Written in the stars
Shelf Life - More than 20 years after picking it up in a second-hand bookshop, Geoff Dyer finally go
It is one thing to go into a shop, buy a book and begin reading it within a few hours or days of the purchase, quite another to buy a book and find yourself reading it many years later. You are still the same person, and the contents of the book have remained unchanged in the interim. As a physical object, however, the book has subtly changed: it has faded, looks older (especially if it has since gone out of print or been superseded by a new, contemporary-looking edition). And you, the reader, have of course undergone huge changes, many of them caused by books read since buying this one. It is not surprising, in these circumstances, that there can be something especially pleasurable - or, by the same token, deeply disappointing - in reading a book long after first acquiring it.
A month ago, I read Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus in an old King Penguin edition. It was a second-hand copy; the price - £1.20 as opposed to the original £2.95 - is still there, in soft pencil, on the first page. Frustratingly, I had not written the date on which I bought it on the title page, but given that this paperback was published in 1981 and given that, by 1982, I had got into the habit of always writing the date and place of acquisition on the first page, I obviously bought it soon after publication. Hazzard's name meant nothing to me back then; I probably picked it up because it was a King Penguin (a fairly reliable indication of quality) and because it was cheap. Evidently, I read a bit of it and then gave up. (My last annotation - a pencil mark against the line "For the release of a few words, he was squandering the asset of silence" - is on page 72.) For the next 20 years or so, this book got moved around with all the others - read, unread and re-read - in my collection.
Then, in April, my editor told me how much he admired Hazzard's new book, The Great Fire. He also said he loved The Transit of Venus - so much so, that he offered to put a copy of the current Virago edition in the post. Now, I like getting sent free books, but on this occasion I practically begged him not to send it. No, no, I already have a copy, I assured him. Being sent another would have rendered the long-hoarded one superfluous. I took the book down from my shelves and glanced through its yellowed pages that night, but did not start reading it properly until a few weeks later, in Texas, where I quickly became immersed in it.
In every sense it was a book that had to be read carefully, partly because of the heightened precision of Hazzard's prose, partly because the glue binding the pages to the spine had become so brittle that the book cracked if opened too wide. It was also an obviously brilliant novel and one I am not sure I would have appreciated when I was younger.
Or maybe that's not true. I read much more in my twenties than I do now, and had far more patience. Back then I would plough through books even if I wasn't enjoying them (which makes me wonder why I gave up on this one). These days, a dull phrase on the second page can stop me in my tracks for good. The kind of absorption in a novel that was once routine has now become rare - which made the experience of The Transit of Venus even more charged.
Certain bottles of wine improve with age, but this improvement would be pointless if, in the interim, one's own discernment had not developed approximately in tandem. The opposite can also occur, in that one's taste can mature in advance of the quality of the stored object. By being deferred, one's pleasure is diminished. Earlier this year, I read The Grapes of Wrath in an old, grey-green-spined Penguin Modern Classics edition with a Ben Shahn painting on the cover (original price: 40p). As was the case with Hazzard, there had been a gap of more than 20 years between purchase and reading. In the case of Steinbeck, however, the delay proved fatal. Whatever its historical and documentary importance, the literary weakness of The Grapes of Wrath was as resounding as the novel's moral-political message.
With Hazzard, by contrast, it seemed that I was reading The Transit of Venus at the perfect moment. It even seemed as if I were destined to read the book at this moment. Ostensibly sentimental, such a reaction turns out to be quite apt - and not simply because the gap between my buying The Transit of Venus and reading it roughly coincided with the gap between its original issue (1980) and the publication of Hazzard's next novel, The Great Fire (2002). Destiny - the way that people kept apart by circumstances are drawn together or, conversely, the way that people thrown together by circumstance are yet condemned to mutual isolation - is one of the themes to which Hazzard obsessively returns. This is spelled out in the opening pages by the young astronomer Ted Tice, who explains to Caro Bell how a Frenchman had travelled to India years earlier to observe a previous transit, and was delayed on the way by wars and misadventure. Having lost his original opportunity, he waited eight years in the east for the next transit, of 1769. When the day came, visibility was freakishly poor; there was nothing to be seen. There would not be another such transit for a century. Moved by "the faith, not the failure" of the Frenchman's story, Tice spends the rest of his life waiting for Caro to reciprocate his love for her. In this light, the story of The Great Fire could be said to keep a rendezvous or promise that, in The Transit of Venus, is imaginatively thwarted or broken. It also dramatises my own long-postponed relation to the earlier work. In our ways - one passively, the other actively (if distractedly) - book and reader waited for each other.
The rightness of the eventual reunion derived, in no small measure, from my having read the same copy of The Transit of Venus that I had bought all those years earlier. I loved the way that it did not get lost, sold, given away or otherwise discarded in the long interim. In The Great Fire (which, incidentally, I started reading within hours of receiving a copy in the post) the main male character, Aldred Leith, remarks on "the sad silly evidence of things". "We are told that possessions are ephe-meral, yet my God how they outlast us," he exclaims. My edition of The Transit of Venus has not outlasted me (or not yet, it hasn't) but it has acquired something of the quality - as Leith terms it - of a relic. More importantly, the survival of this particular copy substantiates the larger hope that certain books will outlast us, that something inherent in their quality will enable them to endure more effectively than all the machinations of marketing - and in spite of the hazards of fashion and prize-giving.
Postscript: The Orange Prize, for which The Great Fire had been shortlisted, was awarded on the evening of Tuesday 8 June. Amazingly, this was the day of the transit of Venus (the first since 1882). Hazzard seemed destined to win - but didn't. I met her briefly at the ceremony and she graciously signed my hardback copy of The Great Fire. A friend went one better, bringing along his mint-condition, first (Macmillan) edition of The Transit and getting it signed, and dated, on the day of the transit.
The Great Fire is published by Virago. Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It is published in paperback by Abacus