When temperatures dip below zero and the sun seems to set before it’s even completely risen, a long, cold walk to the National Library of Scotland might not seem the most inviting idea. However, at this stage of the year any chance to leave the library is a blessing, and yes, I realise the irony of escaping from one library only to set foot in another, but as part of Book Week Scotland the NLS offered the chance to reacquaint a deflated and unenthused English student with the ‘Eternal Delights of Books’.
Ushered into a large room with a sparse but eager audience, David Gray, the author of ‘Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books’ and self-proclaimed ‘people’s historian’, took to the stage, pink bookmarked copy in hand, to read excerpts from his latest publication. His tone was conversational, though it did put me in mind of an over-enthusiastic English teacher rather than a professional writer. He confided in us that he was inspired by J.B.Priestley’s collection of short essays, Delight, in which Priestley endeavoured to cheer up a world in the midst of post-war austerity. Gray attempts to do much the same and dedicates a few pages to celebrating the many small joys that books can bring. With chapters of prose poetry ranging from ‘The Smell of Books’ to ’Reading in Bed’, he reiterates the important place of these simple pleasures, given that, as he put it, the ‘greater narrative going on in the world is hellish, to say the least’.
However, some of the fifty do feel more laboured, and Gray’s scribbles become littered with generic clichés more often seen in stocking-filler style novelty books. His chapter on ‘Impromptu Bookmarks’ seems to function itself as a page filler, but not in a good way. And his attack on leaving books dog-eared with folds seems hypocritical and inconsequential when, in another chapter, he romanticizes the stains and blotches left in second-hand books as ‘traces of history’ and something to be cherished. Unlike the notes left in books, I find it hard to feel sentimental about stains – to me, they are simply the off-putting evidence of what the previous owner of the book had for lunch one lonely Saturday, long ago.
Yet, throughout the book, there are pockets of insight. The chapter on ‘Inspecting Someone Else’s Bookshelf’ was very enjoyable, as the many nodding heads and knowing looks of the audience reiterated. He cites shelves as autobiography, a joyful way to snoop around a person’s personality without having to attempt social interaction and his ruminations on those whose shelves tell the story of ‘diets, history of English canals and short-lived hobbies’ were softly sardonic.
Some of Gray’s chapters do offer a comforting antidote to soothe the soul. Like a still life painter, he endeavours to reacquaint us with the joys of the book. This happens with varying originality and insight, but always with such an unbridled enthusiasm and ritualistic relish that it is hard not to revel in the many subtleties that make a book so much more than just paper and ink.
Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books took place at the National Library of Scotland on Thursday 30th December as part of Book Week Scotland .
Scribbles in The Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books by David Gray is published by Bloomsbury.
Image Credit Book Week Scotland.