My friend Will has built me a bookroom. It sits at the transition point of our property and the farmer’s. From the large window I see the two-year-old hedge on the boundary, and sheep fields and drumlins, and beyond them the rising Galloway Hills.
It’s built of larch, with a metal roof. The ceiling and walls are plastered with clay, and the shelves are cut from sitka spruce. I’ve dreamt of this room for years. With Will’s help, I’ve dreamt it into existence. It’s my own bayt al-hikmah, this one a working temple to the printed rather than the calligraphed or digitised word – something which readers of languages in Arabic script missed out on for a long and impoverished three and a half centuries. True there is one calligraphed mashallah hanging from a beam, but no internet connection – this radically cuts down distraction and creates a mental silence.
The first task is unpacking the books from the boxes they’ve lived in for the last four years.
This evokes warm feelings. It’s like recognising the faces of old friends. But it also involves a mourning for absences. Those missing include Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, The Man who Mistook his Wife or a Hat by Oliver Sacks, The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut (Kurt’s son), The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And quite a few others. O I have been too liberal a lender. I hope they’re happy, wherever they are. There are also all those I shed when I left a country, when I left a life behind – something I’ve done at least six times. And there was a major purge four years ago, before the survivors were packed into their boxes. Still, there are so many books. Too many books even for this generous shelf space. So I set about another, more minor purge now.
I get rid of some I read to potentially review – ‘for work’, as it were – and which I didn’t much like. And some, even after the earlier purge, of which I discover I own more than one copy. And some I’ve outgrown.