July 25, 2011
Alan Bennett on libraries in the LRB:
Books and bookcases cropping up in stuff that I’ve written means that they have to be reproduced on stage or on film. This isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. A designer will either present you with shelves lined with gilt-tooled library sets, the sort of clubland books one can rent by the yard as decor, or he or she will send out for some junk books from the nearest second-hand bookshop and think that those will do. Another short cut is to order in a cargo of remaindered books so that you end up with a shelf so garish and lacking in character it bears about as much of a relationship to literature as a caravan site does to architecture. A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.(Some might find Bennett's assessment of the literacy of art designers unduly harsh, although it's not his main point. I, on the other hand, was reminded of Harlan Ellison's story explaining why the entrance to the city on the edge of forever was strewn with broken masonry and truncated Greek columns: apparently the designer had decided that "runes" was an idiosyncratic spelling of "ruins".)
That someone’s working library has a particular tone, with some shelves more heterogeneous than others, for example, or (in the case of an art historian) filled with offprints and monographs or (with an old-fashioned literary figure for instance) lined with the faded covers and jackets of distinctive Faber or Cape editions, does not seem to occur to a designer. On several occasions I’ve had to bring my own books down to the theatre to give the right worn tone to the shelves.
In The Old Country (1977) the books (Auden, Spender, MacNeice) are of central importance to the plot. I wanted their faded buffs and blues and yellows bleached into a unity of tone that suggested long sunlit Cambridge afternoons, the kind of books you might find lining Dadie Rylands’s rooms, for instance. Anthony Blunt’s bookshelves were crucial in Single Spies, the look of an art historian’s bookshelves significantly different from those of a literary critic say. All this tends to pass the designer by. One knows that designers seldom read, but they don’t have much knowledge of Inca civilisation either or the Puritan settlement of New England and yet they seem to cope perfectly well reproducing them. An agglomeration of books as illustrating the character of their owner seems to defeat them.