More Capability Brown

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I like to think we run an open-door policy in our library at home in Norfolk. That is to say, on warm days in summer the door to the garden is actually open. Anyone’s welcome to come in for a browse. Last summer a stoat wandered in, peered dismissively at the modest shelf of my own titles, sniffed about under my desk and then ambled out. Most Julys the house ants – here long before us and so given due respect – pour out from alarming new holes in the floor, march along the tops of my editions of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, and shuffle in a lost and desultory way about the carpet, seeming uninterested in getting outdoors for their nuptial flights. But while I fret about the continuance of their ancient lineage, the culling is already under way. Next through the door come the bolder blackbirds and robins, hoovering the insects up in front of the shelves.

I think it’s entirely proper that the place is a working natural habitat, the word library emerging from the Latin liber, which described a bit of bark inscribed with letters, and having secondary meanings to do with the liberties of the marketplace. A collection of books begins, I guess, as a kind of landscape. You plan its geological layers, cliffs, niches, ante-chambers. Hillocks and book-quakes erupt where the mass gets critical. And your Organizing System is probably more Capability Brown than Dewey Decimal. Inside this, as I’m sure is true with all booklovers, the whole house becomes ‘landskipp’d’.

In our sixteenth-century farmhouse fiction and poetry reside chiefly in the living-room, some in a disused open hearth. Children’s books are halfway up the stairs. An entirely irrational combination of dictionaries and field guides and American non-fiction swarm in a room in the one-time outhouse that I use as an office. Almost everything else lives in what I have rather grandly called ‘the library’. In here I try to keep a semblance of order by a

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About the contributor

Richard Mabey is currently finishing Efflorescence: The Cabaret of Plants on a Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge, and is rationing himself to six titles in his room at a time ‘so that I get thirsty for oases’.

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