File under E, for eternally embarrassing

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE many guests, it is commonly said, who use the excuse of ablutions to root about inside the medicine cabinets of their hosts. They believe that the phials and devices contained there provide a commentary on the occupants: a life measured out with 5ml plastic spoons, as T S Eliot nearly put it. Less from morality than a terror of the tell-tale clatter of falling bottles or the hoot of a child-proof alarm, I have generally forgone these pharmacological memoirs of my friends. However, as a compensation, I head, in anyone's house, straight for the bookshelves. A bibliography is a biography. There is, indeed, a body in the library and it is yours.

I have just seen my own laid out cold. Having moved to a larger house, I spent the Easter weekend sorting through the books accumulated during 20 years since adolescence. I have, as a Martin Amis character once put it, a bad book-habit. Professional removers use the prosaic formula 'foot of books', as in 'How many foot of books to shift?', running a tape measure briskly along the shelves. As well as hundreds of these conventionally horizontal feet of reading material - arranged non-alphabetically, so that checking a reference could take hours - my flat had the rarer phenomenon of vertical feet: tottering piles of volumes awaiting space.

Everything is order now: decked sections. I just checked the Eliot paraphrase in my first paragraph ('I have measured out my life with coffee spoons' - Selected Poems, Faber, 1982, p11) over in the Poetry section, filed alphabetically to my left. Behind my right shoulder, in General Non-Fiction, I hunted for an essay by the American writer John Gregory Dunne about rummaging in the medicine chests of friends. In the top left corner of the right-hand wall, where Fiction runs from A-Z, I found the Martin Amis reference for the second paragraph. ('He must have a bad book-habit this character. How much are books? It seems he has the reading thing real bad.' - Money, Cape, 1984, p224.)

I had expected the pleasure of associations: the stains of sun-cream, gravy and airline wine, which ensure that every story tells a picture to its reader. However, like a character in Michael Frayn's play about librarians, Alphabetical Order - over there on the left, in Drama A-Z, just above Poetry - I achieved, to my surprise, almost physical thrills during the filing. On my drama shelves, Brecht gives way to Brenton across the perfect bridge of The Life Of Galileo by Brecht, translated by Brenton. It was like a line working out at cards. Arranging the Journalism by subject, rather than surname, I maliciously placed two violently opposed rivals side by side. The categorising was so satisfying that I came to suspect that Philip Larkin's now-famous porn mags must have been a bit of a let- down after his day as a librarian.

I can also report that the main bibliographical development over the past decade is the emergence of novelists called Harris: the print triplets Thomas (Silence Of The Lambs), Robert (Fatherland) and Martyn (Do It Again) now form a huge buffer zone between Graham Greene and Roy Hattersley. Greene's ghost may be glad of this, for the alphabet can be cruel. I agonised for hours about requiring Martin Amis to live next to Jeffrey Archer, suddenly regretting having given my Virginia Andrews collection to Oxfam. But here lies another peril of indexing. Andrews's estate trademarked her name after her death, with new volumes emerging yearly from a different hand. The order of a library depends on the assumption that individual authors will die. So admitting the immortal Virginia Andrews to your shelves is like ignoring nettles in a garden. Margaret Atwood and Julian Barnes would soon be on the floor.

But I am dissembling the distress the process caused. Your library is like a photograph album of your mind, and to open it is to suffer the literary equivalent of old haircuts and flares. I hope there was some irony in the O-level student who appears to have written the words 'probably God' beside most metaphors in his copy of Eliot's Four Quartets, and has added the gloss 'Either Loch Ness or something to do with mermaids' beside Eliot's line: 'To report the behaviour of the sea monster.'

Surprised to find a hardback containing five experimental prose works by the American poet William Carlos Williams, I was further astonished when a lilac letter fell out, reading: 'Mark, hope this helps. Susan xx.' Who the hell was Susan xx? And, although I have had rough moments, I cannot remember one in which the required balm would have been five experimental prose works by William Carlos Williams.

Logically, an embarrassing old dust-jacket should be no more shaming than an embarrassing old jacket, but to have once bought duff prose does somehow seem worse than to have been sold naff clothes, perhaps because books aspire to longer shelf-lives. Sorting out my books this weekend, I started a blush pile, of unexpected texts. I had a psychological need to keep it as a single stack, but it soon collapsed under its weight of shame. Did stern old Faber & Faber really once publish a book called Who's Had Who, an anthology of bonking, in which so-called 'lay lines' set out familiarity trees among the historical and living? I would love to blame education for my apparent possession of a strange work called Shakespeare Against Apartheid - which argued for the Elizabethan Bard's unexpected relevance to Port Elizabeth in the Eighties - but it was published some years after I graduated.

I am attributing to journalism's element of required reading my suspicious possession of Gazza: My Life In Pictures by Paul Gascoigne and The Very Best Of Tony Blackburn's Jokes, although it is a jolt to find two copies of the latter. And receipts trapped inside flaps seem to establish that I handed over actual cash for A Funny Turn, a short account of wacky practical jokes played by Ray East, a former Essex spin-bowler. I also reportedly bought Johnny Come Lately: A Short History Of The Condom and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook. The only available get- out here is that of the drug smuggler: there is some kind of squad going around planting this stuff on the shelves of would-be serious readers.

The shocking revelations, however, are not always about the library's owner. At a friend's house recently, I found a work that the serious literary figure Jeanette Winterson now rarely acknowledges. Called Fit For The Future (Pandora, 1986), it is an exercise guide for women, its brisk practicality a surprise for those familiar only with the novelist's later magic realism: 'Bran is not magic dust. You can't sprinkle it over your food like a magic powder and hope it will at once regulate your bowels. . . . '

Over to my right, under the fiction Ps, I see the title Books Do Furnish A Room. Well, yes, but not always in the way that authors or book- buyers would prefer. In future, I will treat my library like a medicine cabinet and buy a strong lock.