Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –
I have had great fun this month finding titles for our December display of books from our Biography Collection. The theme for the festive season is ‘Miscellaneous Delights’, and the idea was to have a cornucopia of the uplifting, the amusing, the comforting and the life-affirming, a lucky dip of upbeat reads to be enjoyed over the holidays. Our displays throughout the year often tackle serious themes and big historical subjects – this month it’s a metaphorical Christmas stocking bulging with sweet treats and decorative sparkle. While there might be a slant towards frivolity, these books aren’t sentimental or vacuous – but they are all the kind of books that are perfect for escaping into by the fire, and which provoke a small sigh of satisfaction as you finish them, feeling enriched.
Ross Gay’s Book of Delights was one of the books that sustained me over the pandemic, and to which I have returned many times. I mentioned it in a previous blog post, and it’s perfect for this miscellany – every day for a year, the poet and gardener Ross Gay wrote a short essay on something he had experienced that had delighted him. Each delight, described in his lyrical style, is simultaneously personal and universal – small moments of daily life to which he gives himself completely.
Although these delights give an insight into the fabric of Gay’s own life, he blends his inward and outward gazes so that what unfolds on the page is an individual’s immersion in the wide world, through an open heart and a cherishing eye. The delights lead to observations on all sorts of matters, and Gay doesn’t shy away from grappling with painful issues – the challenges of the African-American experience, the fragmentation that haunts modern urban life, the loss of friends – but insists on delight as an essential tool for negotiating the world. Who knows, it might even inspire you to make a new year’s resolution to start keeping your own daily ‘Book of Delights’.
Lauren Elkin does something similar to Gay in her No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute. Public transport is often seen as an alienating experience, particularly since the advent of the smartphone. On her daily commute across Paris by bus, Elkin decided to subvert her phone, turning it from a barrier between herself and her fellow passengers to a means of recording her experiences of observing them and thus feeling closer to them. Her short daily accounts were typed quickly into her phone as and when she perceived something that caught her imagination, and cumulatively they represent a beautifully vivid picture of quotidian, humdrum Paris life.
The snatches of overheard conversation, small dramas between strangers, ceaseless silent voices of advertising and ever-changing panoramas outside the bus windows will be familiar to anyone who travels around a big city on public transport, where we are intimately close to our fellow humans, and at the same time all in our own private worlds. Like Gay, Elkin encounters pain and loss during her months of making these percussively brief diary entries, and like him she succeeds in highlighting the beauty of ordinary life.
Francis Burnand’s Happy Thoughts is, strictly speaking, a book that shouldn’t be in the collection at all; though it masquerades as a diary, it is actually a work of fiction. At some point in its 132 year history (our edition was published in 1890, though the book was originally serialised in the humorous magazine Punch in the 1860s), this book was erroneously put into our collection to take its place amongst the real stories of real people, popping up with a different consistency, like the traditional sixpence in the Christmas pudding. It seems a shame to evict it after all this time – and it includes many references to real events and real people of the time.
Before there was Charles Pooter of George and Weedon Grossmith’s masterpiece The Diary of a Nobody (also first serialised in Punch in the late 1880s), there was the unnamed protagonist of Happy Thoughts, whose hapless adventures are brought to hilarious life through his ‘diary’. Burnand was Punch’s editor from 1880 to 1906, and a friend of local cartoonist Linley Sambourne (whose former home at 18 Stafford Terrace is open to the public and can’t be recommended highly enough.
He was the editor of The Diary of a Nobody, but over 20 years before its publication he had introduced his own bumbling, socially inept, absurd but lovable hero. Imagine if you can a sort of English Victorian version of Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm, minus the misanthropy, constantly doing the wrong thing in ways he doesn’t even understand, and making things much worse while trying to make them better. The fact that the book is a collection of the ‘Happy Thoughts’ he continues doggedly to note down, while everything falls hilariously apart around him, is one of the delicious jokes of this gem of a book. Don’t forget that the digitised issues of Punch from 1841 to 1992 are available completely free on our website, and can afford hours of enjoyment including the work of Burnand, the Grossmiths and Sambourne.
These are just three of the delightful books from our Biography Store Collection which are available to brighten your dark winter evenings.
You can also enjoy the pleasures of bookish life, with the deadpan humour of overworked bookshop manager Shaun Bythell, the rapturous reminiscences of literary agent’s assistant Joanna Rakoff and the comfort through adversity of the reading journey Alice Ozma undertook with her father. Share the joy of pets, on dog walks with Edward Stourton or Michele Hanson, or with Martin Whybrow and his pet tawny owl.
Enjoy the eccentricities of Diana Holman-Hunt’s grandmothers, savour the warmth of the love between the apparently temperamentally incompatible, such as Max Apple and his irascible grandfather, literally savour the recipes sprinkled by Maya Angelou through the pages of Hallelujah! the Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes. Laugh out loud at the letters between members of the Mortimer family and the the razor sharp wit of David Sedaris.
Discover that the stresses of family life have never been more recognisable and more hilariously rendered than by Shirley Jackson, better known for the macarbre and haunting, in her memoirs of motherhood, and that it’s never too late for love and adventure in the company of Jane Juska. Revisit the childhoods of Tove Jansson and Natalia Ginzburg in surreal and very comic ways, and get acquainted with the compassionate and affirmative world view of RuPaul.
These books are guaranteed to raise your mood and broaden your perspective, so come in and have a look, and we wish you all the joys of the season.
Oh and before I go: don’t forget to catch up with our podcast ‘Biography Central’. It’s available at Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Google Podcasts – and wherever you get your podcasts.
Claudia, Kensington Central Library