A bookshelf has died as planks of ply have bent under the weight of stories. Shelves buckle under savage books on war and sag under the aerial deeds of Michael Jordan. This scaffolding of wood and words, which represent so much of a reading life, is collapsing. And it is wonderful. For there is nothing like the arrival of new bookcases.
They come from Ikea, compressed packages of board turned swiftly by two men, a drill, screws, into these towers of reassurance. Empty, they resemble a bland, black scaffolding with square compartments; full, they turn into rich sanctuaries, personal windows to a world, an archive of changing taste. They are also fine collectors of dust. Yet somehow, this film of dust, gently blown away, can make a book feel more precious.
But then book people, some of us, are completely precious and afflicted with a tragic snobbery. When we visit you, we are not interested in your tidy assortment of porcelain figures and your polished piano before which a child is plonked to play something quickly musical. No, we are looking to see if you have a bookshelf and if you don't, then what precisely have you done with your life?
Nevertheless, if you have a bookshelf - soon an anachronism in a digital age - may I browse?
Is it all right if I touch?
Am I looking for you on your bookshelf, attempting to decipher who you are? Yes, for books tell tales. The novelist Walter Mosely noted that "a man's bookcase will tell you everything you'll ever need to know about him" and while it is an amusing overstatement, the bookcase at least gives us a glimpse into your personality.
Or offers us something even more tender. When my mother's sister died, the arrival of her two bookcases at our home, laden with old and familiar books which the sisters had debated through time, stood now like a lasting gift. A sister was gone, but in these quiet bookcases that speak of her, my mother can even now sense her presence.
I wander those shelves myself still, as I do in my friends' homes on long holidays, hostage to their tastes, finding new subjects to flirt with and new writers to go adventuring with. The bookcase so rarely disappoints. Even if sometimes, with a less-firm friend, this exchange might occur:
Can I borrow this book?
Why, do you own knowledge?
Let us pause briefly and consider that book people are a divided tribe, split into page folders and book markers, note scribblers, and underliners, name printers and date putters, dumpers of books on floors and tidy arrangers, lenders and refuseniks.
I have roughly 15 books on my shelves of unknown parentage which make them hard to return and 30 of mine that are lodged in shelves in homes in Melbourne, Delhi, Devon, Bangalore. Their return is uncertain, but I will live. I once knew a fellow, evidently a librarian's child, who noted lent books in a ledger. As a boy, I found a book in a library in which was written:
If this book is done to roam
Box its ears and send it home
Later, I discovered that this warning verse inscribed in lost books is common. However, books can be bought again if lost, most anyway, but the joy of surfing a shelf and advocating a book to a friend, insisting "read it", as if you are leading him towards something beautiful, is incomparable.
Indeed, when a friend says "pick one for me", it is as grave a responsibility as finding him a wife. OK, maybe not. But in the book handed over to a friend you are advertising taste and if he does not like it clearly he has none.
Old bookshelves are comforting, new ones provide an exquisite experience. When my bookshelf died, it had to be unloaded, books lined on the floor, a time for inventory and thus discovery.
Behind a row of books is found another - the cheap thriller, the sports stats book, the missing novel. It is put aside to read again, but never will be. Some books sit silently on my shelves, destined for rainy days that never come, yet the reassurance lies in the fact that they are there.
The sorting of books is a rewinding and reflecting of life, a private almost religious moment for almost each book is weighed, considered, a page flicked, its history recalled. Words are nothing without context. A book was bought when, what age; with whom, a mother, a girlfriend, alone; why, what was I thinking, this is not my kind of book?
A passage is remembered, pages turned, words found. Some have lost their music; others like Ryszard Kapuscinski's wanderings are as evocative and every reading seems to grab you tightly like an African summer. Either way, time travel is routine and you find yourself in the 1990s in Kolkata, where a second-hand bookshop owner dives deep into a low shelf like a diver hunting treasure in a cave and emerges with David Halberstam's The Powers That Be as if holding a triumphant doubloon. Behind every book is a writer but also your own story.
The books in my hands are humbling for they tell of a fine threading of words and a uniquely personal landscape of imagination. The books are admired for, as a writer, I appreciate the craft, the unlocking of the brain, the architecture of the long story, the days spent ferreting out information. For his majestic book, Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory, And The Conquest Of Everest, the author Wade Davis labours for a decade. But he has left behind something which makes me weep.
The books always offer a surprise - an ancient boarding card flutters out, notes scratched out for an old column hide between pages. Then the books must be arranged again on the shelves, philosophy nestling against romance, novels lonely among non-fiction, memoirs flirting alongside mysteries. Sports books have their own bookcases, sweaty folk from a similar tribe now clustered together and easier to find.
Nothing is set in alphabetical order, or by size, but just neatly, books pinched forward or pushed back till they stand in perfect line. But in a week the shelves are in disorder, gaps have opened, a book piled on another, and it is fitting for stories must not necessarily have tidy endings.
The Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges apparently wrote that "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library". Yes, indeed, but on earth we must make do with our mere scattering of bookshelves.