We continue our bookish tour around the world. This week, we’re in Berlin with Timothy Kennett.
The many problems of the bookish have been well-documented in textbooks on bibliomania, literary autobiographies, and the kinds of high school fiction in which shy, bespectacled youngsters suffer at the hands of their louder, beefier, and less pimply classmates. I want to suggest a modest addition to this litany.
I should perhaps sketch some necessary contexts. I recently moved from Anglophonic London to multilingual but still resolutely German Berlin, and I suffer from a near-total inability to read texts written in German with more complexity than a café menu. Unfortunately, the majority of bookbuyers in Berlin do not share my affliction, and seem perfectly capable of reading all manner of books – dictionaries, self-help books, Kafka, books about wolves – in German. Or at least, this is what I surmise from the volume of German books on sale everywhere I turn, and from the comparative paucity of English volumes for those of us who suffer in this way.
the majority of bookbuyers in Berlin do not share my affliction, and seem perfectly capable of reading all manner of books – dictionaries, self-help books, Kafka, books about wolves – in German
There are some outlets for the sorry monolinguist: the English-language section in Dussmann, a beautiful English bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg called St George’s, and a couple of other, similar establishments, not to mention serendipitous English texts disguised in Flohmarkts, abandoned on the street, or imported by kind visitors. All of these are near-miraculous, but they don’t address the basic problem of this bookish immigrant: the supply of readable books is dangerously low, and each book is far more expensive than this sad specimen is accustomed to.
I mean expensive not just in terms of euros and cents, although certainly this is the case, but also in terms of everything else. Books have become scarce, and therefore precious. I think of those adventure stories where the young hero or heroine is sequestered away somewhere like Montana in the 19th century and only has three books to read over and over again, becoming gradually more and more obsessed with, say, Paradise Lost or Little Women. Really though, this is just another bookish fantasy: I have not found myself engaging more richly or deeply with the few books I have. I have not fondled every line as I read and re-read it. I have not committed my favourite scenes to memory, nor has my overwhelming sense of camaraderie for, say, David Copperfield, made me feel as if I always had a friend by my side, even when I didn’t.
No, my problems, as with so many of the problems of the bookish, are purely physical. I am hopelessly attached to the material form of the book, even though I increasingly realise that it is hopelessly cumbersome.
I do not feel as if I am any more or less engaged with the written word than I ever was before, but the quality of my engagement has changed. Whereas before I would spend my literary time reading books, reading about books, stacking books with self-satisfaction around my room, alphabetising books, discussing books with friends, dreaming of books that were soon to be bought, browsing for books in voluminous bookshops, displaying books on trains, and in general trying to get through books at a wonderful rate, I now find myself engaging instead in a range of essentially administrative tasks.
Having managed to acquire an actual book, and having enjoyed the feeling of it in my hands, I add it to my nascent collection, which must require more attention than all the items held in the British Museum.
The first step is always planning: deciding which books to buy, and where. Deciding whether to buy the books in England, look for them in Germany, hope they are in the library, or order them over the internet – an option I am increasingly unwilling to take given my ever-shifting address and the worrisome things I have heard about the German postal service. One friend reports that a package she ordered was delivered not to her door or her mailbox or into the bosom of a kindly neighbour or local Paketshop, but to an adjacent outhouse.
Having managed to acquire an actual book, and having enjoyed the feeling of it in my hands, I add it to my nascent collection, which must require more attention than all the items held in the British Museum. The books need carrying around with every move between every temporary sublet, and must be packed in such a way that their corners cannot become dog-eared. They are perhaps too heavy for these bookish arms, which are not used to lifting anything heavier than a hefty hardback, and even that with the comfortable support of an armrest or lap.
The books must be carried on aeroplanes in addition to the U-bahn, because I am leaving Berlin soon, and, in a desperate attempt to avoid having to buy a box, fill it with books, and send it to the UK, I am hoping to transport them book by book on every visit home. Berlin’s airports are well served by Europe’s budget carriers, but Europe’s budget carriers, with their strict hand-luggage restrictions, are not overly welcoming to people who want to carry lots of books around. Innumerable hours are therefore spent weighing options, selecting who to bring with me on the plane and who to leave behind. The same process is repeated for the return journey, and, invariably, having been overtaken with the thrill of easily acquiring more books, my bags are equally laden with new titles as I touch down in Berlin, which does not make the whole process any easier.
I have to leave Berlin in two months, so I suppose something, maybe the copy of a biography of Robert Oppenheimer I have stubbornly failed to read all year, will have to give soon. After that I will move to California, which I suppose will make transporting my books around even more difficult, but should make finding books that aren’t written in German substantially easier. In the meantime, my flatmate, himself Californian, and himself trying to shed some of his acquired bookish detritus, has offered me a number of the books he used to learn German. Naturally, I took them all. Perhaps they will help to resolve my German book problem; perhaps, when I contemplate whether I really need to carry a heavy German-English dictionary and several volumes of German grammatical exercises across an ocean, they will make it worse.
Timothy Kennett lives in Berlin, but not for long. Follow him on Twitter @tpakennett2