Tolkien’s Gown (and other stories of great authors and rare books)

August 28, 2007 at 3:16 am (Uncategorized)

My friend Anna lent me this fabulous book last week, and I have to tell you about it. Its author is Rick Gekoski, a rare-books dealer (among other things), and it is a thoroughly cracking read.

It helps that I love books. I love everything about them. I always have, and I always will. I love the physical manifestation of the novel as much as the concept of everything it may contain. Nothing fills me with satisfaction quite like a good book, and I feel genuinely sorry for people who don’t care for reading. And although Gekoski’s book isn’t a novel, it’s about novels and poems, and about the people who write, read, and/or collect them. Of course, there’s rather a lot of overlap in these categories, as good writers tend to be voracious readers. Book collectors also need a bit of the fetishist or obsessive in their character, too, and it’s my personal feeling that an awful lot of authors share this quality of compulsion. They must, to do what they do in the circumstances in which most of them do it. And all of these ingredients in Gekoski’s capable hands make for a great read.

I think I have actually managed to precipitate a flu relapse by sitting up late the past few nights gorging myself on Tolkien’s Gown. I could hardly bear to put it down. Sunday night – Monday morning, in fact – when I did finally stop reading at 2 am, it was reluctantly and only because I didn’t want it all to end so soon. I kept away from it all day yesterday, and then excitedly raced to bed knowing it was waiting for me. Llew fell asleep after noting the dopey, entranced look on my face, and I buried myself in Gekoski’s book. Like someone eating around their favourite chocolate in the box, I left myself two chapters to read over my cup of tea this morning, but by then it was really more like ‘mourning.’ Now I’ve finished. It’s always a sad day when it comes after such a great, galloping ride. I want more, now, another full volume at least. It’s been a while since a book has produced such a strong reaction in me, but there it is: a book about books.

Gekoski’s got a lovely, accessible, lighthearted tenor to his writing. It’s enormously affectionate, and not at all pretentious even though some of the money changing hands is breathtaking, and even though he has to namedrop as a matter of course (imagine being friendly with Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie). The anecdotes are wonderfully revealing, the snapshot of the dust-jackets and covers in question altogether riveting, the summary of each text, as well as the potted biography of each author, frank and insightful. It’s so enjoyable, perhaps because Gekoski is so clearly enjoying himself too.

Just now, sitting here writing this, I am reminded of seeing Peter Carey at a literary dinner in Balmoral, at which he read from the just-published Theft and signed attendees’ copies, including mine. There was something so snide, so smug and humourless about the man that night (I have no idea if Carey suffers permanently from this condition, so let’s assume it was an isolated bug up his arse) that I came away wishing I hadn’t just forked out forty-five bucks for his book. And indeed reading it left something of a bad taste in my mouth. ‘A Love Story’? Hmmm. As has been widely discussed in the press, I think it is perhaps more ‘An End-of-Love Story’, with all the bitterness and acidity that usually entails. At any rate, the spirit of Gekoski’s book seems to me the opposite of Carey’s novel. I think you could accurately subtitle Tolkien’s Gown ‘A Love Story,’ and I’m going to be very glad to pay someone for a copy of my very own. Thanks for the loan, Anna, I loved it.

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