Bookshelf breakdown

bookshelvesI’ve finally decided to put up some bookshelves in my living room. It’s not been an easy decision. We may not judge a book by a cover, but we certainly judge a reader by their books. Look around you on any bus or train. We would never sit there holding up a sign saying “Lost and lonely. Believes in aliens” or “Frustrated male. Works out in gym”, but that’s exactly what we’re doing when we’re seen reading “Scientology and You” or “Andy McNab’s Top Ten Ways to Really Hurt a Man”. I’m far more likely to sit next to someone reading a biography of Ghandi than someone smiling their way through “Mein Kampf”.

The books we read are a shorthand for the sort of person we are. Which is why a lot of us lie about them. There’s only a few newspaper-buying weeks to Christmas left, so soon we’ll be reading how Trinnie and Susannah’s book of the year was Wittgenstein’s “Lectures on the Principles of Mathematics”, while Rio Ferdinand found he couldn’t put down Robert Fagles’ new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Such readerly exaggeration is totally understandable. Nowadays everyone’s telling us what to read: the Booker, the Whitbread, Richard and Judy, “3 for the Price of 2” deals that laugh at us for only wanting to buy one book at a time, the Amazon Checkout page with its “People who bought this book also bought these because they’re brainier than you and not wasting their lives”.

I find myself very resistant to this white noise of recommendations. Perhaps it’s because I was breastfed for too long or too little as a child, but I can’t bear to read what other people are reading. I have to be special. As soon as a book reaches tipping point on public transport (like the book “The Tipping Point” a few months back), I can’t go near it. As a result, over the years I’ve missed out on such books as Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans”, “The English Patient”, “Captain Corelli”, anything by Bill Bryson, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Middlemarch” or any book with “As seen on TV” on it, Harry Potter and, of course, Dan Brown. In fact there was a time a year or so back when it seemed you weren’t allowed on a train or bus without a copy of Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” (“So much better than The Da Vinci Code”, they chorused). This probably just proves I’m a snob, but I prefer to say I’ve been “overeducated”. A language and literature degree followed by three years of a Ph.D has made me surgically unable to read a book unless I’m holding a pencil and making notes in the margin. If a book isn’t heavy enough to give me Repetitive Strain Injury or dense enough to make a philosopher cry, I just can’t convince myself it’s worth reading.

Of course, we all carry round an imaginary suitcase of books we ought to have read. Dinner parties echo to the sound of “I must read the Koran” and people regretting they’ve never read Trollope. But my suitcase seems particularly heavy. For me, there are two quite different pleasures associated with reading. There’s the simple pleasure you get from curling up with a good book. Then there’s the pleasure you get when you buy that 12-volume biography of Stalin the London Review of Books raved about, or Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” in the original German. The excitement there is that for a brief moment you actually believe you might be the sort of person who reads those sort of books. Just as alcohol fools us into thinking we’re wittier and more attractive than we actually are, so buying an annotated copy of “Ulysses” helps us think we’re cleverer. The hangover comes the next day when we actually try and read them.

Like an alcoholic, however, I just swamp the hangover with more drink. I’m addicted to ridiculously weighty, academic tomes. There’s no support group to wean me onto John Grisham or Chicklit’s Jane Green. No fellow sufferers with whom I can stand and say “My name’s Dave Schneider and I’ve been reading Nietzsche for 17 years”. So I surf the dark, anonymous recesses of the internet looking for ever harder stuff to feed my shameful, solitary habit. But like all addicts, it’s in public where I really run into problems. Working as an actor you often spend hours and hours hanging around on set with your colleagues, waiting to do your bit. This hanging around takes the form of certain clearly defined, anthropological stages. Firstly, you talk, exchange views, make jokes and bond. But there’s only so much time you can spend bitching about the director. So soon everyone gets out their books and a certain amount of sizing-up takes place. It’s vital to create the right impression or you’re likely to spend a lot of lunches eating alone – Ben Elton perhaps, “Jane Eyre” if you’re a woman, or even, at a stretch, Richard Dawkins on God. But Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” in French? I don’t think so. So I agonise about which book I should take on set, panic and end up trying to look relaxed with “Living the Dream: My story” by Big Brother’s Chantelle and fooling nobody.

By now, you can probably see why putting up some bookshelves is such a big deal for me. It might be against the law to go through someone’s rubbish for clues about their life, but you can learn a lot more about a person from the totally legal activity of looking at their bookshelves whilst they’re in the kitchen putting on the kettle. But there comes a time in every man’s life where he should stop hiding who he really is. So I’m finally coming out. I am what I am, I read what I read, and, love me or leave me, my book of the year is the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s long-awaited rehabilitation of dialectical materialism, “The Parallax View”.

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