Groucho Marx’s quip, “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”, which gives the book it’s title,is characteristic of the humour of this “bibliomemoir”. I was given this book for Christmas, mainly because its author was a lecturer at Warwick and as its genre suggests – the word was coined by Gekoski himself – this book is no ordinary recollection of a life. Gekoski has selected seminal books that have marked his progress from humble origins spelling out C-A-T, to his current career as one of Britain’s most renowned rare book dealers. There is hope, it seems, for us all. Our shared familiarity with the early building blocks of Gekoski’s literacy also coincides with the familiar climes of an auction house in Leamington Spa – a scenario which is likely to personally resonate for many here at Warwick. From the outset though, this is a memoir of a life universally reflected in the pages of novels, and their importance to the author is almost impossible to downplay. “I am inconceivable without my books”, says the author in almost pseudo-philosophical fashion, whilst the pages to come, strewn as they are with both subtle and glaring literary references, show that Gekoski’s sentiment is undeniably free of hyperbole.
The first book to make an impact on the author is Dr. Seuss’ “Horton hatches the Egg”. Bemoaning the lack of quality American authors for children, as compared to what was available to contemporary English youngsters (clearly the art of children’s writing is more difficult than it looks), the boy Gekoski falls for Horton in the same way that his country did: “to this day, 25% of American children read a Dr. Seuss title as their first book”. Even if you haven’t read the particular title yourself, the author’s style and plethora of quotations make it easy to empathise with the small boy – “his heroism made me swoon with admiration: ‘he sat and he sat!’ From which I believe I derive …a lifetime preference for sitting rather than doing”. Reading becomes a childhood rite of passage, it seems, which for the author has never failed to diminish.
As a boy, the author tells that “It didn’t matter what books I read. The key was to be seen to be reading”, and as we wander through his life, it is clear that our storyteller is imbued with a passion for reading and for books, although what he reads and why, varies hugely. There are moments of hilarity, as when he discovers his parent’s books on psychology and specifically sexual deviance, in a title memorably entitled “Spritzing Over The Books”. The unearthing of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” affect him in ways that will be recognisable to many who have read the texts, but it is still captivating to read about the teenage Gekoski’s reaction, told with brutal honesty and a self-depreciating humour. Throughout ‘Outside of a Dog’ we gain an almost uncanny sense of both the author’s, and our own reactions to literature. The ‘bibliomemoir’ richly deserves it’s place in a unique genre.
As a student he discovers Descartes and Hume, and is inspired by their ways of thinking and styles of writing. The move from America to Oxford prompts the abandonment of his former self in an attempt to transform into the more continental “R.A. Gekoski”, a change that is indicative of the author’s longing to fit in and be accepted by those who see him in the American stereotype, as lacking in sensibility. We are told of drug experimentation, and how the author lived an alternative life vicariously through the beat poets and the Marry Prankers, connecting their mission to Wittgenstein.
Whilst teaching here, other known literary characters such as Germaine Greer also featured in his life, both as a colleague, through an offer of help and less directly through her famous book “The Female Eunuch”. Later on though, Gekoski becomes disillusioned in the entire academic process, vows to become “less intelligent”, and binges on thrillers: the cited example of which declares itself to be “Better than literature!”. Literature for Gekoski becomes a drug, in the dual-sense of addiction and stability. The author too tells us of his development, again through his encounters with books, across a dark period of his life; and his adventures as a rare book dealer, which involve a Russian KGB member, and attempted bribery. The reading of too many thrillers it would seem, leave one in danger of entering into their very world.
The story is not linear in terms of time, which is perhaps forgivable for the extraordinary wealth of knowledge the author has, and he introduces his daughter at the scene of his mother’s death before we know that she has even been born (this happens a chapter or two later). Such elements though certainly add to the books charm; rather than a slog through the years – and then I did this, and then I did that – Gekoski explores ideas to their conclusion, and prioritises finishing a line of thought over a strict sequence of events. The incredible achievement though, remains in his ability to tie strings together and remain almost omnipotent in his guiding of his audience through his own life. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
As an avid reader myself, I could empathise with the author to a great extent, and trace the books he had read along similar periods of my own life. I can’t imagine that the book would be particularly entertaining to a person that didn’t take pleasure in reading – although if you’re not fond of reading, the book review section of a paper might not be the best place in which to find yourself. Perhaps maybe such people would prefer a life inside the proverbial dog.