Ruth Scurr: 'More than lust at a rare first edition, what I felt was

November 2, 2007

Last summer, I read my way through Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time , determined to reach number ten in the 12-volume sequence: Books Do Furnish a Room. Even Powell's devoted fans (among whom I now count myself) have to admit that the later volumes trail off somewhat, never quite matching the splendour of the earlier. But the title Books Do Furnish a Room is a lasting achievement (or manifesto) in its own right.

Most academics I know own an enormous number of books. Accommodating them is a serious problem. When he was buying a new house, my ex-supervisor employed a structural engineer to assess whether the upstairs floor would take the weight of his books: the answer was no. There are never enough bookcases. When all the shelves are full, books spill over into stacks on the floor, under tables, up and down the stairs. There are the books you buy because you need them; ones you want; ones you are given; ones that might turn out to be valuable. As the steady accumulation continues for years, then decades, the hope that it will, at some point, be possible to rationalise, or cull, the collection recedes.

Books, like the rest of the furniture, will have to be inherited; then disposed of, treasured or divided as descendants and friends think fit.

This week I read the sale catalogue of the novelist John Fowles's books prepared by the bookseller Charles Cox. Taken together, the listed books map the intellectual and cultural preoccupations of a brilliant eccentric mind: Dorset and the West Country; Travel and Topography; History and Biography; Natural History; Language and Philology; Literature; Art. More than lust at the sudden opportunity to possess a rare first edition, what I felt was deep sadness that these books cannot stay together.

Where Fowles's books are concerned this sadness is regionally focused. Fowles moved to Lyme Regis in 1965 and began researching the area as he worked on the draft of The French Lieutenant's Woman . He lived in Lyme Regis until his death in 2005. It is such a shame that scarce books, such as A. R. Bayley's The Great Civil War in Dorset 1642-1660 and Fowles's annotated The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset (1774), should leave the county; worse still that the set of plates documenting the changes wrought on the East Devon coast by the subsidence of the land in 1839 (when 8 million tons of rock and several farms were displaced) should go.

A second sadness is the blow to literary scholarship. Fowles's posthumous reputation will doubtless have its highs and lows, but for those interested in understanding him, the loss of his annotated copies of Thomas Hardy's and Thomas Love Peacock's novels will be substantial. "I feel very close to Hardy ... I feel I know exactly how his mind works, how he creates ... because I have that same kind of mind," Fowles wrote in his Journals . That is a closeness it would have been interesting to understand clearly, but the possibility of doing so is receding fast, as Fowles's books disappear into disparate private collections. Peacock offers other clues to Fowles's work.

His copies of the novels were gifts from his publisher, Peter Straus, who, Fowles noted, "like me ... had the greatest admiration for Peacock ... We both realised that Peacock is the secret introduction to all Victorian literature".

The life of a library after the death of the person who brought it together is always precarious. Two illustrious examples come to mind. John Locke's books were scattered, then re-collected painstakingly by the great American philanthropist Paul Mellon, who bequeathed them to Oxford. Arranged in a room of their own in the Bodleian Library, they formed an incomparable resource for scholarship. Since they have been moved out of immediate reach, the thrilling sense of standing with Locke in front of his own bookshelves has been lost. In contrast, Voltaire's books were kept together after his death because Catherine the Great moved the entire collection to St Petersburg, where, unfortunately, they have long been pretty inaccessible.

The realistic expectation, however treasured a personal collection of books may be, is that it won't stay together long after the owner dies. The most gracious reckoning of this unfortunate truth that I have come across is the example of the historian Philip Grierson, whose will invited the fellows of his college to take what they wanted as keepsakes from his library. At least in this way, the sense that individual volumes have been important to someone in particular is preserved.

Ruth Scurr is affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.

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