Rediscovering old friends on my book shelves during lockdown: Ian McMillan

One of the very few advantages of the lockdown is that I’m spending a lot of time in the room in our house that’s really a very small spare bedroom, but which has over the years come to be known as The Book Room because, well, it’s full of books. Until recently it was almost literally full of books, with a kind of tottering Bookhenge in the middle of the floor, books piled on books piled on books. Every now and then when a big truck rumbled down the street, one of the piles of books would totter and fall. That wasn’t always the disaster it might have been because somewhere in the middle of the collapsed and scattered volumes I’d find a book that I was looking for.

Ian McMillan

Eventually, and with my wife’s help, I decided that there were far too many books in the room and, at a cause of some great personal anguish to myself but to the relief of the floorboards, we let quite a lot of the books go to good homes and that freed up space and it turned out there was a rug on the floor. Well, who knew? Now all the books (well, nearly all: a tiny mini-pile is starting to accumulate on the floor) are on shelves which means I can look fondly at all the spines of all the books. They’re not in any kind of order of course but I like it like that because serendipity happens and I come across book I thought I’d lost and, more importantly, books that have been very important to me as a reader and a writer but which I’ve not reread for a while.

So for the next few weeks in this column I’ll be talking about the old friends I’ve rediscovered on my shelves. I’m going to start with a prose writer who bowled me over the first time I borrowed a book of his from Darfield Library: Ernest Hemingway. The book was called The First Forty Nine Stories. The stories are spare; the language is bald and to the point. At the time I first read Hemingway I was obsessed with the poems of Dylan Thomas whose language is never bald and absolutely not to the point. To start with I was nonplussed but once you plug into Hemingway’s power his writing becomes really addictive. Here’s the opening to his classic story Up In Michigan: ‘‘Jim Gilmour came to Horton’s Bay from Canada. He bought the blacksmith’s shop from Old Man Horton.’’

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Later in the paragraph Hemingway writes: ‘‘He lived above the blacksmith’s shop and took his meals at DJ Smiths’’ and there, in a few short sentences, we have Jim.

The writing is rhythmic and somehow muscular. There is no padding. There are few adjectives and adverbs. See: I’m writing like Hemingway now.

Hunt out his work if you’ve not read it before: he won’t let you down. Now, what’s next on the shelf…?

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