David Moseley

Bye, bye books?

2014-11-17 12:45

David Moseley

Judging from my dog’s ability to dig perfectly enormous holes in the garden and then bolt into the house and jump all over the bed when we tell her not to, Robyn never got round to actually reading the books.

This being November, Robyn was distraught; first at the fact that in eight months she’d only managed to train the dog to sleep on our couch (which I’m not entirely sure was the desired outcome of repeated “sit” commands) and secondly, that the eight-month overdue library books would result in a whopping fine.

Arriving home from the library, Rocket waiting patiently on top of the dining room table, Robyn told me with some relief that the fine only came to R60. “Libraries,” I muttered while attempting and failing to grab Rocket as a cat walked past the front door. “No wonder they’re dying.”

Still, the Great Library Fine and Unsuccessful Understanding of Doggy Psyche Ordeal of 2014 got me thinking about books, specifically, the books I’ve loaned out over the years never to see again… and the books I’ve “borrowed indefinitely” in return.

Just this morning I was rummaging through my collection to find a book I said I would lend to a friend. After scribbling my name on the inside cover, I reluctantly handed over the book, understanding full well that this would be the last time I’d see it.

That’s the funny thing with books… no one reads them (these days, apparently), but as soon as someone borrows one from your impressive collection, they vanish for all eternity.

Book “thievery”, though, is an important part of the reading discovery process. My book shelves, once filled with the complete collections of, say, Paul Theroux and Carl Hiaasen, now feature notable gaps. These books have no doubt gone walkabout late at night, when after a few vinos I’ve insisted upon their brilliance to my dubious Wilbur Smith-reading friends.

Interestingly, these departed books turn up in the strangest places, like my copy of Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk that I thought I’d lost only to find lying on a coffee table at a farm in Greyton. It’s presently not in my house, but I vaguely remember who has it.

However, In place of my missing volumes I’ve discovered the single works of John Feinstein, Michael Chabon and PJ O'Rourke scattered around my house, books that have clearly been pressed into my hands when leaving the homes of other book lovers with different tastes to mine.

These lost and found books are still perhaps the best way to discover new (and old) written treasures. At varsity I routinely enraged my English-studying digs mate by swiping her course-prescribed novels before she’d even had a chance to open them – an eye opening variety ranging from Salman Rushdie to Margaret Attwood to Bret Easton Ellis.

I’m also not ashamed to admit (okay, I am a little bit) that I once stole a copy of Michael Ondaatjie’s The English Patient from a guest house. I hadn’t finished it by the time we left and didn’t think anyone would notice if the book itself took a holiday.

I returned it a year later (I could tell you that I knew I would be going back, but that’s a lie. It was all down to chance) and now have my own copy.

These discoveries can also lead to some new challenges. Like every BA student who studied first-year English, I’ve read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. What I’ve never been able to do is read his follow up – Something Happened. In fact, I’ve been reading it for years with little success. A bookmark shows I’m only on page 187, a good 300 away from chewing through its impenetrable subject matter.  

Naturally, it’s not my copy. The name of the owner is written in beautiful Masters English-student handwriting over a stamp that marks the book as the property of a library in Port Elizabeth.

The previous owner insisted that Something Happened is a “masterpiece compared to the juvenile Catch-22”. At the time of lending she insisted that it was probably beyond my level of comprehension. Ten years on I’m willing to concede defeat, but perhaps I’ll give it one more chance tonight. Page 188 is calling…

- Follow @david_moseley on Twitter.

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