Constable, 2009. 286 pp. $32.95
RICK GEKOSKI is one of the world’s leading antiquarian bookdealers specialising in first editions and literary manuscripts. He is also a wonderful racon-teur, as those who heard his BBC radio series from which Tolkien’s Gown (2004) emerged. Here he outlined his rare book dealings with authors as diverse as Graham Greene, William Golding and. JRR Tolkien. The title came from Gekoski obtaining Tolkien’s discarded gown when Gekoski was a postgraduate stu-dent at Merton College, Oxford. The gown subsequently featured in his second book catalogue in 1983 under the description “original black cloth, slightly frayed and with a little soiling, spine sound”. It sold for £550 to an “eccentric” American professor who intended to wear it at Commencement ceremonies.
Gekoski will be a guest of the Sydney Writers‘ Festival in May 2010 and it is hoped he can be enticed to Canberra again. On a previous trip to Australia, he enthralled a Friends of the National Library audience with a fascinating talk on his attempts, encouraged by Graham Greene, to buy the infamous spy Kim Philby‘s books and papers in Moscow from Philby‘s widow. This episode is covered in a chapter in Outside of a Dog, almost reading like a Carry On Spying film, with MI6 and the KGB involved and a man from Sotheby‘s, a “portly, slightly florid gentleman, dressed in cravat, spats, a bright waistcoat and a houndstooth tweed jacket”.
Gekoski’s “bibliomemoir” reflects the Groucho Marx quote that, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it‘s too dark to read.” Gekoski says it‘s more than “a memoir about books. I use it to mean something more complicated than that, something about the intersection between reading and being, in which what we read influences who we are, and who we are influences what and how we read. But I don‘t wish to give a definition. If you want to know what I mean by a bibliomemoir, read Outside of a Dog.“
The end result is a frank, witty and always entertaining description of an extrovert life reflected through the reading of 25 special books. Gekoski begins in America as a child with Dr Seuss‘ Horton Hatches the Egg and moving on to Magnus Hirschfeld‘s Sexual Anomalies and Perversions, Gekoski citing here Carlyle‘s dictum, that “the best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self-activity”. Teenage angst is reflected in readings of JD Salinger and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation.
Outside of a Dog
is almost a bibliophile‘s version of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. Gekoski‘s catalogue No. 30 interestingly has a 1953 Jack Kerouac six-page autograph letter to his mother, “signed ‘Ti Jean’, the diminutive name of his childhood . . . I’m in San Luis Obispo . . . I won’t make much more than $80 this end-of-the-month but things will start rolling in May, and by Christmas I’ll have $2,000 saved, or bust . . . Kerouac invites his mother to come and live with him, honouring his deathbed promise to his father to watch over her. ‗The best idea I think will be for us to start in a trailer, for about a year.‘ ” A snip at £8500?
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Gekoski begins his lifelong appreciation of TS Eliot. Gekoski’s latest catalogue no. 33 (www.gekoski.co.uk/index.) has many Eliot items for sale. Robert McCrum writing in The Observer earlier this year affirms “Gekoski‘s Catalogue no. 33 is different. Far from dusty, it offers a vision of a paradise lost: inscribed first editions of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Waugh, Woolf and Wyndham Lewis together with ‘autograph letters’ from Dylan Thomas and DH Lawrence . . .” So is Gekoski‘s catalogue, you begin to wonder, a monument to an irretrievably lost world? The answer, I think, is yes – and no. More probably, this discreet inventory dramatically illustrates the parallel worlds of modern literature and creativity. Unlike Virginia
Woolf or Dylan Thomas, inveterate scribblers, we no longer write hundreds of letters, but we still generate countless emails. Will a future Gekoski carefully catalogue bookish texts and tweets? Another book awaits there perhaps.
Gekoski‘s reading of philosophy is influenced by the books of René Descartes, David Hume and AJ Ayer, while his appreciation of literature ranges over WB Yeats, Roald Dahl and Carl Hiaasen. As a critic, he tries to follow in the footsteps of Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis but can books help the “sour” elements of his personal relationships in America and Oxford, especially his troubled marriage with his first wife Barbara? He seeks out RD Laing’s The Divided Self in Oxford and the man himself only to question Laing’s theories.
He recounts that when he and Barbara divorced “we came to the neat agreement that she would keep the house and its contents, and I would have our smaller London flat and its contents. The only exception to the admirably simple plan was that I would be allowed to retrieve my books whenever I was able to house them”. Unfortunately, Gekoski subsequently refused to return a painting from the London flat that Barbara wanted. She then kept his books. “I cursed Barbara and I cursed God. These weren‘t books, they were . . . as a soul, they contained my history, my inner voices, and connections to the transcendant and she has excised it.” Gekoski was particularly upset as he had bought from Graham Greene, Greene’s own signed set of Collected Works. Gekoski concluded “who am I, with no books”, which could be another subtitle of Outside of a Dog.
A particularly fascinating section for Australia readers is when Gekoski becomes a colleague of the young Germaine Greer in the fledgling English Department at Warwick University in the early 1970s. Gekoski has revealing vignettes of Greer who played “the uncouth Aussie that she so palpably wasn’t”. Greer seemed to Gekoski “strikingly attractive in an androgynous way . . . a mass of dark hair cunningly disarranged, hips thrust forward like a figure mysteriously released from a Teutonic myth, or the young Robert Mitchum in drag”.
When the Gekoski marriage dissolves, he abandons academia and eventually produces his first catalogue of antiquarian books, as described in Tolkien’s Gown. He recalls, “When I announced my (early) retirement, one of my colleagues slunk into my office, and confessed that he thought it ‘very brave’ of me to be leaving the department. I told him that, when I contemplated another 25 years as a university teacher, I thought it brave of him to stay. He wasn‘t amused.” Gekoski soon doubled his university salary “and had a hundred times more fun”.
Gekoski has said “After all, reading is what matters, and has always mattered to me. I can‘t not do it, any more than I can stop eating or breathing. Left on my own for the briefest of moments ‘ on a bus, in the toilet, waiting for the dentist ‘ I am acutely uncomfortable without something, anything, to read. In extremis I take my wallet out and read my credit cards. (One of them has five sevens in the number!) I can‘t stop reading without feeling anxious, and extinguished: I read, therefore I am”. Outside of a Dog is wonderful company for whenever and wherever you read.
Editor’s Note: Attention is drawn to “Rare book dealers to become rarer still” on Gekoski in Notes & Queries on page 66.