Books are best. The pile beside my bed is now a full foot above the top of the mattress, and that's not even including my new copy of Arguably by Christopher Hitchens. The vast breeze-block of a book arrived on the morning of my birthday as a surprise gift from my in-laws, and will take pride of place on book shelves and biblio-piles [sic] for, at least, the rest of my life. The portrait of Hitchens on the cover shows him standing defiant despite looking weakened, his head losing its hair through chemotherapy and his shoulders not as broad as they once were. He stands in a dimly lit room that I believe to be in his own home, surrounded by his own books; the "beautiful apartment in Washington DC" mentioned by Peter Hitchens in his touching obituary of his brother.
On the shelf behind Hitchens' head can be seen the gorgeous five volume set Books that Shook the World, including Hitchens' own contribution on Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. It is a series of books about books, each volume focusing on a single revolutionary book. (The other volumes, by different biographers, are about Plato's Republic, The Qur'an, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and Marx's Das Kapital.) The entire right edge of the cover, from top to bottom, is a pile of books, blurred into the foreground. On the floor beside Hitchens' feet another pile is embryonic: an unknown volume sits under Vanity Fair Portraits and a tea tray with cup, milk jug and cafetiere.
Hitchens was a bibliophile. A writer and reader of astute talent and relentless hard work; a true role model for the aspiring writer, intellectual and/or free-thinker. He was a giant, just like Arguably his final published work, a great tombstone of a book. I received as a birthday gift another book of essays with a literary bent, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, an American author totally unknown to me. It's a quaint and lovely book full of anecdotes and personal essays about bibliophilia, words and literature. The "you are there" experience of reading a book in the actual location it is set in, such as reading The Dubliners or Ulysses by Joyce, while washing down oyster with Guinness, in a pub in a side street off the banks of the Liffey. The joy of discovering archaic words entirely new to you. The power of words. The raised consciousness of being aware of the roots and use of words. The preferences and love you develop for certain words the more you read and write. It's all there in this great little book.
But Fadiman seems to me much more than the "Common Reader" she claims to be (or a sub-editor claims for her) in the books subtitle. She is a professional author, married to a professional author, the daughter of authors, brought up quoting poetry and literature; that to me is no common reader. That is a gifted reader with a privileged upbringing; a situation I am shamelessly envious of. But nonetheless, I must make the most of the fair-to-middling mind I have, and read what I can, when I can. Today two more books found their way onto my currently-or-about-to-start-reading pile. Two novels by ludicrously talented comedians, The Perfect Fool by Stewart Lee, and The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. Both of these come highly recommended as being annoyingly good. Now time for me to go away and read.