That books outlive their authors is a consoling thought. That they outlive their readers evokes the opposite reaction. Detached from their original owners, we discover them in second hand bookstores, their flyleaves bearing poignant inscriptions, “To Dad, Christmas 1947.” Disposed of, very probably after the death of both the writer of the inscription as well as of the original recipient of the gift, the book itself seems to carry an aura of melancholy and loss like that conjured up in Tony Harrison’s lines in his poem “Clearing,”
The ambulance, the hearse, the auctioneer
Clear all the life of that loved house away.
The hard-earned treasures of some 50 years
Sized up as junk and shifted in a day.
But books have an odd power of continuing their existence in a strange shadowy penumbra of mental existence, even when their material presence has vanished. Several years ago I fell into a deep sleep after having treatment for a painful shoulder injury. In my dream I found myself in my parents’ house as it was when I was about eleven years old. With the vividness of a slow-motion film, the dream provided a total recall of each row of books on the shelves with every detail of their bindings and titles. Though subsequently irretrievable in such precise minutiae, the dream was a reminder that books persist in the recesses of memory. Nearly everyone who was an engaged reader in childhood can recall in nearly photographic detail an illustration, a binding, or even a distinctive typeface from a much-read book from decades past. Yet even unread books have the power of persisting in memory in a manner unlike similar memories of the details of household furniture. The mind in a state of neutral reverie will suddenly find itself fixed on the spine of some long-vanished book. Coming across David Lodge’s philological musings on the word “loom” in his novel, Deaf Sentence, produced a hypnagogic image of a hardcover book with a green binding and the gold-lettered title, “The Loom of Youth” positioned three shelves up on the north wall of my parents’ living room. No recollection or knowledge of the book’s content or its author accompanied this near-hallucination. A brief internet search revealed both the book’s identity and confirmed the precision with which I had recalled its physical details—the 1918 Grant Richards edition The Loom of Youth– Alec Waugh’s once-scandalous autobiographical novel recalling his schooldays.
However vivid the book’s representation of its physical shape in my consciousness, the history of how it established itself among the books in that house is a matter for nearly endless guesswork. It might easily have been a chance purchase, one of many, in a box lot as one of my mother’s auction room purchases. It’s just as likely that my father selected it on one of his careful book purchases in his college days. If the latter, it was an unusually daring departure from cultural respectability. If he bought it, did he read it? The paper trail of a reader’s life is a maze of dead ends as well as tantalizing clues.