When you’re famous and then you die, you could find yourself in the potentially awkward and deeply invasive position of having everything you own placed on public display, photographed, labelled and valued in monetary terms. Each and every one of your beloved and not so beloved possessions will then be sold to the highest bidder. It might not be what you wanted, although chances are you’re past caring, but for everyone else the opportunity to crawl through the detritus of your life is invaluable. For writers, I think there is something wholly fascinating about discovering the details of other people’s lives – and particularly which books people read. Think about it. If you were to discover that an actor, or musician or someone whose creativity you respected (I’m deliberately not including writers here as it is unthinkable that they wouldn’t have a book collection) had a shelf of books that added up to a Dan Brown, Ant and Dec’s autobiography (Ooh! What a Lovely Pair) and something called My Shit Life So Far by Frankie Boyle – all currently in Amazon’s top ten so obviously sitting on someone’s shelves – I think you would be disappointed.
On the other hand, when you discover, as I did recently, that a very famous film star’s library contained four hundred and twenty-four biographies and autobiographies (not to mention two hundred and twenty-nine books on politics and philosophy and three hundred and thirty-four books on self-help, health, psychoanalysis and psychology amongst many others), many of them annotated by the man himself, it’s both inspiring and addictive. The items were in a Christie’s catalogue – a tastefully produced paperback consisting of the contents of the film star’s house at the time of death. So, what do the accumulated objects of a lifetime tell us about the person? Graham Greene had James and Conrad and Evelyn Waugh on his bookcase in a fairly anonymous apartment on the French Riveria – are we surprised? Probably not. In Roald Dahl’s writing hut in Great Missenden we can see that he wrote sitting in a large armchair with a china pot of yellow pencils beside him – can we imagine him conjuring up the worlds he invented? Sort of. Visiting the houses in which writers lived and work is a popular leisure activity and across Britain; we can walk where Dickens, Austen, Wordsworth and Thomas once walked – these are the living catalogues. Rarely do we have the opportunity afforded to Jay Parini, biographer of Robert Frost, who lived in Frost’s house in Vermont for several summers and lay in the claw-footed tub, imagining the writer in the same bath, listening to the wind in the bushy hemlocks outside the bathroom window. But still, by absorbing the artefacts of their lives whether it’s online, in person or through the pages of a book we peek slyly (always uninvited by them) into their private space, and it’s illuminating.