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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The book is illustrated with numerous photographs, which you can view below.