It is time to spend a little while leisurely nosing around someone elses collection of books with the latest installment of Other People’s Bookshelves. This time around we are having a nebby through one of my most recent delightful bookish acquaintances, Dr Victoria James, one of the most well travelled and well read people I have met in some time. Victoria and I bonded earlier in the year as we judged the Not The Booker Prize for the Guardian and have been messaging and emailing about the books we have been reading ever since. I am currently buttering her up to work on a bookish TV project together. I’m delighted, between flying here there and everywhere she has taken the time to share her shelves with us and so will stop waffling on and hand over to the lovely lady herself.
Firstly can you tell us a bit about yourself and where your love of books came from…
I’ve always wondered if the thing I’m very best at isn’t TV (I’m a television producer) or journalism (I was Tokyo Correspondent of New Statesman, and have written for many papers and magazines), or travelling (which I do often and well) – but reading. During my childhood, each night after bedtime my parents would check on me and pluck off my face the book I had fallen asleep reading. I’ve got four degrees in English, yet to this day feel as desolate on closing the last page of a wonderful book as I did when I first reached the end of the Narnia sequence, or ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. I love my life, and I really love the way reading has given me thousands of lives in the pages of beloved books.
Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?
For years, I kept all my books, but because I live in a tiny place in London most of them were stored at my mum’s house. When she wanted to move, I did a comprehensive sort-through and took about half down to the local Oxfam shop. Every now and then my mum rings me up to tell me with great annoyance that Oxfam has sent her a running total of the cash raised from my books – it’s in the hundreds of pounds, now. My criteria for retaining/discarding books were simple: was a book (i) ever going to be read again, (ii) of emotional value, or (iii) a beautiful or rare volume? If not, down to Oxfam it went. I try to stick to the same policy now for acquisitions – books that don’t meet any of those criteria but which I want to read anyway I buy for my e-reader.
Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?
I tend to group my books by ‘collections’. I studied English at uni and have loads of ‘classics’ – they are all on one bookcase, and modern fiction on another, both ordered alphabetically by author. I lived in Japan for years and have a great number of Japanese books: these are grouped together, then subdivided by fiction and nonfiction (and alphabetically within those). I’ve a smaller collection of books on nature, wildlife and ecology, which go together (alphabetically), and travel (alphabetical by destination, not author). My most recent small collection is of books about Vikings, as for the past 18 months I’ve been writing both a Viking-themed novel and a travel book. These shelves are a glorious mashup of fiction, poetry, sagas, histories, nonfiction, catalogues and picture books (and are not remotely alphabetical).
With the exception of the last, this probably makes me sound borderline-obsessive about my books. Perhaps I am – but the rest of my life is a joyous, freeform improvisation. When a sixth-former I volunteered at my local library, and as a graduate student I earned cash manning my college library desk, so my neat books could be simply the product of a scant few good habits, learned early!
What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?
As a child I never had pocket money, but my mother joined no fewer than four local libraries to keep me plentifully supplied with borrowed books. The first time I got to ‘buy’ a book myself was when I won the class prize at my new school (I’d got a scholarship to a private school, where they did posh stuff like prizegivings). I chose a beautiful hardback of ‘The Hobbit’. It was part of a series of six hardbacks, along with the three ‘Lord of the Rings’ books, ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘Unfinished Tales’ and I asked my mother to buy the whole lot, as I was worried that particular edition would go out of print and I wouldn’t have a matching set. ‘But you’d have to win the form prize every year,’ my mother said. ‘Don’t worry,’ I replied, ‘I will’. And I did. And I still have those six lovely volumes today.
Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?
I adore gloriously lowbrow sensation fiction, and I have more books by Wilkie Collins than any other author apart from Yukio Mishima. I also love children’s fantasy fiction (such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the Wolf Brother books), and am an unrepentant, lifelong sci-fi fan. But I’m not embarrassed by a single book I own. What a terrible notion – that’s like asking if people hide their naughty children when visitors come round!
Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?
This probably sounds heretical, but one part of me would be quite delighted if everything I owned went up in flames. I’ve always been bit of a believer in the principle of nonattachment to material things – books are the glaring exception to my attempt to lead a nonaccumulative life. I do have a few books that were given to me and inscribed by good friends, or bought at meaningful moment of my life, but the important things are the friends and the memories; I can always buy the books again.
What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?
My father seemed to spend years of my childhood reading James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’, while my mother bought Oswald Wynd’s ‘The Ginger Tree’ (about a Scottish woman in early 20th-century Japan) after it was adapted by the BBC in the 80s. I don’t have either on my shelves today, but I spent most of my 20s living in Tokyo, so I guess both books made their mark!
If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?
I buy every book I want. It’s like a sickness, Simon. I’m sure you understand…
What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?
The latest added to my shelf is ‘The Gentle Author’s London Album’, a largely pictorial book about London life and recent history. It’s exquisitely produced, with golden endpapers – to handle it is to covet it. The latest added to my e-reader is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’. I know some people don’t much like e-readers, but they make me a better buyer of newly-released fiction when the alternative is a hefty hardback for which I have neither shelf-space or bag-space.
Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?
My Big Wish for my bookshelf in the future is (cough!) a copy of my own first novel: a stirring (cough!) tale of Greenland’s last Vikings, who are suddenly confronted with proof that their world – and their dreams – are much larger than they ever imagined. There’s just that small matter of finishing it (10,000 words to go) then securing an agent and publisher.
What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?
They can think what they like! But you wouldn’t need to be too perceptive to deduce the following: My reading tastes – omnivorous and insatiable. Me – an outdoorsy, well-travelled bookaholic with a thing for Japan, Vikings and spaceships.
A huge thanks to Victoria for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Victoria’s responses and/or any of the books that she mentioned?