My Kingdom of Books by Richard Booth (Talybont, Y Lolfa Cyf, 1999)
Introduced by Anthony Daly
To some extent, what we see (sense) depends on where we are at the time, the state (place or condition) that we’re in, even (visually) the direction we’re facing. In my case, here in Hay, our tiny ‘town of books’ would seem a microcosm of the World (the universe) at large; a Borgesian aleph or Leibnizian monad, within which every volume has ‘citizen’ status and all the residents or visitors are more or less (literally) ‘bookish.’
Those wishing (or willing) to pursue this (‘pataphysical) ‘conceit’, further, might consult my (good) friend Eugene Fisk’s development of it in his recent work (featured earlier: 14th September).
For the moment, I wonder to what extent (if any) a kingdom belongs to its king, or he is dependent on it. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg; the concept or the words to express it? Are they perhaps simultaneous, twin aspects of one and the same (id)entity?
In short, where would any of us be if it wasn’t for King Richard Coeur de Livre, the author of the present auto-biography (with the aid of his stepdaughter, Lucia Stuart)? And by “any of us” I mean anybody reading this (overlong rather lame) ramble. Emma’s (splendid) blog might (still) exist but it would (almost certainly) NOT be named ‘A Book A Day In Hay’. Hay itself might well be here but it would hardly be a town of books (or even bookshops) let alone a kingdom. For good or ill, better or worse, His Majesty has always been the linchpin, sun-king (or pivotal point) of our solar system. Not the centre of the universe perhaps (even he might concede that) but the centre of gravity (or levity) around which the rest of us (mere mortal commoners) revolve. Speaking solely for myself, I would not have met such a (suitable) wife, and we would never have produced such a (remarkable) daughter. All I’m saying is, he has a lot to answer for, come the Day of Reckoning!!!
When it (finally) arrives, this account may be his best defence.
It begins with a pithy foreword by (the Vogue model) Maxime De La Falaise:
“HAY-ON-WYE can seem like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. … With Richard, one expects the unexpected, and a lot of fun it is.”
And it concludes (three hundred pages later) with the author’s own:
“Hay-on-Wye remains as it was in the fifteenth century – a tightly-walled medieval city … ”
The padding (or content) in between the start and finish is well summarised on the jacket blurb:
“Richard Booth has probably handled more books than anyone else alive. … Shop by shop, he created the world’s first Book Town in Hay-on-Wye, inspiring a movement that then spread to Europe and beyond. In this autobiography, he recounts his world-wide search for books … for book enthusiasts, and collectors. The hilarious events surrounding the town’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain are described, as are the author’s more serious thoughts about rural regeneration. Richard Booth offers many reflections on a society increasingly centralised and dominated by distant authority whether bureaucratic or capitalistic. His views are controversial, provocative but unfailingly entertaining. Monarchic, anarchic, socialist and separatist, he is politically incorrect four times over – and a rare free spirit in a world of increasing orthodoxy.”
Not exactly a conformist, in other words, or a (stony-faced) guardian of sense & sensibility.
Even bad books are books and therefore sacred.
Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
This quote doesn’t get a mention here (for some reason) but it epitomises what I feel about this book (and all others come to that). Every tome (to me) is sacrosanct, a commentary on the canonical; a rearrangement of the alphabet, each and every letter of which has its ideal archetype or Platonic Form in (Holy) Scripture (whatever that is thought to be; Bible, Torah, Quran, Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, etc &c). It is first and finally a monastic habit(ation). Lectio divina.
Bear with me a mo while I (try to) explain what I mean by that, and how this might affect our reading of Richard (and his realm).
Quite often, what we read is less important than how, since even a telephone directory can serve as a cabalistic text. This is partly because ‘learning to read’ (virtually anything; faces, stars, tea-leaves, palms, tarot cards, crystal balls, I Ching yarrow sticks, rain clouds or body language) may take a lifetime to accomplish. It shouldn’t be confused (or conflated) with its widespread alternative and diametric opposite, ‘reading to learn’ (which only takes about ten minutes, on average, courtesy of Wikipedia or some other (cyclopedian) ‘Information Technology’.
Part (and parcel) of learning to read is looking between the lines not only along them; every book ever written is a further ‘unwritten’ one as well, and it is sometimes (often) this sub-text, or underlying ‘crypt to the script,’ which is the key to ‘understanding’ it. Wittgenstein’s (notorious) Tractatus, for example, the only (philosophical) book he published in his lifetime, and which he despaired of anybody (else) being able to read (remotely the way he intended or hoped). Like William Blake‘s (prophetic) argument with the ecclesiastical ‘authorities’ of his (or any other) time, over their (simplistic) misreading of the (everlasting) Gospel. Both read the Bible, Day & Night, but they read black where he read white.
Behind (beneath or beyond) the present text, it seems to me, there is another one to do with the theory (& practice) of kingship, political legitimacy and its relation to the Book (as such), the kingdom (the subjects, the People or populace) of the Book of Books, the Bible; the Kingdom of Heaven, in effect, and its conflict(s) with the other place, or region: Dante’s Inferno / the High Street / Shopping Mall / www. whatever… (Babylon, baby). Like every book ever written, this one is (quintessentially) an essay in theology, divinity (and demonology). In a word, utopianism.
For what it’s worth, I am no more an advocate of monarchy than Milton was, but I consider Richard our rightful ruler (sovereign sultan / liege lord / chief chess piece) not because I’m angling for a knighthood but because the word ‘King’ derives from the German Koenig and signifies ‘the most able man’. And nobody I’ve ever met is a more able ‘bookman’ than his nibs. I’m sure he has forgotten more about books than all the rest of us will ever learn, but that aside, he seems to have become what he is (according to this memoir) by trying to avoid two other (alternative) career-moves; the Army or the City. Confronting that distinction-without-a-difference, anyone would go a little barmy. You have to feel a certain solidarity (or empathy) with him. Against them.
Fact is any idiot can be a prince(ss) (king or queen, president, prime minister or premier). Looking round, indeed, mental incompetence (disability / derangement) would seem a job requirement (a sine qua non) of high command (let alone supreme) and there are doubtless (many) more criminal psychopaths in Government (the Establishment) than in any high-security hospitals. The crucial question (problem) for the rest of us (literary types) is whether we wind up with King Arthur or King Herod. His (Imperial) Majesty would seem somewhere in between them; not exactly Lear (Richard III or Macbeth) but not exactly Solomon either. Closer to Darius or Nebuchadnezzar, perhaps, than Gaspar, Balthasar or Melchior.
Stumbling round Hay, only the other day, I (over)heard some locals talking about him with (grudging) respect, even affection. “He may be eccentric,” one of them declared, “but he’s our eccentric.”
The King of Hay bookshop in Hay-on-Wye