Monday, 21 February 2011

A Missing Book

I've lost another book. I've lost my biography of Jacques Tati by David Bellos. I bought the DVD of The Illusionist by Sylvain Chomet, which is a new animated adaptation of an unproduced Tati screenplay. Though I am no cinenthusiast, I thought was the most beautiful film I'd seen in ages when it came out last year. (And anyone who found it depressing wasn't paying enough attention.) I saw it twice at the cinema, and again tonight on DVD. And now I want to remind myself of the story behind Tati's original project, but I can't find that book.

Where is it? Is it simply by-passing my eye muscles or is something more ghastly going on? Is it behind something? Has it been left behind somewhere? My greatest fear: it is among a number of books that I have been careless enough to leave in a box somewhere, lost forever. Without a full inventory of what books I own, I won't be able to confirm or refute the 'missing box of books' theory. I have three bookcases in the living room, shelves running around the ceiling in the hallway, and more shelves in my bedroom.

There are of course numerous ways to go about organizing your books, and the best list of these was compiled by Georges Perec for his essay 'Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books', which was published in 1978. I once belived I had my system perfected. When we were living in Seven Sisters, I finally, after spending many hours, got every volume I owned in what I considered at the time to be the perfect order, according to a system was a hybrid of alphabetization, thematic association and biographical sensitivity. (Authors who hated each other in life should not be placed side by side on the shelf; Cocteau and Radiguet are inseparable, and not even the alphabet can come between them.) On those Seven Sisters shelves, they formed a spectrum of authors, flowing seemlessly from one to the next, making finding a particular book more intuitive than logical. But this system broke down when we moved house. For the purposes of putting them into boxes, I grouped small books with small books and big ones with big. By the time we'd moved another two times, my library was chaos again.

Where the hell is that Tati biography? Is it possible I lent it to someone? Did I lend it to you? Whoever has it, can I have it back? The same goes to anyone else who's got one of my books. You know who you are. You're all making me miserable.

Changing addresses is obviously the enemy of book order. I moved out and lived in a series of strange warehouses last year, taking with me one box of what I considered to be the twenty or so books I really felt I couldn't face being without: my 'Desert Island books', if you like. They included: The Great Fire of London (Roubaud), Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais), Locus Solus (Roussel), the complete letters of Erik Satie, I Am A Beautiful Monster (a collection of writings by Picabia) and The People's Almanac # 2. These books thus got separated from my main library and still sit separately from their natural companions.


I ought really to get into the habit of arranging my books, and rearranging them, of fussing over them, moving them about, bringing them together and separating them, as an ongoing project of book ordering without a particular end goal in mind. Keeping a library should be like keeping a garden, with constant maintenance, perpetual change and lively symbiosis.

Where is it? I expected to find it next to that weird little badly translated book The Films of Jacques Tati by Michael Chion (Guernica, 2003), but it's not. That's going to bug me.

David Bellos also wrote that fat biography of Georges Perec, which I'd had for years and finally got round to reading while on holiday in Thailand a couple of years ago. It's an impressive piece of research, and well told, but it lacked any Perecqian mischief. Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, I'm a big fan of biographies. The story is always the same: how the 'x' (lower case), whom we don't know, became the 'X' (capital), whom we recognize and love. A good biography will make this transformation seem surprising and fresh. A dull biography will make it seem inevitable. It is as if there are two levels of that 'how': a 'technical how' and a 'deep how', akin to a 'why'. Let's try to explore the 'deep how'. How did I lose that book? How? I left it in a pub? Really? How did I do that? How?

Deep how.

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