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A Library of One’s Own

  09 Nov '19   |  Posted by: Alan Taylor
Building a Library at Home

‘From the moment I first ventured into a library I wanted one of my own’

Famously, Virginia Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Without wishing to exacerbate the gender wars, I would suggest that the same goes for a man. Putting money aside, the room in which I like to write – albeit non-fiction – is not worthy of the name unless it has books in it, the more the better. From the moment I first ventured into a library I wanted one of my own. How conscious I was of this I cannot be sure. All I do know is that as the decades have progressed I have accreted books as squirrels do nuts. I still have some of the books I bought half a century or so ago: Boswell’s Life of Johnson, John Donne’s poems, The Penguin Book of South Africa Verse (which I still dip into from time to time), and the out-of-fashion novels of Lawrence Durrell, about whom I wrote a dissertation while I was at secondary school. What’s more, given an hour’s notice, I know exactly where to find all of them. That, surely, is the definition of a library: a collection of books shelved in an accessible order.

The first Scottish books I read (and collected) were by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Don’t ask me – because the answer is too embarrassing – how many copies I have of Kidnapped or Treasure Island. One empty summer I read my way through the Waverley novels, never thinking for one moment that it was a trial. We read differently, more tolerantly, more avariciously, when young. I liked Scott because of the tumultous nature of his storytelling and the manner in which he brought Scotland – its people and places – to life. 

By then, my teens, I was familiar with the Highlands if not the Islands and as I hiked through the glens it was not hard to imagine myself in Rob Roy’s shoes or bedecked in Alan Breck’s plaid. In those days, the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was not easy to find books by Scottish authors in bookshops specialising in new books. Thus I became a haunter of secondhand bookshops of which Edinburgh then had many. I’ve lost count of the books I bought  McNaughtan’s, situated in a basement in Elm Row, but let’s just say they were more than a few. When I left work on a Saturday lunchtime – as a library assistant at the nearby McDonald Road library – I would make a beeline for McNaughtan’s where I spent some of my happiest hours.

One book begets another. You read The Thirty-Nine Steps and you then must read Greenmantle or The Island of Sheep or Sick Heart River – Buchan’s best. This was how I came to read all of  Dickens and Hardy, not to mention the Georges Eliot and Gissing, one book leading to another until you’ve read an entire oeuvre. A recommendation was always the best guide. I was introduced by a friend to the work of Neil Gunn and I read all of his novels I could get my hands on. It was more difficult than it sounds since hardly of them were in print. I started with The Silver Darlings and Morning Tide and went on from there.  I see from my copy of The Silver Darlings that I acquired it in 1969 when its author was still alive. I didn’t think then that there were such beings as living Scottish writers. I certainly had never encountered one. How that’s changed. These days there are more writers than carpenters with the skills to build bookshelves. 

At some point in my bibliomania my Scottish library began to cohere. The key to this was W.R. Aitken’s bibliography of Scottish literature which I opened with the eagerness of Charlie turning the key to the door of the chocolate factory. Here was enough reading to see me out. Bill was a librarian, a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid, who, in his autobiography Lucky Poet, tells how he read almost all of the 12,000 books in Langholm library. MacDiarmid’s parents, like mine, never interfered with or supervised his reading, nor, like mine too, did they ever suggest he was wasting his time burying his head in a book. ‘Before I left home (when I was fourteen),’ adds MacDiarmid, I could go up into that library in the dark and find any book I wanted. I could do so still if the arrangement of the shelves has not been altered, although I have not been in it for thirty years now….’ I feel similarly about Musselburgh public library. 

There is no greater incentive to buy books than an empty bookshelf. Like a pub without beer, it is an affront, a challenge, that which cannot be countenanced. If I liked a book, or thought I would like a book, I bought it and read it and placed it within reach. I read poetry – Norman MacCaig, Douglas Dunn, Liz Lochhead – novels – Eric Linklater, William McIlvanney and William Boyd and, of course, Muriel Spark. Shamefully, I was not interested in Scottish drama, assuming we are not talking about Macbeth. My interest in hillwalking led me to Haldane’s Drove Roads of Scotland, Alastair Borthwick’s gem, Always a Little Further, and the contents of the Scottish Mountaineering Club library, the gatekeeper of which I was briefly. It was a test to keep tabs on its roving users, among whom was Dougal Haston who once took one of the library’s books on a Himalayan expedition. Did he return it? Is the Eiger in Switzerland?

My library has retracted and expanded with changing circumstances. After some much-needed weeding it’s beginning to grow again, threatening the joists in our attic. When I lose book I am bereft. My books are part of me, intrinsic to who I am. Like Alberto Manguel, the laureate of bibliophiles, I seldom lend a book. As Manguel says: ‘I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.’ The books listed below should be regarded as the foundation of Scottish library. I have limited the number to a hundred, simply because you have to stop – or start – somewhere. It is, moreover, a deeply personal selection and not at all proscriptive. On a different day I would probably choose quite different titles though some are surely set in cement. Most of the books are in print but those that aren’t can be found without too much trouble. Happy browsing and hunting – and reading.

Starting a Scottish Library

Need To Know

  • Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland – John and Julia Keay
  • Concise Scots Dictionary
  • Scotland: Mapping the Nation – Chris Fleet
  • Chambers Scottish Biographical Dictionary – Rosemary Goring
  • The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women – Elizabeth Ewan, Sue Innes, Siân Reynolds
  • Scottish Art in the 20th Century – Duncan Macmillan
  • Scotland’s Music – John Purser
  • Dictionary of Scottish Quotations – Angela Cran and James Robertson
  • Scottish Life and Society (14 vols) –  Edited by Alexander Fenton
  • A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable – Ian Crofton

In the Beginning

  • Peter Pan J.M. Barrie
  • Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Coral Island – R.M. Ballantyne
  • The Princess and the Goblin – George Macdonald
  • The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  • The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
  • The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea – Eric Linklater
  • Oor Wullie 
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
  • The Gruffalo – Julia Donaldson

Poetry of Yore

  • The Oxford Book of Ballads – Edited by James Kinsley
  • Burns: Poems – Edited by Gerard Carruthers
  • Poetic Gems – William McGonagall
  • Selected Poems – Hugh MacDiarmid
  • The Poems of Norman MacCaig
  • From Wood to Ridge: Collected Poems in Gaelic and English – Sorley MacLean
  • Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
  • New Collected Poems – W.S. Graham
  • Barefoot: The Collected Poems of Alastair Reid – Alasdair Reid
  • Outside the Narrative: Poems 1965-2099 – Tom Leonard

Modern Poetry 

  • Elegies – Douglas Dunn
  • The Bonniest Companie – Kathleen Jamie
  • The Adoption Papers – Jackie Kay
  • Fugitive Colours – Liz Lochhead
  • Getting Higher: The Complete Mountain Poems – Andrew Greig
  • The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy
  • Scales Dog – Alexander Hutchison
  • Swithering – Robin Robertson
  • Landing Light – Don Paterson
  • All One Breath – John Burnside 

Classic Fiction 

  • The Private memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – James Hogg
  • Rob Roy – Sir Walter Scott
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  • Tunes of Glory – James Kennaway
  • The Silver Darlings – Neil Gunn
  • A Scots Quair – Lewis Grassic Gibbons
  • Gillespie – J. MacDougall Hay
  • Greenvoe – George Mackay Brown
  • Para Handy – Neil Munro
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Fiction for Our Times
  • Kieron Smith, Boy – James Kelman
  • Lanark – Alasdair Gray
  • A Question of Loyalties – Allan Massie
  • Its Colours They Are Fine – Alan Spence
  • The New Confessions – William Boyd
  • The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway
  • Debatable Land – Candia McWilliam
  • Like – Ali Smith
  • And the Land Lay Still – James Robertson
  • 44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

As Others See Us

  • Mary Queen of Scots – Antonia Fraser
  • John Knox – Jane Dawson
  • Andrew Carnegie – David Nasaw
  • Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart – Frank McLynn
  • Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson – J.C. Furnas
  • Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary – K.M. Elisabeth Murray
  • The Expense of Glory: A Life of John Reith – Ian McIntyre
  • John Bellany – John McEwen
  • Gordon Brown: Prime Minister – Tom Bower
  • Salmond: Against the Odds – David Torrance
  • As We See Ourselves
  • The Diaries of a Dying Man – William Soutar
  • Edinburgh Journal, 1769-1786 – James Boswell
  • Growing Up in the Gorbals – Ralph Glasser
  • My Boyhood and Youth – John Muir
  • Scott’s Journal – Sir Walter Scott
  • Curriculum Vitae – Muriel Spark
  • Two Worlds – David Daiches
  • A Childhood in Scotland – Christian Miller
  • Nairn in Lightness and Dark – David Thomson
  • My Autobiography – Alex Ferguson
  • Probing the Past
  • The Scottish Nation – TM Devine
  • A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830 – TC Smout
  • Scotland: The Autobiography – Edited by Rosemary Goring
  • The Highland Clearances – John Prebble
  • Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World – James Buchan
  • The Making of Classical Edinburgh – AJ Youngson
  • The Drove Roads of Scotland – A.R.B. Haldane
  • The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Reivers – George McDonald Fraser
  • Scotland: Her Story – Edited by Rosemary Goring
  • Shredded: Inside RBS – Ian Fraser

Out and About

  • Journals of the Western Isles – James Boswell and Samuel Johnson
  • Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
  • Scottish Journey – Edwin Muir
  • Always a Little Further – Alastair Borthwick
  • In Search of Scotland – HV Morton
  • In High Places – Dougal Haston and Doug Scott
  • At the Loch of the Green Corrie – Andrew Greig
  • Stone Voices – Neal Ascherson
  • The Lighthouse Stevensons – Bella Bathurst

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