No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson
I love a good book about someone who loves books. This particular example functions as part biography, part memoir and part explanation of how a working-class boy from a poor area of northern England came to love books so much. He has three and a half thousand of them in his house. It is amusing, sad, poignant and clever all at the same time. There is also a story woven within the story. Regular short paragraphs in italics about the author’s grandfather, Hodkinson’s memories of the man and his declining mental health. The sadness builds as the book progresses:
‘Grandad used to scrawl on newspapers, envelopes and scraps of paper left around the house. He had spidery close-together writing and never tired of scribbling his name. It was like a barometer; the letters became more condensed and jagged when trouble was imminent. He’d mumble to himself and become fastidious; counting his money, checking through bills and insurance policies. He moved around the furniture, agitated, twigs cracking in an internal bonfire. He was turned in on himself, as if he’d swallowed a thunderstorm and it was pressing against his skin.’
Obviously, a book about such a dedicated bibliophile has plenty of references to literature, but when we reach The Catcher in the Rye the praise really starts to sing. From the discovery of a copy in Boots the Chemist, who once were booksellers, to the fact the author still reads the book once a year. ‘Once a year, every year, I read the book and the feeling remains the same; it still smarts with a lust for life.’ Hodkinson would go on commission and edit a biography of J D Salinger. Few of us could tell a similar tale about our childhood obsessions.
I was impressed with the author’s recall of books he read at a young age. As he saw it, music and books were a means to build your personality. At the same time as he was absorbing fiction he was also learning to be a journalist, playing in a band and writing music columns. Despite all these many calls on his time he read furiously, always aware of that goal of wanting to be a writer. Despite writing regular newspaper columns, and then commissioned biographies, it was only the creation of a novel that would allow him to properly call himself a writer.
Being a reader is, in my opinion, an essential part of becoming a writer. As a reader it is always good to hear the thoughts of others about certain books. I have had an unread copy of The Catcher in the Rye on my shelves for years. I was inspired to pick it up having read Hodkinson’s description. His reading often comes with its own backstory, such as this about The Outsider by Albert Camus.
‘I can recall days where nothing much happened but, paradoxically, everything happened because I was in a heightened state of awareness through a particular book. Over the course of a freezing day during the Christmas holiday I read The Outsider by Albert Camus. I had a cold. I stayed in my pyjamas all day. I felt like I was living a parallel life: part of me on the sandy streets of Algiers, drinking strong coffee at Celeste’s restaurant; the other slightly feverish in snowed-in Rochdale. Camus wrote exquisitely of the fig trees, the red sky, the old men sitting on chairs outside the tobacconist’s and the trip to a nearby beach where the sea sent ‘long, lazy’ waves across the sand. More than this sense of place, there was a deeper geography at work in the short, sharp sentences and the rhythm of ordinary acts of living expressed until it became hypnotic. I loved this altered state of thinking induced by a book, how it transcended mere story or characters, to become elemental.’
At one point early in the book Hodkinson describes the gulf between him and Virginia Woolf and her plea for a space in A Room of One’s Own. While Woolf lived in a five-storey house with a library overlooking Hyde Park and spent summers in St Ives where she was inspired by the reflection of the shimmering sea on her bedroom ceiling, ‘My parents, by contrast, came from backgrounds where everyone was busy getting by, staying warm, covering the rent, caring for children, putting food on the table. There was no time or space or encouragement or inclination to ponder on authors, artists or anything other than life’s essentials.’
The issue Hodkinson faced from his father was that ‘My dad considered reading and writing to be predominantly a feminine pastime, much the same as, say, sewing or netball...Dad didn’t know any writers or anything about them. The men he knew worked with their hands, fixing cars, building houses or toiling at lathes. They married young. They played sports together, drank together. They didn’t retreat to their bedrooms, choosing solitariness ahead of the street, park or pub.’
Lamenting the gradual death of the newspaper due to the growth of the internet, where every event can be posted onto the fame of Facebook, the author pulls out a great quote from Charles Bukowski – ‘The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubt, while the stupid people are full of confidence.’
As the book progresses we close in on the minutiae of Hodkinson’s book filled life. From his exploits in the publishing world to the arrangement of his house. At one point his lists all the book subjects in the various rooms of his house; front room, living room, kitchen, top of the stairs, landing, bedrooms, office, loft and garage. I am amazed he can keep things so compartmentalised. I have books by the same author in three different shelves in three different rooms. But then again, I have one shelf with all the books by a single author in their order of publication, apart from one oversized volume which doesn’t fit and remains a constant sense of irritation on the shelf above.
The author gradually admits to himself that;
‘Around that time, in my thirties, was probably when I began to accumulate books at a rate considerably greater than my capacity to read them. Life, much as we try to keep it at arm’s length or delude ourselves that it falls under our dominion, often ‘blindsides you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday’. The big stuff – bereavement, divorce, illness, heartbreak, a global pandemic – crashes randomly before us, splat, and reading becomes impossible with a head and heart weighed with pain and worry and regret. And the good stuff can impact our reading, too: a new relationship, an urge to travel, an exciting project or an irresistible call for reinvention of self.
Books don’t mind. They are patient. They await your return.’
The love of and consequent hoarding of books eventually drives Hodgkinson to seek some answers from Lisa, a psychiatrist. Throughout most of the conversation he feels it was much the same a listening to a conversation with a mate in the Red Lion, but then comes the gold:
‘On one hand, by having such a collection and planning to read all these books, you are making a fantastic statement of hope and revealing an investment in future self,’ she said. ‘Even if you recognise you probably won’t have time to read them all, you are already forming a relationship with mortality which we all must do at some point in our lives. The snag is the frustration you say you feel that comes with this relationship. This is something you need to deal with and accept. I sense that some of this dissatisfaction is because, for whatever reason, you have not read as many of these books as you’d have liked and you spend a lot of time projecting yourself into the future: a time and a place where and when you will finally do all the reading that you’ve always wanted to do. I also think that you see books subconsciously as a safety net. Everyone has a primal fear of abandonment and you have suffered this twice in your life. Most people experience this or similar and the pain is such that, in many different ways, they make preparations so that it either doesn’t happen again, and that can go as far as avoiding future relationships altogether, or setting down to themselves a clearly defined coping mechanism. I think, to you, books are metaphorical friends and part of the reason you have so many is that, ever so slightly and in a perfectly normal way, you have lost a little bit of trust in the world.’
At the end of the book are two fascinating appendices. The first provides a little narrative on items that the author has found in books. From dedications to book plates, from notes to photographs pasted inside the covers. I love to find things in old books, and have a special love of boarding passes. The name of a person, a date and a time and a point of departure and arrival. What more could a writer want for the beginning of a story. Sadly, I notice that these passes are often located near the front of a novel, as if abandoned mid-flight, lost to the allure of an in-flight movie and never finished on the subsequent holiday or even the return flight.
The second list is of TBR piles around Hodkinson’s house. Five piles are explored:
Coffee table, front room
Corner table, front room
I am amazed at the variety, although my own TBRs have multiplied to take in the bedside and now the desk where books to be reviewed will languish. And the floor beside the desk where research books reside. But how much fun to have a front seat into other people’s reading habits. Let me allow Hodkinson to have the last word on his own mania:
‘I have arrived her – 3,500 books – be stealth. It’s easily done if you acquire books on a regular basis, seldom discard any and are lucky enough to live into your mid-fifties….
If, for the sake of simple maths, it is assumed I began amassing the books at the age of thirteen, it means that in the intervening 2,236 weeks I have added, on average, just over 1.5 books to my collection per week; it suddenly doesn’t seem such a remarkable tally. In fact, I am mystified how anyone can go through life and manage not to bring home 1.5 books per week.’
I don’t feel so bad about my own collection. Just knowing there are other like me out there is a big help on the road to recovery.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Canongate, RRP $36.99