Most people’s coffee table books are those beautiful, picture-filled, heavy books of art or architecture or the like. I have a few of these, some gifts and a few extravagant purchases of my own, including a very heavy book on the Renaissance artist Raphael I lugged home from the National Gallery in London. It had been on sale to commemorate the success of the gallery in raising enough funds to keep a newly-discovered painting by the artist in the public gallery.
The painting, the Madonna of the Pinks, had been found in a hallway of a stately home by a curator (there to look at some other works) on his way — if I remember correctly — to the washroom. The owners of the house had assumed it was a copy, since a nineteenth-century denunciation of the work, but, when subsequently analysed in detail, it was found to be genuine. The owner decided to sell, and the National Gallery launched an appeal. I was there during the first stages of the fundraising, and think I managed five pounds towards the 12 million they were aiming at. Nevertheless, just as long journeys are made up of many small steps, large sums are made up of many pennies, and, together with some larger gifts, the Gallery bought the work.
This and other books, however, I keep elsewhere. My coffee table has shelves of just the right size for paper backs, so I have a collection of novels there instead. These are many of my favourites, not very well organised. So I have most of my paperback Connie Wilis; Patricia C. Wrede; Patricia McKillip; Robin McKinley; R.A. MacAvoy; Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy (which is one of the few books involving zombies and the undead in large quantities I’ve managed to read more than once); Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; some Neil Gaiman; Steven Brust’s Dragaeran novels, or most of them (I’m still collecting the Vlad Taltos books); and a few miscellaneous oddments and standalones, such as Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. They speak of leisure and delight and far worlds.
The other side of the table, which doesn’t face the couch, has an untidy collection of Penguin classics, books about Boethius and Dante, piles of papers and notebooks that need to be sorted; I don’t look at it often.
Up above I have a carved wooden bowl from Papua New Guinea, a gift of my parents, and, in principle, an old Times Atlas of the World. These are touchstones of home.
Moving frequently as a child, our family home wasn’t a place but a territory marked by certain artefacts. The atlas, wildly out of date in terms of political geography, nevertheless shows our past and dreams of the future: everywhere we’ve ever lived is in it, no matter how tiny the town. I think this was one of my mother’s requirements, that the town be on the map. I like that idea: it leaves a lot of room for choice.