Tsundoku

I know it’s a little bit flashy and ostentatious to use a foreign word like the one I’ve nabbed for the title of this blog, but sometimes there are no words in your own language to perfectly describe a condition, and tsundoku speaks volumes (‘scuse pun) about my own. It is a Japanese word meaning the feeling of guilt you experience as you let books fill your home (specifically your night-stand) and leave them mostly to gather dust unread. I certainly suffer from this ailment, buying old books at a rate that far outstrips the speed at which I can read them, and I do have quite an appetite for them as it is, so you can imagine the severity of my case of tsundoku…

When I was a teenager I read a novel by Stephen Fry called The Liar (not a book, I hasten to add, I retain on my shelves). In one scene the protagonist limns his tutor’s/ don’s office in a Cambridge college as a ‘librarinth’ of books, but where each volume has been carefully read, annotated and is in some way needed. The same applies to my own books – they all constitute a ‘working’ library and they will all (I hope) in time be read. There’s a great pleasure to being able to annotate a book in pencil and sometimes the scholia and marginalia in a book becomes more interesting than the printed text. Only the other month, in a bookshop in the North of England, I found a copy of a Norman Douglas novel for a few pounds which had been annotated in pencil by Roger Senhouse, the last secret lover of Lytton Strachey. He was clearly a formidable copy-editor and probably quite a pedant. What’s more, the bookshop had tried to rub out the annotations! Luckily they didn’t get very far before they gave up. But if it’s too much effort to merely erase those annotations, then imagine how long it took to put them there in the first place. It’s all about that great luxury, Time.

I’ve said this before, but I’m rather drawn to Warren Zevon’s idea (another bibliophile) that we collect books, many more than we can viably read, because we like to delude ourselves into thinking we have the time ahead of us to finish them all. I find myself now going into old bookshops and scanning the shelves and every book I pick up has the same ownership signature. That’s when you realise that your tastes mirror pretty closely those of someone who is probably dead and whose library has been disbanded and cleared. (On the bright side, maybe they were just sick of feeling tsundoku all the time and had a clear out…).

But a recent spate of holidays, one week in Orkney and one week in Cornwall, allowed me to both alleviate and exacerbate my tsundoku. That is to say, I had the chance to read a lot, but I also bought other books along the way too, including the most battered first edition of Nina Hamnett’s autobiography Laughing Torso. I’d always wanted to read this book, but it’s so elusive. It was worth waiting for, and why it hasn’t been reprinted is beyond me. Anyway, I am busy writing little articles on various Scottish authors for a ‘Biographical Dictionary’, and the trips allowed me to work my way through entire oeuvres. One of the names on the list is Agnes Owens (1926-2014), the short story writer and novelist. I had, years ago, dutifully read The Gentlemen of the West (her first and best known novel) but other than finding it funny and pawky in a gallows-humour sort of way, I didn’t really remember it that well. How wrong I was to underrate it. To give you a sense of the extent of my tsundoku – I had read Owens’s first novel only but happened to own, in first edition and some signed, all six of her main books, not to mention her contributions to Lean Tales etc. All of her novels are darkly comic, but leaning more towards darkness than comedy and they all look at lives (Scottish, Glaswegian, working class or underclass) that Thatcher’s Britain tried to hit hardest and render invisible. That said, her prose is of the most accessible and lucent kind and her short novels-cum-novellas can easily be read in an afternoon, though their themes and plots often stick with you long after the reading has ended. Although she didn’t begin to publish her work until the mid-1980s, after a lifetime spent trying to find work (often cleaning) that would fit in around her compulsion to write, her first three works belong to her early writing career. Shortly after the follow-up to Gentlemen of the West was published (Like Birds in the Wilderness) her son was stabbed to death and there followed a long period of creative silence. Her third book A Working Mother was published in 1994, but it actually belongs to her earlier career, as the writing of it was instigated by Owens accidentally finding a few pages of an early draft of the novel. I think her real masterpiece is her penultimate novella For the Love of Willie (1998), which takes us to a very familiar wartime setting and takes in one of Owens’s central recurring themes of mental health, but it is not in any way nostalgic or sentimental:

In its second year the war was her parents’ main topic of conversation, though each had a different interest in it. With her father it was the battle front. On coming home from work he repeated for their benefit all the reports they’d heard on the wireless and disregarded. With her mother it was the shortage of food and clothing.

Owens, in her interview with Ruth Thomas for the Scottish Book Collector magazine, said that while she was a voracious reader, she did not collect books, preferring instead the library. Whether this was for financial or some other reason (like having much more sense than me!), Owens therefore managed to avoid the pitfalls of tsundoku. My next stop is the novels of George Friel and then Giles Gordon, and then who knows what. Even if I’ve read ten books in the last fortnight there are still cairns and ziggurats and spires of books in my room waiting to be read. But if you’ve got any unopened Agnes Owens books lying around, do the right thing and read them at your earliest possible convenience…

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