenilia, didn't want to see whether I liked it or agreed with it, whether I would change it or leave it as it is, whether I was proud of it or embarrassed by it, whether I thought that it had been worth my writing or worth anybody's reading. I didn't want to dig myself up and look at myself: it had been written by a different person in a different place under a different name.

I didn't even have to say leave it to myself: it just seemed disconnected from me. We are linked to our earlier selves by all sorts of threads, by the people we have known and continued to know, by the things we have built and created, by the things that we have made, when they have lasted. But these things happen all along a conscious timeline, conscious to the person who lives along that line, relating each new person, each event, to the ones that have gone before, to the ones that will come after. No life is lived entirely in episodes. No life consists of isolated particles: you have to hold on, hold on, keep hold of the rope, keep hold of it even when it is whittled away to no more than a thread. But I lost that thread, somewhere, somewhere shortly after the autumn of 1998, long before the autumn of 2005. I put myself down somewhere and could not find myself when it was time to be picked up again.

So I find myself looking at a book from seven years ago and thinking not I wrote that but rather did I really write that? I suppose I did. I supposed I'm pleased I did. There it is, written, done, made, there to be judged, neglected, rediscovered, abandoned, left alone, spoken of. It happens: it exists. The one who wrote it is part of a different world, but the book itself is not. That is what I do now. I provide and preserve, I maintain the past so that it is not lost, I preserve it until it becomes of service to the present. I - he - was a writer then and I am a librarian now. But what I have written stays written.


At September 20, 2005 9:36 am, Anonymous CP said...

On the subject of your book, I was surprised to hear a colleague refer to his season ticket to Tottenham Hotspur as an "investment".
I was wondering what he expected as a return?

At September 23, 2005 4:48 pm, Blogger JPD said...

A regular increment of shite, i'd say...

At September 24, 2005 4:30 pm, Anonymous CP said...

I thought the book was rather good actually.

At September 26, 2005 12:24 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Doesn't the author get a small fee when his/her book is borrowed from a public library?

If so perhaps you should go around libraries borrowing all the copies of your books you can find.

I will happily be part of this enterprise for a cut of the profits.


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