Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshleves, a series of posts set to feed into the filthy book lust/porn and either give you a fix of other people’s shelves to stave you off going on a buying/borrowing spree, or making you want to run and grab as many more books as you can. This week we are heading off to Italy to join author and avid reader, Charles Lambert. So grab yourself an Amaretto and orange juice, a slice of pizza and let’s have have a nosey round his shelves and find out more about him…
OK, I was born and grew up in various parts of the Midlands. I left the UK a year after finishing university in 1975 and I’ve lived in Italy ever since, with brief spells in Ireland and Portugal, and two failed attempts to return to England. I may have one more try at this before I’m too old. I’ve published four novels, the two most recent this year, one collection of short stories and a novella, with two more novels due in the next 15 months. I’m inordinately fond of my latest book, With A Zero At Its Heart (obligatory plug). I live in a large old house halfway between Rome and Naples with the artist Giuseppe Mallia, my partner since 1986 and my civil partner since 2012. I consider myself very fortunate indeed.
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?
I’m a terrible (although not, I hope, pathological) hoarder, so getting rid of books is something I find quite hard to do. I need to dislike a book extremely before I’ll consider throwing it out, although I might give it away or contrive to lose it by leaving it on public transport by ‘mistake’. So pretty much everything I read ends up on a shelf. For more on this, see the next answer.
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?
As a teenager I organised by colour, series, etc. so all my Penguins were side-by-side, with the Modern Classics on a shelf of their own, and so on. (There’s a section in ZERO about this – second obligatory plug.) I was (am) a bit of a completist. I’m still tempted to do this with particularly attractive books, like those published by And Other Stories. Now, though, I separate fiction from non-fiction and use a rough and ready alphabetical system for the former and whatever seems reasonable for the latter, with my criteria getting more and more idiosyncratic as the subsets emerge. Books I don’t really love may hang around on the still-to-be-shelved shelves for months, or even years, before I get round to putting them where they should be. And then there are the to-be-read shelves, which are also pretty daunting.
In the past I’ve had a few culls, often because I needed money, and sold books I wish I still had, which has taught the accumulative side of me a lesson it probably would have been better not to learn. From this point of view I’m dreading the next house move (something I’m looking forward to in most other ways) because it will almost certainly involve downsizing my library, and I’m not sure how or where to start.
What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?
I don’t remember. Probably an Enid Blyton and, if it was, probably one of the Adventure series, to which I owe many of my darkest nightmares. (I can’t thank you enough, Enid.) I almost certainly don’t have it any longer because practically all my childhood books were destroyed when my parents’ house burnt down in the mid-1970s; the few that were rescued have blackened spines, a toxic mixture of smoke and water, presumably. Some of the ones that were lost, including the Adventure series, have since been replaced at enormous cost.
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 don’t feel guilty about anything I’ve read, and certainly not about anything that’s been a pleasure. And, yes, I do have a copy of the Da Vinci Code somewhere, although I’m not sure where. I admit that I was briefly embarrassed when we had the builders in and I found one of them thumbing through one of my Straight to Hell anthologies, bought in the days when pornography was only obtainable from specialised outlets in places like Camden High Street (or Blackwells, in the case of the STH series). But embarrassment isn’t the same thing as guilt. And, come to think of it, I did buy a copy of 120 Days of Sodom once, from the late and much-lamented Compendium in Camden High St, and, after reading the first third of it, decided I didn’t want it in the house and took it back to the shop. That felt like guilt. I may have swapped it for an Eleanor Farjeon collection. At least, I’d like to think so.
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?
Ah yes, fire! (See above.) Mine is Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems. I’ve taken it with me from room to room, and house to house, since 1973. It’s stained and battered and heavy, and I love every page of it.
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 parents weren’t great book collectors. My father distrusted fiction and my mother, who had been a great reader, developed glaucoma when I was a child and turned to the radio. But the family of my best friend, the girl who lived next door, had just moved back from the States, which made their shelves very glamorous, and I do mean that in a ‘Fifty Shades’ way! So the first adult book I wanted to read was probably a James Bond novel, in which case it is on my shelves now. But it might have been The Carpetbaggers or something else by Harold Robbins, in which case it isn’t. Apart from that, I don’t remember feeling that there was a distinction between books for children and grown-ups. I read pretty much everything I could, and a lot of it would probably have been considered unsuitable if anyone had noticed. Fortunately, no one did.
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 used libraries a lot as a child and teenager, but I still remember the wrench of returningbooks. More recently, I had a spell of library-going and still wish I had my own copy of Francis Spufford’s brilliant Red Plenty. Generally though I buy everything I want to read specifically to avoid having to give books back. On the odd occasions I do borrow books from friends I have an unforgivable tendency to hang onto them longer than I should, so be warned. I must admit that I feel the same sense of frustration when I’ve read a book I love as an e-book, and often end up buying a print copy as well. I suppose I want to be able not only to read it but also to possess it as an object, and as a record of the reading. Hoarder, moi?
What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?
Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall – an extraordinary memoir by a father of his child’s cerebral palsy organised into 424 steps. This was sent to me by my wonderful publisher, Scott Pack, because he thought it had similarities with ZERO (third and final plug). The last book I bought myself was The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I’ve been meaning to read her for ages…
Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?
Yes, the copy I bought of The Golden Key by George MacDonald when I was at university. It was a beautiful little hardback and I don’t know where it’s gone. If anyone who reads this has it, can I have it back please?
What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?
I’d like them to think I was a widely-read and totally un-snobbish. I hope that’s what they do think!
A huge thanks to Charles for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, I will be sharing my thoughts on With A Zero at Its Heart very soon! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the 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 Charles’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?