A Library of one's own

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A Library of one's own

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Nov 16, 2019, 1:02pm


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A Library of One’s Own
09 NOV '19 | POSTED BY: ALAN TAYLOR
Building a Library at Home
‘From the moment I first ventured into a library I wanted one of my own’

Famously, Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Without wishing to exacerbate the gender wars, I would suggest that the same goes for a man. Putting money aside, the room in which I like to write – albeit non-fiction – is not worthy of the name unless it has books in it, the more the better. From the moment I first ventured into a library I wanted one of my own. How conscious I was of this I cannot be sure. All I do know is that as the decades have progressed I have accreted books as squirrels do nuts. I still have some of the books I bought half a century or so ago: Boswell’s Life of Johnson, John Donne’s poems, The Penguin Book of South Africa Verse (which I still dip into from time to time), and the out-of-fashion novels of Lawrence Durrell, about whom I wrote a dissertation while I was at secondary school. What’s more, given an hour’s notice, I know exactly where to find all of them. That, surely, is the definition of a library: a collection of books shelved in an accessible order.

The first Scottish books I read (and collected) were by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Don’t ask me – because the answer is too embarrassing – how many copies I have of Kidnapped or Treasure Island. One empty summer I read my way through the Waverley novels, never thinking for one moment that it was a trial. We read differently, more tolerantly, more avariciously, when young. I liked Scott because of the tumultous nature of his storytelling and the manner in which he brought Scotland – its people and places – to life.

By then, my teens, I was familiar with the Highlands if not the Islands and as I hiked through the glens it was not hard to imagine myself in Rob Roy’s shoes or bedecked in Alan Breck’s plaid. In those days, the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was not easy to find books by Scottish authors in bookshops specialising in new books. Thus I became a haunter of secondhand bookshops of which Edinburgh then had many. I’ve lost count of the books I bought McNaughtan’s, situated in a basement in Elm Row, but let’s just say they were more than a few. When I left work on a Saturday lunchtime – as a library assistant at the nearby McDonald Road library – I would make a beeline for McNaughtan’s where I spent some of my happiest hours.

One book begets another. You read The Thirty-Nine Steps and you then must read Greenmantle or The Island of Sheep or Sick Heart River – Buchan’s best. This was how I came to read all of Dickens and Hardy, not to mention the Georges Eliot and Gissing, one book leading to another until you’ve read an entire oeuvre. A recommendation was always the best guide. I was introduced by a friend to the work of Neil Gunn and I read all of his novels I could get my hands on. It was more difficult than it sounds since hardly of them were in print. I started with The Silver Darlings and Morning Tide and went on from there. I see from my copy of The Silver Darlings that I acquired it in 1969 when its author was still alive. I didn’t think then that there were such beings as living Scottish writers. I certainly had never encountered one. How that’s changed. These days there are more writers than carpenters with the skills to build bookshelves.

At some point in my bibliomania my Scottish library began to cohere. The key to this was W.R. Aitken’s bibliography of Scottish literature which I opened with the eagerness of Charlie turning the key to the door of the chocolate factory. Here was enough reading to see me out. Bill was a librarian, a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid, who, in his autobiography Lucky Poet, tells how he read almost all of the 12,000 books in Langholm library. MacDiarmid’s parents, like mine, never interfered with or supervised his reading, nor, like mine too, did they ever suggest he was wasting his time burying his head in a book. ‘Before I left home (when I was fourteen),’ adds MacDiarmid, I could go up into that library in the dark and find any book I wanted. I could do so still if the arrangement of the shelves has not been altered, although I have not been in it for thirty years now….’ I feel similarly about Musselburgh public library.

There is no greater incentive to buy books than an empty bookshelf. Like a pub without beer, it is an affront, a challenge, that which cannot be countenanced. If I liked a book, or thought I would like a book, I bought it and read it and placed it within reach. I read poetry – Norman MacCaig, Douglas Dunn, Liz Lochhead – novels – Eric Linklater, William McIlvanney and William Boyd and, of course, Muriel Spark. Shamefully, I was not interested in Scottish drama, assuming we are not talking about Macbeth. My interest in hillwalking led me to Haldane’s Drove Roads of Scotland, Alastair Borthwick’s gem, Always a Little Further, and the contents of the Scottish Mountaineering Club library, the gatekeeper of which I was briefly. It was a test to keep tabs on its roving users, among whom was Dougal Haston who once took one of the library’s books on a Himalayan expedition. Did he return it? Is the Eiger in Switzerland?

My library has retracted and expanded with changing circumstances. After some much-needed weeding it’s beginning to grow again, threatening the joists in our attic. When I lose book I am bereft. My books are part of me, intrinsic to who I am. Like Alberto Manguel, the laureate of bibliophiles, I seldom lend a book. As Manguel says: ‘I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.’ The books listed below should be regarded as the foundation of Scottish library. I have limited the number to a hundred, simply because you have to stop – or start – somewhere. It is, moreover, a deeply personal selection and not at all proscriptive. On a different day I would probably choose quite different titles though some are surely set in cement. Most of the books are in print but those that aren’t can be found without too much trouble. Happy browsing and hunting – and reading.

Starting a Scottish Library

Need To Know

Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland – John and Julia Keay
Concise Scots Dictionary
Scotland: Mapping the Nation – Chris Fleet
Chambers Scottish Biographical Dictionary – Rosemary Goring
The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women – Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes, Siân Reynolds
Scottish Art in the 20th Century – Duncan Macmillan
Scotland’s Music – John Purser
Dictionary of Scottish Quotations – Angela Cran and James Robertson
Scottish Life and Society (14 vols) – Edited by Alexander Fenton
A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable – Ian Crofton
In the Beginning

Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie
Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Coral Island – R.M. Ballantyne
The Princess and the Goblin – George Macdonald
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea – Eric Linklater
Oor Wullie
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
The Gruffalo – Julia Donaldson
Poetry of Yore

The Oxford Book of Ballads – Edited by James Kinsley
Burns: Poems – Edited by Gerard Carruthers
Poetic Gems – William McGonagall
Selected Poems – Hugh MacDiarmid
The Poems of Norman MacCaig
From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English – Sorley MacLean
Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
New Collected Poems – W.S. Graham
Barefoot: The Collected Poems of Alastair Reid – Alasdair Reid
Outside the Narrative: Poems 1965-2099 – Tom Leonard
Modern Poetry

Elegies – Douglas Dunn
The Bonniest Companie – Kathleen Jamie
The Adoption Papers – Jackie Kay
Fugitive Colours – Liz Lochhead
Getting Higher: The Complete Mountain Poems – Andrew Greig
The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy
Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
Swithering – Robin Robertson
Landing Light – Don Paterson
All One Breath – John Burnside
Classic Fiction

The Private memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg
Rob Roy – Sir Walter Scott
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Tunes of Glory – James Kennaway
The Silver Darlings – Neil Gunn
A Scots Quair – Lewis Grassic Gibbons
Gillespie – J. MacDougall Hay
Greenvoe – George Mackay Brown
Para Handy – Neil Munro
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
Fiction for Our Times
Kieron Smith, Boy – James Kelman
Lanark – Alasdair Gray
A Question of Loyalties – Allan Massie
Its Colours They Are Fine – Alan Spence
The New Confessions – William Boyd
The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway
Debatable Land – Candia McWilliam
Like – Ali Smith
And the Land Lay Still – James Robertson
44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith
As Others See Us

Mary Queen of Scots – Antonia Fraser
John Knox – Jane Dawson
Andrew Carnegie – David Nasaw
Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart – Frank McLynn
Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson – J.C. Furnas
Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary – K.M. Elisabeth Murray
The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith – Ian McIntyre
John Bellany – John McEwen
Gordon Brown: Prime Minister – Tom Bower
Salmond: Against the Odds – David Torrance
As We See Ourselves
The Diaries of a Dying Man – William Soutar
Edinburgh Journal, 1769-1786 – James Boswell
Growing Up in the Gorbals – Ralph Glasser
My Boyhood and Youth – John Muir
Scott’s Journal – Sir Walter Scott
Curriculum Vitae – Muriel Spark
Two Worlds – David Daiches
A Childhood in Scotland – Christian Miller
Nairn in Lightness and Dark – David Thomson
My Autobiography – Alex Ferguson
Probing the Past
The Scottish Nation – TM Devine
A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830 – TC Smout
Scotland: The Autobiography – Edited by Rosemary Goring
The Highland Clearances – John Prebble
Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World – James Buchan
The Making of Classical Edinburgh – AJ Youngson
The Drove Roads of Scotland – A.R.B. Haldane
The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Reivers – George McDonald Fraser
Scotland: Her Story – Edited by Rosemary Goring
Shredded: Inside RBS – Ian Fraser
Out and About

Journals of the Western Isles – James Boswell and Samuel Johnson
Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes– Robert Louis Stevenson
The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
Scottish Journey – Edwin Muir
Always a Little Further – Alastair Borthwick
In Search of Scotland – HV Morton
In High Places – Dougal Haston and Doug Scott
At the Loch of the Green Corrie – Andrew Greig
Stone Voices – Neal Ascherson
The Lighthouse Stevensons – Bella Bathurst

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