Why the writing's on the wall
This weekend I discovered that I own one Wilbur Smith - and 12 Lawrence Greens (I even own an autobiography by Green's father, a one-time editor of the Argus).
I possess five TV Bulpins, but not a single Dan Brown.
My library is a modest little collection by the standards of most serious bibliophiles but it brings me great joy; every bit of it I have read and enjoyed for some or other reason. Its composition probably says a great deal about who I am.
There is very little fiction in my library. There are classics by the likes of Dickens, Kipling, Conrad and Hemingway, and I treasure a signed Cry the Beloved Country, but 90% of my books are non-fiction.
I see no particular reason for hoarding fiction once it has been consumed and will happily pass on such books to friends and family.
But good non-fiction is a different story; you just never know when you will need to look up what Cecil John Rhodes ate for breakfast, or who opened the batting for Griqualand West in 1929/30. For five months my books have been languishing in cardboard boxes while Wife and I knocked down the better part of our house and turned it into the stately pleasure dome of our imagining.
I have felt the separation keenly. This weekend, though, it was finally time to take the books out of their boxes and assign them to the shelves.
I decided to take the opportunity to do a bit of a Dewey decimal system on my collection and, for the first time in my life, to bring some order to my higgledy-piggledy library. This was relatively simple - there were only seven subjects worth bothering with: biography, world history, South African history, travel, reference, cricket and small business and entrepreneurship. The classification was easy, but the actual putting of books on the shelves was another matter.
What should have taken half a day consumed the better part of the weekend as I lingered over tomes, opened them up and got hopelessly distracted by their content.
I collapsed with laughter reading for the hundredth time the bit in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, where the teacher character takes his first class, half of whom decide they are called "Tangent".
For a good half-hour, I was absorbed by how Christiaan de Wet gave General Ian Hamilton the slip 112 years ago. I am, I discovered, the proud owner of no fewer than 87 cricket books. At least half of them are terrible, but some are gems.
Pride of place in my collection is The Jubilee Book of Cricket, published in the year of the last jubilee (1897) and authored by Prince Ranjitsinhji, the Maharajah Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, as all lovers of cricket history will know, an absolute immortal.
I was surprised at how many of the books in my collection were written by Sunday Times journalists. There are books by Molly Reinhardt, Carel Birkby, Hans Strydom, Luke Alfred and Hedley Chilvers. (The latter was a dapper little theatre critic who distinguished himself in World War 1 by creeping out of the trenches under cover of darkness to go over and kidnap German soldiers one at a time so they could be brought back for interrogation.)
When I was arranging the biographies, Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom ended up next to a biography on Josef Stalin. This would not do, I decided, so I solved the problem by putting Joe Slovo's unfinished autobiography between them. (Cyril Ramaphosa's biography is on the other side of Stalin, but this was pure mischief on my part.) Now my library is in order and I am content, even if the rest of the house is an utter shambles.
Almost a third of the books I possess are published locally.
Every year new local books come out on all manner of subjects, yet the country's regular book-buying public could all be shoehorned into FNB stadium. That says a lot about our past and at least something about our failure of basic education; never mind the non-delivery of textbooks to Limpopo, we still are not a nation with our noses in books.
For edification and diversion we watch professional wrestling, soccer and rugby and reality shows in which people cook. And still our government - the one that is going to create five million jobs - sees fit to levy VAT on books.