Friday, January 29, 2010

Shelf indulgence: why it's best to build your own bookcases

After years of making do with shoddy shelving, the benefits of handcrafting a home for your books can't be overestimated.

I've lost count of the number of flats I've lived in over the last two decades, from the red bricked Victoriana of Manchester via the basement bed-sits of Brighton to the crumbling splendour of east London. All those dodgy landlords, mismatching interiors and ill-fitting wardrobes. Until last year, when we did what was until then thought of as science fiction: bought our first home.

Something has happened to me. I'm a changed man. It's not the fact that I now find myself talking about house prices during polite conversation, nor is it the fastidious book keeping and budgeting skills I seem miraculously to have acquired (okay, that's a lie. My wife makes sure I'm up to scratch on all that). No: it's my new bookshelf-building skills. And I'm not talking flat packs from Ikea and Habitat, I'm talking the real thing: hand-cut from wood I've sourced at timber yards, shelves I've measured and fixed together myself, that now fit snugly in the floor-to-ceiling alcoves of each room and look as if they were always meant to be there. Gone are the mismatched bookcases scrounged from local libraries, the cheap Argos space-fillers with the sagging shelves, the it's-a-wonder-they're-still-standing bookcases acquired over the years from skips and outside people's houses. It makes me wonder just what I have been doing with my life to date. Now my books actually look like a serious bibliophile's library, not an assortment thrown onto shelves and into boxes in various rooms, basements and lofts.

It's not all been plain sailing. Building bespoke bookshelves was hard work and, at times, downright painful. But I got through it, and emerged with a new outlook. Nowadays, the first thing I look at when I visit friends' houses is their shelves, not the books on them - and I'm usually disappointed. Rather than salivating over some rare first edition or other, I now hear myself muttering things like, "Have you thought about building your own shelves? It's not as expensive as you might think, and the benefits are myriad". Or "I'm actually quite handy with a jigsaw, you know." Sad, but true.

My new-found obsession bears the hallmarks of our fascination with authors' handwriting, rooms, even their chairs. What are we searching for when we peer in? I recently took to scouring the internet to find photos of authors' bookshelves, and came across a glorious picture of Derrida's study, his absence in the photograph wonderfully tangible. Another, similar photograph taken in Beckett's apartment in Paris shows his imposing bookshelves. I guess what first struck me about the bookshelves in these photographs was not their functionality but the geometry of them, their weightiness; solid, hefty structures, formed in a symmetry that speaks of serious craft and toil. In the absence of both Derrida and Beckett from each photograph we begin to see the permanency of their work, secure in a haven built into the walls around them.

Yet, something about these two photographs already suggests that time has moved on, and I am beginning to ask myself just what authors of the future will make of all this bookshelf business. Not much, I fear. As the likelihood of carrying a whole library around in our back pocket looms that little bit larger, will we even have bookshelves at all? Sadly, I very much doubt it. With the once-distant digital shores now just a click away, it makes me cherish the shelves I've built that little bit more.

- Lee Rourke,

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Committed: A Sceptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert/Couples: The Truth by Kate Figes

How can emancipated women in the 21st century reconcile freedom and professional success with the urge to have children? And can all of this be achieved within that ancient institution, marriage? These are the main questions posed by two very different books tackling the same subject.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first book, Eat, Pray, Love, sold 7m copies and put her on best-friend terms with many of the women who read it: Oprah Winfrey loved it, so did Julia ­Roberts. In chummy, jolly prose it chronicled her divorce, car-crash post-split love affair and travels abroad to heal her broken life. It was an everywoman journey, told with wit and verve, and resonated globally.

Like Eat, Pray, Love, her follow-up, Committed, feels irresistibly confessional. Although sold as a kind of potted history of marriage, it is really another memoir; this time about how, despite having promised herself never to get hitched again, Gilbert decides to marry her Brazilian lover Felipe (the “Love” of the first book) to get him a green card.

I wasn’t sure early on whether Committed was going to work; Gilbert begins by doing some amateur sociological research, hanging out in southeast Asia with the Hmong tribe, who reckon that one husband is much like another, there to fulfil certain functions (making babies, shifting heavy things) while the woman spends most of her time with the other women. The point Gilbert draws from this is that couples in the West now expect their other half to be everything: best friend, lover, psychologist — and perhaps that’s too much to ask of any one relationship.

- Eleanor Mills,

Read the rest of the review here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Books to make you healthy, wealthy and wise in 2010

Penguin presents 52 of its top titles to get you excited about reading all throughout the year.

For ease you can print off your reading list here, or if you prefer, you can take their 52 books widget for your blog.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Four Tips from Forgotten Books

Some out-of-print books of advice and information have been abandoned for good reason – perhaps for their out-dated data, awful social prejudice or even dangerous ideas. Yet many are worth picking up again, not least because reflecting on past follies prompts us to confront our own. There’s also the chance we’ll find a bright idea languishing even in the thickest thickets of historical hubris. And, of course, neglected books may still be full of delight and inspiration. With that in mind, here is a selection of four ideas from the advice lore of the past. Some seem familiar, some novel, some almost totally disguised by daftness. But, for me at least, each contains some small glimmer or bright gleam of wisdom.


Do you feel you’ve been remiss in meeting up with a friend lately? There’s little better than inviting a friend on a jaunt to brighten a grey January day. What’s more, if you’ve a fondness for pen and ink, you might indulge in the satisfaction of creating something by hand and resurrecting the charming art of invitation by letter. With any luck you’ll be rewarded by something like this model response from a guide to correspondence:

Complete Letter Writer Dear Louie,

The idea is perfectly delightful. You know how much I have looked forward to the outing, but I really had begun to think that it would never come to anything. It would be great fun to lunch together at the Popular Café. Be sure you keep a good look out for me as I am so short-sighted. I shall wait in the hall. What an afternoon we shall have!

Yours always affectionately,


(The Complete Letter Writer by Arnold Villiers, London, c. 1942).

- Cathy Haynes, The School of Life

Read further here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti in Ink and Tears

Today is a good day to remember that in Haiti, nobody ever really dies. The many thousands who've had the breath crushed out of their bodies in the earthquake, and the thousands more who will not physically survive the aftermath, will undergo instead a translation of state, according to the precepts of Haitian Vodou, some form of which is practiced by much of the population. Spirits of the Haitian dead — sa nou pa we yo, those we don’t see — do not depart as in other religions but remain extremely close to the living, invisible but tangible, inhabiting a parallel universe on the other side of any mirror, beneath the surface of all water, just behind the veil that divides us from our dreams.

That extraordinary spiritual reservoir is the source of the Haitian religious view of the world — as powerful as any today. As often as it is misunderstood and misrepresented, Haitian Vodou, with all it carries out of the cradle of humankind’s birth in Africa and combines with Roman Catholicism, has enabled Haitians to laugh at death, as they have too often needed to do.



I live in Haiti.

The other day in the midst of Port-au-Prince, the great degraded capital city that is my home, I saw a car, an old battered car, a jalopy, falter and sputter and come to a slow halt. It was out of gas; this happens often in my destitute country, where everyone and everything is so poor that the donkeys and horses are starving and even the cars must try to get by on nothing. The man who was driving the car got out and looked at it, stuck there in the middle of traffic, helpless. Then I saw another face, the passenger. A woman. She looked out of the back window with tears in her eyes, and the driver looked around the street at the unemployed loungers who are always there, and said to them, "She is going to have a baby right here." He told them that he had taken the woman from her home because the midwife was unable to help her. The pregnancy was difficult, and the woman needed to go to the hospital to have her baby. Now the tears were coming down the woman's cheeks. "If we do not get to the hospital, she will die," the man told the loungers. "Her baby will die, too."

The loungers - hungry young men who had never had a job and who will never have a job if my country goes on as it has done for the last half century - looked at the car and heard the man's voice and saw the woman's tears. Their backs straightened, their cigarettes fell to the ground, their eyes cleared. They approached the car, eight of them, leaned over, and put their shoulders to the chore. The driver steered. The woman lay back. Down one long dusty road, a left turn, and down another, through the green and white gates of the State Hospital, and she had arrived.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former president of Haiti, "In the Parish of the Poor" (Orbis Books, 1990).

- Madison Smartt Bell, New York Times

Read more here.