Forget the pillars of pressed shirts and the boozy galas he hosted but rarely attended: Jay Gatsby’s ugliest pretension was his library of books, spines untouched, pages uncut. The bibliophile’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.
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 Doyle’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.
Stories of gruesome killings may leave the deepest impressions—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 Orwell’s essay, “The Decline of the English Murder”: to Dalrymple, 21st-century violence has regrettably become a gangland banality. “Ah, where are the murderers of yesterday?” he asks. Luckily, these questions aren’t left to linger for very long, and Dalrymple’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 Thinking’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 “dead tree” 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 Fitzgerald’s master illusionist.
It was in 1959 and the year of Notable British Trials’ last instalment that, Dalrymple claims, “British culture ceased to have any worthwhile distinguishing features.” Let’s hope our bookcases aren’t doomed to a similar fate.