The Shape of Books

Colm Tóibín ( writer, essayist, journalist, critic, poet )

My father’s history books took up two large bookcases in the front room of our house in Enniscorthy. Among them was a series of great books of all time, which included Don Quixote and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb, and some Dickens, but there was no other fiction. In the backroom, in a smaller bookcase, protected by glass, were my mother’s poetry books; the books there included many anthologies and volumes of work by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poets.

There were no books by James Joyce or Frank O’Connor, or Sean O’Faolain or Liam O’Flaherty or Kate O’Brien, no modern fiction from England or America. Much later, on the top of a wardrobe, hidden away, I discovered copies of John McGahern’s The Dark and John Updike’s Couples, but such books were not for open display. They were to be read in secret, not to be mentioned.

Since, unlike my siblings, I was a late reader, then no one, least of all my parents, thought to monitor what I was reading as I moved into my teens. Among the many words that were banned in our house was the word ‘bored’. Anyone who complained of being bored was told to ‘Get a book and read it.’

More than any television programme or anything I saw in the cinema, the books I read then took over my imagination. I have no idea why or how the historical novelist Jean Plaidy came to my attention. Through her fictional versions of the lives of the Tudors and Mary Queen of Scots, I became interested in England in the sixteenth century and devoured anything I could find on the subject.

At the same time, the novels of Agatha Christie began to fascinate me. I loved how she played with the formula of the crime novel, creating full expectation that one character was guilty whereas all along it was someone else who did the murder. I never once managed to guess who the real culprit was.

At the age of twelve, in September or October 1967, I wrote a poem. It was about a tree. Soon, instead of studying, I wrote and revised poems. I sent them to a magazine that published poems by young people and they accepted some of them. More than anything, writing poems caused me to notice other poems that appeared in the newspaper and to begin to look at the poetry section in the local library. Certain names began to intrigue me – T.S. Eliot, for example, and W.H. Auden. In the house, there was an anthology of Irish poetry, edited by Brendan Kennelly, and another anthology of international poetry called The New Poetry, with poems by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

The poems depended on the page. They were islands of print, with much white space floating around them. Some poems were filled with order, made up of stanzas of the same neat length. Other poems were less structured, flowing down the page like some slow river. The way poems were printed made you read more carefully, more hesitantly. Line breaks and punctuation, not to speak of stanza breaks or section breaks, made as much difference as the words themselves. They were the land if the poem was the water.

Dublin, when I came to live in the city in 1972, was a city of bookshops – Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street and then in Stephen’s Green, the Eblana on Grafton Street, the APCK on Dawson Street, the Paperback Centre on Suffolk Street, Fred Hanna’s on Nassau Street, Parson’s on Baggot Street Bridge, Eason’s on O’Connell Street, Greene’s on Clare Street, Webb’s on Aston Quay.

As you walked from one of these shops to the other, through a city that had been created by Swift and Yeats and Joyce and Flann O’Brien, it was easy to imagine that Dublin was a city of books, a fully imagined place. The domed reading room of the National Library has not changed since the time of Yeats and Joyce. It still has the same light and layout, the same noises, perhaps even some of the same people, or maybe they just look similar. And the same sounds: whispered consultations with the librarians; chairs being pushed back; the seagull cries on the outside reminding us how close the sea is and the port; some coughing; and then a sudden pounding silence as heads are bowed low in the holy sacrament of reading.

These days you have to get a reader’s ticket to use the library. In 1974 and 1975 when I came here every day the porters checked your bag in case you were carrying a bomb or a sharp instrument, but no one checked your credentials: they presumed that you were doing serious research and treated you accordingly.

You signed your name in the big old book as soon as you went into the Round Room. You found a table, making sure that the light worked, and you set about ordering your books for the day, using the old catalogues that were like ledgers. And you lived in the knowledge that if you were ever lucky enough to publish a book, then your name and the book’s name would appear in this catalogue.

What is strange is how distant the books that matter most to you can be from your daily life, from the world around you. In the summer of 1974, for no reason, I picked up a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. The life dramatised in that novel could not have been further from the life I lived, the small town where I was brought up. Henry James was using an exquisite prose style of his own to describe a universe that was pure style, or seemed so, until questions of morality and treachery began to emerge.

This book, nothing more than some print on cheap paper, stitched or glued together to make a paperback, contained an entire world, described the fate of one young woman in such vivid colours and careful detail that a hundred years later it was fully alive, more alive than the pale world of everyday, more alive as you turned the thin pages than anything you had known before.