Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile

Reading Room CoverFive Leaves Press Nottingham April 2013

Political activists  are popularly  supposed to be  wild eyed visionaries or ranting dogmatists  who spend their time manning  real  or imaginary  barricades. Bibliophiles, in contrast, are expected     to be quiet retiring  academic types who send their whole lives in libraries and can only relate to the world at second hand  through books.

In this memoir, Phil Cohen, alias Dr John of the London Street Commune, and erstwhile Professor of Cultural Studies  at the University of East London,  explodes these stereotypes as he re-traces his   chequered career from blitz kid  to public school dropout,   from hippy squatter  to cultural theorist, and from  urban ethnographer   to poet, through his obsession with books. 

The first  part of the memoir provides a vivid  account of  what it was like to grow up in Bloomsbury in the late 1940s and ’50s and how  its famous squares, buildings  and local characters  influenced  his imaginative life.  He describes  how he created  an alternative identity centred on his own  personal ‘reading room’ in counterpoint to the official  success story he was supposed to be,  as he rebels against the  ethos  of his  public school, with  its traditional emphasis on Classics and negotiates the  fraught identity politics of being a Jewish  ‘mitschling’.

The memoir goes on to detail the author’s  adventures as he goes up to Cambridge  to read History, runs away to sea  and then  becomes involved in the ‘underground’ counter culture  emerging in the London during the so called ‘swinging sixties’. Books were  at the forefront of his activities, whether ‘liberating’ them from bookshops, gluing them together in a situationist provocation against bourgeois culture,  or setting fire to them in an ‘event structure’  by artist John Latham. The author relates how the British Museum Reading Room provided a much needed port in the political storm stirred up by his activities as a leader of the ‘hippy squatters’ at 144 Piccadilly in 1969,  helping him resume his  studies whilst continuing to  engage in radical  community politics over  the next decade.  Part One concludes with some observations about the culture of the reading room itself, discusses   ten books that shook the author’ world and  the impact of  new technologies of research linked to  the opening of the British Library at St Pancras.

The second half of the memoir  explores the  author’s life long love affair with books, and situates this consuming passion  in  relation to the issues   raised by  Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘On Unpacking a library’.  The author considers what   books might have to say about how  they are  treated if they were allowed a voice; he goes on to  discuss  the place of collecting in a ‘throwaway society’ and  details   the strategies, both rational and irrational, that informed his  project of building a personal library. A concluding section  celebrates   the pleasures of browsing, and  speculates about   what keeps bibliophiles acquiring books right up to the end.

Published by Five Leaves Press  April 2013 ISBN 978-1-907869-78-5

The book is  illustrated with numerous photographs, which you can view below.