How do I organise my bookshelves? I don’t. How can I find anything? I can’t. Books are stacked all over the place, piled two or three deep on sagging shelves. Sometimes I worry that the sheer weight of them might bring the house down.
The bookshelf in this photo, however, is different. These are the sacred shelves to the right of my desk where I keep my hallowed collection of reference books (in fact there are another three shelves below these but they wouldn’t fit into the picture). I like to have these volumes close to hand so I can keep checking things as I’m writing.
It’s a wide-ranging mix of subject matter. On the top shelf Special Effects rubs shoulders with The Treasures of the British Museum and the Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian. Ancient Egyptian Jewellery snuggles up to the Top 10 of Everything and The American Civil War. What’s interesting is how they all feed into each other.
The Native American books date from the time I was researching for Apache. Some are more useful than others, of course. Frankly one or two ought to go into the bin, but I’ve never been good at getting rid of books. Others, though – like Eve Ball’s Indeh and In the Days of Victorio down there on the bottom shelf – are pure gold.
After finishing Apache I got interested in those very first moments of contact between Europeans and people from the ‘New World.’ Hence the many books on the Aztecs and the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Broken Spears – which gives the detailed accounts of Aztecs who saw the invasion and the destruction of their empire at first hand – gave me crucial insights into their society. From these volumes grew The Goldsmith’s Daughter.
Some of the books that fed into Buffalo Soldier are there on the middle two shelves. While researching for Apache I came across references to ‘Negro soldiers’ in the US army. Wanting to know more about them I started reading books like Cox’s The Forgotten Heroes and Schubert’s Voices of the Buffalo Soldier along with Blassingame’s Slave Testimonials, Sojourner Truth’s Aint I a Woman? Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Washington’s Up from Slavery and many, many others.
Gone With the Wind is there too. I was taken to see the film when I was eleven and fell in love with Rhett Butler and the ball gowns! After that, I read and re-read it, torturing myself over the agonies of doomed love (as you do) but skipping all the history bits and the political bits and the other bits that made me suspect that this wasn’t really how things had been. My original copy fell apart after being wept over once too often. Reading it as an adult was a completely different experience and this edition is scribbled all over, the margin littered with exclamation marks, question marks and my outraged comments about the jaw dropping racism. In some ways Buffalo Soldier is my response to Gone With the Wind.