Outside of a Dog, By Rick Gekoski

A rare-books dealer sets out on a rollicking ride of reminiscences with his 25 favourite books
Click to follow

Let me tell you a tale of two books: a Le Carré and a Carver. They sit on either end of my shelves. I'll get to the Le Carré later but first consider my inscribed, signed copy of Raymond Carver's In a Marine Light. This wonderful collection of poems was an exceptionally generous gift from my ex-girlfriend, purchased from a Manhattan book and manuscripts dealer. However, the relationship that garnered that book was as amorphous as Carver's free-form style. The same New York weekend that she presented me with it, she also hurled a glass of water at my head. No doubt with good reason. We were as solid as a Cornetto in the Kalahari. Those poems still sit in my hall, beautiful and valued, but I can't help flinching when they catch my eye.

I recount this because Rick Gekoski begins Outside of a Dog, his wonderful account of a life immersed in books, with just such an abrasive intersection of the personal and the bibliographic. Gekoski, an academic and lauded rare-book dealer, attempts to recover his 1,000-strong collection from his ex-wife, only to receive a blank refusal. Decades of acquisitions had been hacked from his very being. He had been book-Bobbited.

Gekoski's "bibliomemoir" is named after the Groucho Marx assertion that, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, its too dark to read." It's a suitably screwball title for a book that makes a heady mix of great literary invention and populist product. As Gekoski takes us on a tour of 25 books that are particularly special to him, we learn the part each played in his romantic, professional and intellectual development. The author possesses something of a scatter-gun taste. His selection takes in the predictable (Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Eliot's The Waste Land), the psychiatric (Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Laing's The Divided Self) and, in the case of Hirschfeld's Sexual Anomalies and Perversions, the downright screwy.

The unifying force is the quality of Gekoski's writing, which reads like a performance from a seasoned raconteur: extremely funny and seamlessly structured. Many of the books form springboards for his polymathic rambles. For instance, his chapter on AS Neill's Summerhill (a manifesto for the infamously liberal school) turns into an eloquent rail against how the creative fire crackling in our youth is doused by Britain's social policies. He is informed in his comments and disciplined in his objectivity, yet never shies from an unequivocal judgement call.

This is true not least in his views on his chosen profession. He acknowledges that there is nothing inherent in a scholarly life that is any more important than one busied with U-bends and stopcocks. Even books themselves get short shrift. "What you see when you look at a lot of books is paper in various stages of decay," he notes. However, this only bonds us further to our favourite texts. We are a long time dead, but while we yellow and our spines crack, we can at least keep each other company. As CS Lewis is reputed to have said, "We read to know we are not alone." It's a message lucidly and gracefully delivered in this warm and witty volume.

So, back to that Le Carré. His underrated The Naïve and Sentimental Lover is a loan from my new girlfriend. Although garish in its 1980s mass-market cover and only just begun, it's as treasured as its lender. It's a paperback promise, reminding me that even a book nerd can turn the page to a happier chapter. Just the kind of reaction Gekoski has captured with such verve.

Comments