A bed full of books at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.
So, while the Beloved is away, I find myself once again sharing the bed with a large and varied assortment of reading matter – “the scholar’s mistress”, I believe it’s called, for the books assume the contours and the active gravitational mass of a human body. (Yes, pedantic scientists may point out that the gravitational pull of a body roughly 60 kilogrammes in weight is negligible, but then there are bodies and there are bodies.)
It is, indeed, an eclectic bunch: a selection from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, edited by Kevin Jackson; the last three issues of the TLS and the last two of the LRB; the last-but-one issue of Viz (it had a fake reader’s letter about, of all things, piccalilli, which was so funny that when I tried to read it out to a friend I found myself gasping on the floor for breath, eyes streaming with tears); a beautiful, leather-bound edition in two volumes of Browning, embossed with the arms of Trinity, Oxon, which had been won by an M Davidson in 1904, but which I picked up in a second-hand bookseller’s on Bell Street in central London for £34 (I have not got much further with “The Ring and the Book” than I did in my student days but it smells lovely); a complete set of Peanuts strips from the years 1967-68, its golden period; Marcus Berkmann’s A Shed of One’s Own; and . . . and . . . Jesus Christ, what’s this?
It’s as if I had woken up not with a beautiful woman by my side but with a deformed and cackling succubus. The book is by Laura Vanderkam and is called What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. It all comes back to me. Oh, the shame. Not mine, though: the shame is Penguin’s. It has started bombarding me – whether out of a spirit of malice, or satire or ignorance, I do not know – with the kind of book that goes in the motivational parts of the business section of bookshops. I am, as they say, a long way from my comfort zone here. Opening it roughly in the middle, for I imagine successful people do not bother with the first half of things, I see the words announcing a section, “What the most successful people do at work”, and the chapter heading on the next page is “The secret of astonishing productivity”. These are in capitals in the original but I will spare you. As far as I can see, the main thrust of the book’s advice can be summed up as: “Get up at 5am.” No good for me, I’m afraid.
I flick through further and discover what “may be the most important tip in this book”: to plan “something fun” for Sunday nights. Again, no good for me, since I lost all track of what day of the week it was some time during the first Blair administration. (It is, I have discovered, surprisingly difficult to find out online what day of the week it is and I have at times resorted to calling a friend and then nonchalantly, as if in passing, saying, “Ha, ha, what day is it again?”) Sometimes I’d do the Uxbridge Arms quiz, which was on a Sunday, but lately I have started losing horribly at that and do not consider arriving home broke, furious, miserable and bursting for a pee to be my idea of fun.
Then there’s Life’s a Pitch: What the World’s Best Sales People Can Teach Us All by Philip Delves Broughton. He also wrote What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, which I concede, if it really is what they teach you at that institution, could represent a significant saving; but if it isn’t, then it might be doable under the Sale of Goods Act.
And what’s this? The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Start-Ups by Randall Stross. (This didn’t make it to the scholar’s mistress but I did find it on the chairdrobe, which gives you a little peek, if you ever wanted one, into the state of my bedroom.)
The sub-imprint for this series, I note, is called Portfolio. Its logo is of a man poised to chuck a javelin – at an angle to the perpendicular of about ten degrees, which, as any mathematician will be able to tell you, is about 35 degrees away from the most efficient angle to chuck something if you want it to go anywhere far.
A couple of days later, I’m in the pub with the Beloved, enjoying a pint. It is about 6pm and the tables are crowded with office workers. My eyes brim in pity. How many of them own these books, or would be interested in buying my copies if I offered to sell them? But I won’t, because these books represent everything that has gone wrong with society since the end of the Second World War and I wouldn’t want to encourage them.