Theodore Dalrymple:Â Â This book reflectsÂ his dark but playful curiosity
Forget the pillars of pressed shirts and the boozy galas he hosted but rarely attended: Jay Gatsbyâ€™s ugliest pretension was his library of books, spines untouched, pages uncut. The bibliophileâ€™s hoarding habit often substitutes for genuine curiosity. A book is a terrible thing to waste.
Theodore Dalrymple grapples with his own bibliomania in The Pleasure of Thinking: A Journey through the Sideways Leaps of Ideas (Gibson Square) by generously sharing his book collection with the reader. In a series of ruminations on the contents of homicide journals, suicide almanacs, personal inscriptions and the odd classic, we are reminded that a personal library should be more than an array of isolated ideas and rare finds. Rather it should be a cluster of playground castles bound together by bridges and hidden passageways. The fun for Dalrymple is in finding the obscure connections. Â
Dalrymple provides expert psychiatric assessments in murder trials and at first glance the subject matter of much of his book is similarly macabre: through a sequence of non-sequiturs and strange-but-true tidbits we meet the compulsive poisoner, the abusive bookshop owner and the unlucky man who regains consciousness in a box below ground. For an American like myself, The Pleasure of Thinking is like a jaunt through Poe with a nudge and a wink, but for a Brit it might be a session with Conan Doyleâ€™s psychologist alter ego: oddball personalities, not necessarily the crimes they commit, are often set under a magnifying glass and examined for their insight into the human way of life.Â
Stories of gruesome killings may leave the deepest impressionsâ€”like Elsie Cameron, who was drawn from her home on a morning in 1924 with hopes of elopement, only to be dismembered and hidden in a bucket under a chicken farm by her groom-to-be. This sugarplum finally ripens with a nod to George Orwellâ€™s essay, â€śThe Decline of the English Murderâ€ť: to Dalrymple, 21st-century violence has regrettably become a gangland banality. â€śAh, where are the murderers of yesterday?â€ť he asks. Luckily, these questions arenâ€™t left to linger for very long, and Dalrympleâ€™s lateral thinking outshines his sometimes dark fascinations.
It takes a well-oiled mind to wander from a book on the anatomy of suicide to anti-bohemianism and the life of Arthur Koestler, but Dalrymple does it with such effortlessness that the reader will feel an itch to dabble in a similar dilettantism. Yet, looming over The Pleasure of Thinkingâ€™s happy meanderings is the now inevitable dilemma facing a new generation of bibliophiles: the false promise of the e-reader revolution. Ebooks have outpaced hardback sales in recent years, but what we have gained in the near-limitless storage space of iPads and Kindles we have lost in the ability to stumble on the out-of-print and obscure books that will never transcend their â€śdead treeâ€ť format. Gatsby pretenders are only a click away from downloading catalogues of the latest digital fodder, but their shelves will have even less to show for it than those of Fitzgeraldâ€™s master illusionist.Â
It was in 1959 and the year of Notable British Trialsâ€™ last instalment that, Dalrymple claims, â€śBritish culture ceased to have any worthwhile distinguishing features.â€ť Letâ€™s hope our bookcases arenâ€™t doomed to a similar fate.Â