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Shelfie: Travis Elborough

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Shelfie | 4 minute read
The cultural historian, Travis Elborough, talks about buying books for friends, breaking spines and the pleasure of reading in the bath

Julian Mash: Can you remember the first book you bought?

Travis Elborough: The first book I actually bought with my own pocket money was something called The Little Car. I have no idea who the author was but the book came from my primary school’s book club, there was a catalogue and you had to order it and wait for it to arrive, all very exciting when you are five. The story, as far as I remember, concerned an old car being serviced and given antifreeze to see it through the winter. This was the 1970s and global warming was in its infancy and there were strikes and fuel shortages so I guess that was what passed for educational story telling back then. Either that it or it was sly post-Opec Thatcherite propaganda, with even infant literature encouraging small children in Sussex villages to believe that anyone without a car was a failure.

JM: How big is your library now?

TE: It’s pretty substantial. The shelves are full and most doubled-up, with the floors currently taking up the slack elsewhere.

JM: How do you arrange your books?

TE: I have some themes. We have a Penguin bookcase – not one of those nicely designed things on wheel but just a case full of Penguin with a shelf of Schultz’s Charlie Brown books. From where I am typing now I have a bookcase that has three shelves dedicated to books (novels and non-fiction) on New York or by New York writers (Dawn Powell, Joseph Mitchell etc.) To my left there’s a whole bookcase – one of two, actually – of London books, again novels and non-fiction. Elsewhere there are shelves of Eastern European writing, Prague and so on. Graham Greene and George Orwell co-habit. As do Geoff Dyer and Murakami. Though the reasoning for the latter pairing escapes me now. And glancing at it now it appears Out of Sheer Rage seems to have gone walkabout.

JM: Favourite reading spot in your house?

TE: There is a ‘reading chair’ in my office. But typically it’s not that comfortable. If I am honest, probably my favourite spot when reading for pleasure is the bath. In the summer months anyway. In winter the fan heater fails to make much of a dent in subzero temperatures. By then the reading room of the London Library seems an infinitely more appealing option than staying in the flat and either freezing or ramping up an exorbitant fuel bill.

JM: Do you have a regular purge?

TE: No. I am hoarder, alas.

JM: Favourite bookshop new or secondhand?

TE: Tough one… for new shops….  Heywood Hill, the LRB, Stanfords, Daunt’s Marylebone, Persephone Books are all lovely shops but the Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace seems to me a great example of a good neighbourhood independent shop serving its local community, a shop that also has something of the personality of its owner Jonathan. I don’t live in Crystal Palace myself but it’s always a pleasure to go there for a visit and have a browse.

Second-hand? I am very fond of Skoob in the Brunswick Centre. I remember when it was on Sicilian Avenue and when it first moved into the Brunswick Centre in a different location. That was before the whole centre got its make-over and all the chain stores and chain restaurants muscled in to make it one of the dullest shopping areas outside of a Westfield. Shopping at Skoob there seems almost like a seditious act. Or so I like to think. A delusion obviously.

JM: What’s on your ‘to read’ pile?

TE: I think I have about three ‘to read’ piles of varying heights. One certainly has John Berger’s Landscapes, Dennis Marks’ Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth and Mollie Painter-Downes’s post-war novel, One Fine Day, on it.

JM: What is your favourite edition that you own and why?

TE: I am not that fussed about first editions or anything like that. I am attached to an old Penguin copy of England, Half English, a collection of essays by Colin MacInnes, that I bought as a teenager that has a portrait of the author by Peter Blake on the cover. For similarly sentimental reasons I am equally fond of an orange Penguin edition of Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse purchased around the same time.

JM: To break the spine or keep it as immaculate as possible?

TE: I am spine breaker, a turner of the corners of pages over and commit all manner of other abuses to my books. But I do try and keep library books in good nick.

JM: Do you lend books?

TE: Rarely. I press books on friends usually by buying them copies.

JM: Do you like to get books signed by the author?

TE: I do, and have some lovely dedications from authors I’ve known or worked with over the years. But I am not an avid autograph hunter, and looking back on it there are some authors I really should have got to sign my copy but singularly failed to do so for one reason or another. Shyness, fear of imposing on them when they are about to give a talk or whatever.

Travis Elborough’s latest books are Being a Writer and Our History of the 20th Century