October Blog

PASSAGES OF TIME : SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE PERSONAL POLITICS OF LIFE STORY TELLING

How do we tell the story of a life that  began and ended badly? Is there more to autobiography than a do-it-yourself obituary? What are the limits and  conditions of public commemoration as a regime of truth?  How does the space/time compression of everyday life in the digital age  impact on our capacity to sustain coherent life histories and other  narratives of long duration?

I have been wrestling  with  these  issues of  memory politics,  life story telling and imagined communities of belonging  for a long time. They   were give focus  by the experience of writing a memoir, which includes an extended essay on contemporary book cultures and the library as a memoryscape . But they  were  raised with  particular and painful urgency  by  recently losing my adopted son and having to construct a tribute for  his  funeral service  in a way which did justice to his troubled life.

When we think about what is at stake in a life story, whether it is told or written, we tend to think  and say a lot about  its beginning. The circumstances of  childhood and youth play a prominent part because they are widely considered to be not only  formative, but to intimately over-determine much of what subsequently happens to us. In the West, we are  all  children of Freud, whether we know it or not ; it is no  coincidence that the best memoir written by a psychoanalyst should be entitled ‘ The Love of beginnings’ (J-B Pontalis). And now that we are all supposed to be authors of own lives and to continually reinvent ourselves from cradle to grave, now that the just-in- time production of the flexible self  has become the organising principle  of the post Fordist ,neo-liberal ,  perpetual beginnings are the order of the day. The result is to  postpone, if not entirely foreclose,  any consideration of  endings. In the story books I grew up with The End was a prominent , and satisfying  feature. Today it has been replaced by the mere full stop. The  paradigmatic form of life history  has become  the soap opera   where  the story is always to be continued, next week,  and there are always new characters, new situations while the basic plot, the dramatic unities of time and place  remain constant.  People may die or disappear  but the  story  goes on and on,  at least until the audience lose interest and the ratings fall. The death of a soap opera leaves a lot of people feeling bereaved, not just because they miss their  regular narrative fix, but   because it forecloses its peculiar dialectic of transience and permanence.

Of course  stories are conventionally  supposed to have not only a beginning, but a middle and an end. For  narratologists the end is that part of the story where its meaning and purpose is evaluated ; for the life story teller the whole  exercise is often about taking a step back and recollecting  , if not always in tranquillity,  just what the  meaning and purpose of life consists in. Writing a memoir   is a revisionary process, it involves  the bitter sweet  recognition  that what is done is done;  counterfactual life histories, agonising about what has been what might have been, or worse  rewriting the past so that it conform to our hopes,   defeats the purpose .Yet  the fact that life is beyond amendment  does not mean   that amends cannot  be made in the manner of its telling.  Of course some people, especially politicians,   write memoirs as  way of settling  old scores, but the true, critical,  purpose of the memoir is to enable you revisit  the foreign country that your past has become, to  relearn its language, and customs  and to unsettle   your   account by  reconsidering what it amounts to. As a late work, and most memoirs are written by people over 60, the memoir  may not be so much a confirmation or consolidation of the author’s life  experience, as a radically new departure. I think  this is what the best memoirs do. In my case starting ‘Reading Room Only’ was a way of writing myself out of a very dark place, of fighting back against  the pull of suicidal impulses, and reaching  out towards  to the world,  in the process  finding that which in the midst of inferno, is not inferno  and giving it  space, making it endure (Italo Calvino).

But what principles of closure should  apply to the life story if its end is indeed to constitute a new beginning? For most auto-biographers, it is enough  to tell  the story so far,  to stop when  the present is reached and  perhaps to conclude with a  little speculation about what the future may hold.   We live our lives forwards, but  very few people look forward to their death, unless they believe in some kind of afterlife.  As you get older, the pressure to look back rather than forward  becomes ever stronger. Yet there is one special sense, which I am going to discuss in a moment , in which the memoir   become focused on its own posterity  and that of its author in a way  which complicates its reception by the reader.

These, perhaps somewhat morbid thoughts, came to mind   because of  an untoward event, an event which, while not actively anticipated,  was nevertheless feared. In September of this year my adopted son, Stephen died of a seizure  resulting from his alcoholism. He was 33  and for the past  few years had been fighting what turned out to be a losing battle against his illness.

Alcoholism is not a good death. It is a death that poses particular problems about how to remember and tell  the story of a life.  Conventionally  and in the context of a funeral service  this remembrance takes the form of a tribute, a eulogy  that celebrates everything that was  positive  about the person  and  their  accomplishments.   All flaws, anything that would detract from or challenge this idealised portrait  is rigorously edited out the account. As such  the funeral eulogy   represents  a  symbolic  equivalent of   the cosmetic  treatment  that is given to the body by the embalmer, so that  its physical blemishes, the signs of ageing, illness  or injury are no longer visible. In his way a state of perfection that was not attained, -and indeed is unattainable -in life, is celebrated in death.  The fundamental principle of this discourse  is nil nisi bonum( nothing except good). From this perspective it is wrong and even dangerous  to speak ill of the dead, not only because  they are not there to defend their  character and  reputation, but because it conjures  up an obscure and unacknowledged  fear that their evil spirit, once named,  will return  to haunt   those who   dared to do so.  One of the  functions of the wake is precisely to keep watch over the  body so that   malign forces, including our own less than generous feelings towards  the deceased, do not invade the occasion. The result  is to turn death into a spectacle, whose formula is ‘only what is good appears, everything that appears is good’ ( Guy Debord). We say we are paying our respects to the dead, but sometimes  this means that  we are strenuously engaged in maintaining the outward appearance of  their respectability – and ours.. We  dress  up in our most formal clothes  to mark the solemnity of the occasion, but also to ensure that  in death good taste triumphs   over bad  at least in matters sartorial.

In composing  a tribute to Stephen, in trying to set his troubled life in some kind of framework   which would enable those who knew him  to both recognise him and mourn his loss, I was faced with the problem of how to address his alcoholism, without either romanticising it, or turning it into an overwhelming demonic force  in a way that obscured what he managed to achieve despite – and sometimes because – of it.  For  it could not be ignored, it was a very large elephant  to have in the room. At the same time I was aware  how important it was  for his young sons to be given an account of their father’s life  which would sustain their own positive memories of him to help them withstand the anger they were also feeling. Yet  there were limits as to how far I could go in constructing such an account without sacrificing its intelligibility. For example they did not  want me to mention the fact that  their dad had been adopted, although many of his friends  knew, and that fact was constitutive of his life story. It just did not make sense without it. The problem with embalming a  life  is that it become  unrecognisable. Just like the body in the coffin, it becomes wholly other in its lack of life. Better to remember the person as they were alive with all  their faults and misadventures, than cling on to an ossified image that bears little or no resemblance  to what they were like ‘in the flesh’.

All this has a   bearing on  the  models and motivations that come into play whenever  people  give  an account of their  lives.   There is a very long  tradition of   autobiography   as an apologia por  sua vita,  a form of do- it -yourself obituary, in which the author  says in effect ‘ look, this is how I want to be remembered  when I am gone’. In  other words the intention  is to  create a narrative legacy, to bequeath a story which may supplement, or compliment, and  sometimes  revise and refute   the memories which other people hold.  All too often  this attempt to create a posthumous identity involves a sanitised version of events, expurgating anything at all problematic  in the life history. These  advertisements for an ideal self pull on  some of the strategies we all use in presenting  a  highly edited version of ourselves whether to  prospective friends, lovers or employers, or indeed ourselves. It is how we manage the public impression we make on others, by keeping what we see as the   less respectable  aspects  of our lives strictly private  and hidden from view.  The more defended or paranoid the subject, the more extensive and florid this   hidden curriculum vitae.

The   authorised  version of the life story, like the official CV,   tends to be underwritten by a Whig interpretation of life history –  a history  which is unfolded   as  stages of a progress or journey, an onwards  and upwards march  towards  some promised land, whether of  spiritual salvation, material success or public  fame. That is the template of most obituaries.  Of course,  obituaries are by definition reserved  for the  commemoration of  public figures, and usually consist of a celebration of their   public virtues  and occasionally vices.  For example the recent obituaries  for Nelson Mandela did not much deal with his private life. The personal  is supposed to be  political, but we are not expected to be curious about whether Nelson was any good in bed, a caring  father, or did the housework,  because his private life is regarded as inconsequential. Usually we get two lines at the end saying So and So is survived by  her  spouse and children.  We are not expected to wonder whether and how  they survived his life.

The most popular rendition of  the  fable of  fame was the ‘This is Your Life’ series on TV  hosted by Eamonn Andrews in which some celebrity is presented with a  highly selective version of their biography as they are joyfully and tearfully reunited with  a procession of  doting parents, inspiring teachers, devoted friends and admiring colleagues. Creditors, jilted lovers, abandoned children, and anyone else with a possible grievance is not invited to the  show. Again it is a case of ‘only what is good appears , and everything that appears is good’.

There is an alternative  and  equally long  tradition   of confessional  autobiography  in which the     author   makes a virtue of his or her vices   and makes the reader complicit in their rehearsal, either as source of titillation or absolution,  sometimes both.  Today    this genre has been considerably expanded by the advent of    fashionable victimologies  associated with identity politics,  and  aspirational triumph-over-adversity stories. We have seen the emergence of the  memoir as misery lit, telling one’s life as a litany of complaint about  suffering, injustice or missed opportunity. Along with this we have seen the  growth of narrative therapies in which the recounting  of unhappy  beginnings is supposed  to lead to happy ever after endings.   Yet  whether the focus is on  virtues or vices, whether the paradigm  is  the life of the apprentice saint or confirmed sinner, the mode of expression celebratory or repentant,  in all these cases  special pleading and self justification tend to be the order   of the day.

Life story telling in whatever mode seems to me to pivot on a paradox. It  is premised on a special kind of pact struck with the  reader that the account will be as true to the life as possible, and this  is  underwritten by the assumption that there is a binding coincidence between the teller  of the tale and its chief protagonist – they are one and the same person. And yet for reasons I have hinted at,  this is a fictive concordance. However great the sense of continuing identity,  however much we are in touch with our ‘inner child’,  there would literally be no  story to tell unless some  device  was introduced to  interrupt the principle of  sameness. If life is always same old story then it is hardly worth the telling.  Equally even the most  uneventful life may  become interesting in the manner of  its relating.

The life story may, or may not  illuminate  wider aspects of the  history, culture and society in in   which it is embedded, but it is  a gift for the   unreliable narrator  and  not easily rendered into a medium of subjective truth.  The memoir is an ideal vehicle for the creation of  personal  mythographies  inspired  by retrospective  illusionism.  Frank Kermode  in his memoir  Not Entitled  has this to say about the vagaries of the genre:

‘It   might be claimed that almost everybody who has heard of the possibility of constructing even the most private, the most silent narrative account of his or her own life is some sort of auto-biographer. Perhaps the silent autobiographies manage to be more truthful, who can say, but in the course of writing it down, the others will discover, if they did’nt know already,  that the action of memory depends on the co-operation of fantasy. That is the truth. ‘

The proposition here is that in the transition from silent  or interior  speech  to the  act of writing and public  disclosure  the process  of remembrance  undergoes a subtle transformation – it  becomes structurally implicated in fantasy, rendered into  the idiom of the imaginary. My suggestion, to the contrary, is that fantasy  has the fullest reign in those private  stories we tell ourselves  about our childhoods and inner lives; these introspections  are dominated by what Freud called screen memories and the family romance,  and relatively unconstrained by reality principles;  as soon as we go public, a more conscious principle of editing or censorship comes into play, as we seek to manipulate our  experience   to actively conform to   social and cultural norms   and  manage the impression that our lives  make on others. Everything  that does not fit into these narrative protocols   forms an unvoiced substrate of meaning in the account, a kind of hidden curriculum vitae  in counterpoint to the official CV.  The task  for the ethnographer and the oral historian, and possibly the psychotherapist, as interlocutors  of memory work,   is to help  people get on better speaking terms  with  these  more occluded and unspoken parts of their life history, if only because it is here that the true impact  of the social contradictions  they live and enact, whether those of gender or class,  age or ethnicity   are most  acutely  registered.

                              Passages of Time

How the passage of time is lived and represented, how the dialectic of transience and permanence is  negotiated,  tells us a lot about the values which a particular social group  or culture  holds. In this context the time of bereavement  is   deviation from the norm. Every death is untimely in that it dislocates  our relation to time. It pitches us into   time lived without its   flow, to borrow the title of a book which Denise Riley  wrote recently about  the loss of her own son.  And this deviance extends to the status of the mourner.  As she points out there is no term, like widower or orphan, to describe or mark the position of the  bereaved parent. Given our current demographics losing  your mum or dad, or perhaps your partner or friend is regarded as part of the natural course of events for anyone over  50. But there is something unnatural, disreputable  even, about losing a child, whatever the circumstances.  And  there are no parents who do not blame themselves for what happened when their child dies.  Or rail against the indifference of the Gods and the world.  The situation was complicated in Stephen’s  case because there is an official adoption story in which bad beginnings are supposed to be transformed into good endings through the process of adoption  itself:  the adoptee is renamed , as it were reborn,  and  lives happy ever after. And if this does not happen then it is the adopted parents fault.

 

Nevertheless there are also some entirely secular of principles    of hope available to parents who have lost a child. Two weeks after her son’s death Denise noted  :

In these first days I see how rapidly the surface of the world, like a sheet of water that’s briefly agitated, will close again silently and smoothly over a death. His, everyone’s, mine. I see, as if I am myself dead. This perception makes me curiously light hearted. You share in the death of your child, in that you approach it so closely that you sense that a part of you, too, died instantly. At the same time, you feel that the spirit of the child has leaped into you. So you are both partly dead, and yet more alive. You are cut down, and yet you burn with life.

Close friends as well as family can feel this pull  between despair and redemption  and it is tempting to  want  to escape from it, to turn the clock back, to live in the past,to  stay in a time where your child or friend   is still alive for ever and there is no death. And consequently no  narrative.

Narrative is characterised  by  hetero-chronicity. Its potential space  of representation  contains many times – linear  and reversible, cyclical and  discontinuous. Times arrow flies in many directions.  The life story  may become reduced to the  iteration of birth, growing up, ageing, illness and death. This  chronic aspect of the human condition may provide  the narrative  armature, but in itself only yields a  skeletal picture of a life. We need to put flesh  on the bare bones of a life as captured by the bureaucratic record. We do not  for the most part measure out our lives in coffee spoons, or increments  of  status, or in the number of our grey hairs   but  engage in  a  far  richer multi-textured   process of fabrication. Even if biology becomes destiny it never tells the whole story.

We can see why this should be so if we consider the most elementary  structure through which   the passage of lived time is  marked   in our culture- those little ceremonies of commemoration  of a traumatic event   we can never  consciously recall, even though it is unconsciously  embedded in our psyche  – in other words our birthdays.   Parents  go to considerable trouble to mark   their offspring’s  advent because it was indeed a  memorable event for them , even though the  child  in question  cannot remember being born.  And so it is with birthdays.  The gifts , the treats , the party  are  there not only  to celebrate   the child’s arrival but to store up  material for the  family record. Yet  how few birthdays actually feature in happy memories of childhood. Mostly  these events  are quickly forgotten, they blur together , unless they are marked by something untoward .There  are elements  in this little ceremony   which register something else, its other scene, and signify the fact  that  every birthday marks a year further away from our beginning    and a year closer to our end. This is what the lighting and blowing out of candles surely signifies. But this intimation of mortality, of a one way  ticket from birth to death, is immediately  reversed  by the cutting of the cake and the making of a secret wish. Only  on our birthdays, in this fragile liminal space,  can be have our cake and eat it. But just in case we get too carried away by our  magical powers of wish fulfilment   we are unceremoniously brought down to earth  by the ritual of ‘bumps’, one for each year, in which    the   of  our friends  is  mitigated into something decidedly more friendly,  even as it restores  the remorseless linearity of  lived  time. Yet  even here a principle of  reversibility is introduced.  Birthdays are important when  we are growing up   because they are markers of maturity – there is a whole world of  difference between  being 6 and 7 . Yet once we are seven we look back on being six with contempt, it has  become a marker of immaturity, something we have left behind and grown beyond. So the temporal sign is reversed.

Let us note in passing  that  in old age a different principle of chronicity is invoked.  Each year, each birthday is celebrated as a marker of longevity, of  time wrested from the grim reaper. Under our present demographic regime,  where  the life of long duration is no longer so exceptional, and centenarians are two a penny , it may  become devalued.  The relationship between the quantity and quality of  life has become increasingly  problematic. More can be less.

f                            The passage of time thus does not  take place in  some empty homogeneous space.  It is not just about clock time. It is governed by  principles of periodisation  and chronic predicament that are embedded in  a culture, in different narrative paradigms of the life course  which are themselves subject to historical change.  This is the field of ethno-biography which is currently at the cutting edge of inter-disciplinary and comparative research into the life course.

Currently we can distinguish  between two main chronotopes of life story telling, two different ways of  articulating past, present and future into a narrative  of the self:

The first we might call modernist. The  past is what is left behind  by the present as it progresses  into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed or  is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle – the plan or higher purpose which governs the unfolding of the life history.

 

 

The second paradigm has been called post modernist. Here the present is a discontinuous series of  discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity , split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled   and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable. Life history is composed of   unconnected fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a narrative collage.

These may be ‘ideal types’, and most  life stories are hybrids,  but if you compare  the  memoirs written by  members of the Bloomsbury group   with Kathy Acker’s  ‘Redoing Childhood’ you’ll see what I am getting at.

Kathy Acker was very influenced by  the literary experimentalism of William Burroughs and  the cut up technique and  her work has in turn influenced a lot of  Internet cut n paste writing.  This  brings us   to   the  question of whether digital  media can and do bring about an enhancement or an impoverishment in the quality of  life  story telling. Are they symptomatic instruments   of the space time compression of everyday life and its messaging systems ? To paraphrase Warhol, do they allow everyone  the possibility to be famous but only  for five seconds or as long as  it takes to post their latest tweet, or are they creating platforms for the sharing of  experience, adding up to  a collective, if virtual memoryscape? Are they definitively post modern, or do  they perhaps illustrate Bruno Latour’s contention  that we have never been fully  modern and therefore cannot be post modern.

As a test case let’s consider You Tube,  and more specifically its use as a medium of communication by young people, especially those who may be otherwise socially isolated. In the privacy of their bedrooms hundreds  of thousands of adolescents across the globe  talk to camera  and open their hearts  to each other about the emotional problems they are having with parents, friends, and lovers. The video webcam has become the portal of a mass confessional which both encourages public disclosure and preserves anonymity. It can be  an open  invitation to exhibitionism/voyeurism as performer and viewer become locked in an addictive  folie a deux centred on a shared delusion of  mutual seduction. Yet what is interesting about the coming of age stories which young people tell is  how closely they conform to  traditional narrative conventions   and yet how  spontaneous and unrehearsed their delivery is.

Take, for example,   the coming out stories  told by  young  gay people who are often subject to homophobic bullying  at school  and peer  ostracism.  You Tube is an important source of co-counselling and mutual support  which has   enabled many  to come out to parents and ‘straight’ friends. The medium has provided   a platform for shared testifying and bearing witness in a way that furnishes  the props of a gay identity that might not otherwise be available.   It has reinforced the role of the coming out story  as a  rite de passage into the gay community. However  varied the content, the formal  structure of these stories is invariant and  elemental, but all the more powerful for that, and conforms quite rigorously to the  narrative schema proposed by Todorov. Its ideal typical structure looks like this :

  • An initial  state of  false equilibrium : passing as  ‘straight’ in order to be accepted by family and friends  and society in general

 

  • A  state of  dislocation -the young person feels alienated from family and friends, lives a lie by passing for straight, and is worried about being ‘outed’ This is the starting point  for the story to be told..

 

  • The assignation of a task or quest, (with or without interdicts and sanctions) to  restore the lost equilibrium.  In this case  the desire to be accepted by  family and friends   can only be realised through an act of  disclosure  which  will produce a temporary disequlibrium  but lead to  eventual reconciliation.

 

  • The struggle to achieve the task, through the overcoming of obstacles, the avoidance of traps. This usually includes  a graphic  description of  the circumstances of the disclosure, the tactics used, the reactions of different people, and the feelings of  protagonist.

 

  • Coda: The achievement or non achievement of the quest and evaluation of its consequences. for  both narrator and community. This is where the mythopoeic   dimension of the coming out story  emerges most fully in  the form of a happy ever after  ending. According to this protocol,before coming out   sexuality was a  guilty  secret and afterwards it becomes a cause  for celebration.  Because there is such a strong investment   in ‘outing’ as an act of personal  liberation amongst gay activists, almost all the coming out stories told on U Tube   are success stories. Stories with negative outcomes,   where the project  fails are rarely posted.

 

These coming of age stories are not miniaturised versions of  the classical bildungsroman, to which they bear a superficial similarity. They are little vignettes of adolescent angst. Yet it  seems to me that suitably expanded  they could  serve as a template for a whole life story, rather than just one of its episodes, provided   the happy ever after  coda is  removed.

Whatever criticisms can be made of  ‘identity politics’,  it seems to me that  the kinds of intimacy between strangers which electronic media afford  in principle escapes the instrumental rationality  and precautionary principles which dominate so much of our contemporary narrative culture in favour of a imagined community where a moral economy of mutual aid  prevail.   Of course, social network media  may just provide another  way of being alone together;  and there is always the  possibility of their  commodification , not to mention sexploitation.  A more telling criticism of this medium is that it reinforces the just in time production of  flexible or neo-liberal subjectivity,it sponsors  a purely opportunistic selfhood.   Yet these on- line performances  remain socially embedded.  You Tube stories are all about family and friends, even if their idiom is highly individualised. At the same time they inevitably lack   the perspectival depth that characterises  narratives belonging to oral traditions, which are geared up  to telling stories of long duration, and which form a corpus, a narrative  legacy that is passed from generation to generation, being continually modified and added to.  But what they lack in sophistication these stories  often make up for in emotional intensity.  It is hard to watch Tom Daley’s  coming out story  and remain cynical- even someone who is as caught up in the culture of celebrity as he is, needs to find    a medium  in which he feels sufficiently secure and at home  to address   difficult issues.   Of course the moment is all too easily recuperated; from a media point of view  it is just another kiss and tell celeb story, and gives him a unique selling point  which adds to the ‘authenticity’ of the Daley brand. We just have to hope that he takes a leaf out of Dirk Bogarde’s book  and postpones writing his memoir until   after  he has retired from the Fame Academy and can  stake out a different kind of reputational identity.

                           

                              Reading Room Only

In conclusion I want to briefly revisit my memoir, to consider how far it addresses some of the issues I have been discussing.  Reading Room Only, as the title suggests  is about the genealogy of an obsession with books, an obsession that has   been fed by the ups and downs of my personal circumstances  and sometimes altered them, for the better or  worse. In tracing the role which books have played in my life, from first  learning to read to building a library, I have tried to embed that story in another one, about the cultural and political milieu I inhabited, firstly as a child growing up in Bloomsbury during and after the war, later  as a  rebellious adolescent in  public school and university, then as an organiser of that collective  improvisation known  as the ‘underground’  and finally as an ethnographer of contemporary social and cultural history.

Writing a memoir  and building a library are both acts of self definition, but they are not equivalent, nor, in any exact sense, complementary. A memoir, as the term suggests, is an exercise in looking back, whereas a personal library, however much it may landscape  our memories, cannot be reduced to them. Even and especially if it provides a refuge from the storms of history, a library also offers a prospect on the future; it is where we identify gaps in our knowledge and plan ahead to fill them; it reminds us that we live our lives forward, even if we relate them backwards.

Yet the two activities also have something in common. Writing (and reading) a book, like  building a library, is a process of slow accretion and perpetual revision. If only death stops the bibliophile reading and collecting books, the finishing of a book is like a little death. You have to let go and say goodbye not just to this text but to all the particulars of your life that have become intimately bound up with it.

A library represents the labour and love you have invested in it; it is a way of defining who and what you are, or would like to become. More than that, it is a statement about what is regarded as being of enduring value, an expression of a personal philosophy.There are many contending schools of thought. Rationalists impose a rigorous conceptual order on their collections, whilst others regard building a library as an existential project whose authenticity is guaranteed by making gratuitous choices. For some a library is the realisation of a Big Idea, for empiricists it is a matter of trial and error. Pragmatists concentrate on the niceties of how practices of reading and collecting can be made to fit together while materialists are concerned with the subtle dialectics of scope and scale, or with the cruder thoughts of how to accumulate yet more intellectual or cultural capital.

But whatever our philosophy of book collecting, as we grow older we tend to become more parsimonious about what to add and want to travel lighter. When I retired from the university, all the academic books that were in my office were sold or given away. There just was no room for them at home, and I knew I would no longer need them for the work I still wanted to do. Still I was sad to part with them, some of them having accompanied me throughout my professional life. The experience made me all too aware of how fragile and evanescent the project of library building is. There is no such thing as a permanent collection. And because your books will survive you, and either be sold or given away as part of your legacy to family or friends, it is hard not to suspect that they are perhaps waiting eagerly for that moment to arrive, when they will come to life again, join other libraries, be held in other hands, now that you are gone.

It would surely be selfish to want to be buried with your books, and deprive others of the pleasure or instruction they have given. We know from our own experience that books which come down to us as family heirlooms, or as presents from those we love, occupy a special place in our affections; we treasure them even if we do not always like what they say, something we may also feel about their givers.  And so it will hopefully be with those who inherit our collections. There are worse things to be remembered for than the books we leave. As for the strangers into whose hands our books may fall, the best we can hope is that they will care for them and delight in them as we have done.

As for memoirs, what is their legacy ?   Can they ever be  a trustworthy medium  for confronting the gap between authorial intention  and what others make of it ?   It seems to me that if the memoir can deal  with counter-finality, it is only by   refusing its author the last word,  by  allowing the text to take on a life of its own.  If  and when that happens  the pact  between narrator and writer  that makes the autobiographical project  possible is recast in relation to a third party, an interlocutor. It may  then become  an act of address to a reader who is neither an alias nor an  accomplice;  it may be an act of redress directed towards those others  who might so easily  have been  objects of the writer’s revenge but who have instead  helped make amendment. It is these interlocutors, who  constitute the true subject of the memoir.

So, for example  the conversation  which Reading Room Only  initiates  between, let us say, the seventy-year old ‘professor’ who  wrote it, not quite knowing where it might lead,  and the seven-year old boy he once was, who earned that nickname because he was such a little know-all, can certainly be one of collaboration. Indeed the memoir is a device  for putting them on better speaking terms. But that relationship should not be a form of  collusion, a ganging up against the passage of time that separates them. In fact this odd couple should agree to differ on almost everything except a valedictory message to share with the text that has brought them, however uncomfortably and briefly, together.

The memoir certainly provides a ready platform for devices  through which the author stakes a claim to posterity through the corpus of  his or her work, the flesh of the text  surviving  the physical death of its procreator. It is  a way of having the last word through a proxy.         Once this conventional ambition  is relinquished, however, another  version of the writers   requiem and resurrection becomes possible. What this might consist in  I discovered by accident   recently during a periodic sort through my library.  On  the flyleaf  of a second hand book about   the history of archaeology  I found an inscription in the form of a poetic epigram. Its author prefers to remain Anon   It reads:

If the circumstance of my conception had been otherwise,

There would have been  no need of proofs

For the narrative to become  fair copy,

No call for punctuation to reach a conclusion,

No justification for end rhymes

To underline the scansion of the text,

Just the slow imprint of words on deeds

Speaking volumes of a legacy

Waiting to be unearthed :

Another book as yet unread

Pages  open in welcome to a sheltering sky.