I’m on the Northern line reading Angela Carter. This book used to be yours; I remember the strange cover. You lent me this book years ago in exchange for my copy of The Bloody Chamber. Now I have all of your books. They live alongside mine in shaky stacks, perilously piled around my flat, propping doors open and lining windowsills.
I am so impressed by Carter’s writing, as I always am, that I stop reading and take my phone out of my handbag to send you a particular sentence of hers that I know you would love and to express how gutted I am that she’d died when she still had so many words left in her. Then I remember that you’re dead too and put my phone away.
I am trying not to make a habit of crying on public transport so I turn the page over to the next story and find a flattened Rizla packet wedged into the spine. On the packet, in your handwriting, is a note reminding you to remind me about an upcoming reading of Joyce’s Ulysses on BBC Radio 4. The title of the story where I find this note is ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter.’ I wonder if this is coincidental and I miss you more than ever.
I always feel especially close to you when I’m reading your books. I like the fidelity of my thumb pausing in the same spot where your thumb once rested while you absorbed the page, how your thumbprints on the cover or bottom right corner are slowly being replaced by mine, smaller but nonetheless comfortable.
I remember exactly how you’d read, how you turned the pages, how you used your finger to guide you down the lines, how you would straighten the book out on the table when you stopped to roll a cigarette, putting it perfectly in its place until the next devouring.
I like the idea of my brain ingesting these words in the same order that you did, of my heart processing all of the unwritten words and underlying slivers of brilliance that exist between the lines just like yours did. I cannot live the stories of your life just as you could not live mine, but we could live the tales told by master storytellers together.
I also like the things that I find inside your books, and I’ve found allsorts. Some of your books were gifted to you by girlfriends past, and sometimes they had written an adoring note to you inside the front cover. (We personally believe writing in books to be a sin but I suppose these decades-old sentiments have survived longer than you have).
I’ve found plenty of bookmarks: a beer mat lodged at page 341 of The Glass Bead Game, a shopping list hiding in between pages 226 and 227 of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, an appointment card to see your vascular consultant lurking towards the end of The Master and Margarita. Scraps of newspaper, napkins and cigarette papers hibernating in many more.
We don’t believe in dog-earing books and you would scold others when they borrowed a book from you and returned it with folded corners. I found a couple of “real” bookmarks, one made of leather with your initials on it and a metal one in a Celtic cross design. I like the beer mats more.
You’ve given me tens of thousands of pages, all smoke-stained to a degree. In fact, I can work out when you first procured a book based on the level of smoke-staining. Your books from the 60s and 70s are tar brown and smell like stale incense and damp fireplaces. Your books from the 80s and 90s are entirely yellowed, the edges of the pages are darker than mustard. Your books from this century are less ‘smoked’ but all smell like Golden Virginia tobacco, a smell that will always remind me of you for as long or short as I live.
I also like looking at the prices of books and how they’ve increased over the decades. Some of your books are priced as costing a florin (two-bob), four and thruppence, and 4/6, all shillings and half-crowns and other ancient values. Then there are the books costing 25p, 40p, 60p, 75p: classic novels that would now cost me around £8 paperback in Waterstones. And the prices go up from there.
Your books present all kinds of other matter, too: cigarette ash, sand, the odd blade of grass, a flattened bug, biscuit crumbs, sticky tea rings on the back cover, strands of your silver hair caught in the spine, a smudge of blood from a paper-cut, train tickets, a pressed flower, general grit from your manual labour days, splashes of paint where you’d been reading on your lunch break, post-it notes, business cards, phone numbers written on the back of receipts, prescriptions, an unwritten postcard from Milan, a cartoon strip cut out of a newspaper, a £50 note… last week when I opened up The Rebel I found a couple of tiny rocks of hash stuck in the valley between pages 14 and 15.
It was decided about 15 years ago, when you first faced death, that I would get all of your books and my brother would get all of your music. I am lucky and grateful to have all of your books. You didn’t start reading serious literature until your late 20s/early 30s, and I am so glad you instilled a love of literature in me from day one.
And I am really enjoying making my way through your books, your favourites, page by page, word by word, and finding odd little notes from you. Like in The Snow Goose, you wrote (against your own rules) on the title page, “To my darling girl, A book as precious as you are. Oodles of love, Dad.” You wrote that in 2002. I just found it a few weeks ago.
These books were yours, you held them in your hands, you learnt from them, you formed opinions from them, you had your own ideas from them, these books informed your personality, your thoughts, your attitudes, these books inspired your own writing, your own poetry and art, determined how you treat yourself and all human beings, enabled you to grow and improve and teach others. Now these books are mine, and through these books you are giving me the opportunity to become great, just as you were great.
You are still here with me. You still exist every day: through your words, through my words, and through the words of all of these incredible authors who continue to teach me even though you no longer can.
You were gifted a collection of Emerson essays in 1978 by a girlfriend, we will call her H. I just found this smoke-stained note inside it, handwritten in blue biro, saying, “Don’t think anything of me giving you this book, but DO read it, right? (You know it’s very inexpensive to sit in the garden and quietly read a book– you can even afford an occasional ‘special’ cigarette, for example).” This little note perfectly captures you as a reader, and is how I will always remember you.
[Featured image source here]