Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

The books I left behind — and some I didn’t

When I returned to Ireland in 2011, I left a lot of my possessions in my sister’s attic near Toulouse. This included a HP LaserJet printer, an amplifier and two speakers, a substantial CD collection (most of which I had ripped to iTunes, so I no longer needed the physical media), a television and some DVDs. But most of what I left behind were books. Many of them were general reading: fiction of varying degrees of seriousness as well as some popular nonfiction. There were also the books I had been using in my doctoral work on Andrew Marvell. These fell into three categories: literary criticism and scholarship, seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, and some more specialized topics, notably the argument between Grotius and Selden on the international law of the sea. All in all, there were several heavy boxes of sometimes weighty tomes. Although I had occasionally gone back to retrieve a particular book or two, they had for the most part rested undisturbed for the last nine years.

On Thursday, having come to the conclusion that I could neither leave them there indefinitely nor find a suitable permanent place for them all, I went through the boxes to sort out which books I absolutely wanted to keep and which I was prepared to leave to be dumped/donated/sold/whatever. There were a few difficult decisions but generally the process turned out to be much easier than I’d been expecting.


I took everything by Michael Dibdin that I could find, including the first seven books in his Aurelio Zen series (or all but one of them: I’m not sure I found Dead Lagoon). I’ve been meaning for a long time to write something about Zen’s moral trajectory over the course of the series. I have the last three books in Ireland, so And Then You Die may be the only one I’m missing. (It, of course, is central to my argument: the nadir of the trajectory.)

I left behind the first four or five of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series, even though I have two of the later novels in Ireland. I had a vague idea of rereading them to confirm (or not) my impression that they’re satires in which the self-described “monster” repeatedly fails to recognize that he isn’t really any morally worse than the unending stream of ordinary psychopaths, egotists and narcissists from among whom he chooses his victims.

I took most of the Scott Turow novels I could find, including my disintegrating paperback copy of The Burden of Proof, which could do with being replaced anyway. (I still think it’s his best novel, though it has competition from Personal Injuries.) The two I didn’t take were The Laws of Our Fathers (an ambitious failure, in my view) and Pleading Guilty (which I love and will certainly reread). The first of these was showing signs of damp and the second is a trade paperback, which I’ll replace with a more manageable mass market paperback when necessary. I don’t remember seeing Ordinary Heroes, which I know I had in hardback. I wonder what happened to it.

I took Wilkie Collins’s Armadale but left behind several other books of his, including The Moonstone, Basil and The Law and the Lady. I’m not entirely sure why I left them: I’d certainly like to read Basil again, at least.

I decided to keep everything I could find by Andrew Taylor except Caroline Minuscule, which I’ve already reread to death (another disintegrating paperback).

I’ve wanted to reread Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love almost since I originally read it, so I was glad to get it back. The only other book by McEwan that I took was Amsterdam, a very slim volume. My battered, 32-year-old copy of The Child in Time needs to be replaced, The Innocent is an unwieldy trade paperback and I’m probably never going to read Atonement again. My copy of Saturday is already in Ireland.

Note: Enduring Love and AmsterdamI have said before (too often) that McEwan won the Booker with Amsterdam but for the immediately preceding Enduring Love, much as Peter Carey won with Oscar and Lucinda but for Illywhacker.

The first two books by Peter Abrahams that I read were Oblivion and Nerve Damage. I took both, though I’ve reread Oblivion probably more than once. I’m looking forward to my second read of Nerve Damage.

I decided to keep Dubliners but left behind A Portrait of the Artist, even though I believe that Joyce is a much better novelist than he is a short story writer. I suspect that Dubliners wouldn’t get as much attention as it does if it weren’t the more accessible work of an author whose novels are certainly difficult. Perhaps I kept Dubliners so that I can again test that suspicion. And why couldn’t I find my copy of Ulysses?


I left behind a lot of nonfiction. I had long intended to reread John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay but I probably should have done so before its moment passed. The same with Cass Sunstein and Richard Epstein, The Vote and Ian Ayres, Supercrunchers. (Remember, these books have been lying there since 2011.) I did retrieve Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, but nothing else of his. In fact, I couldn’t see any other books by him, though my enthusiasm for The Language Instinct led me to binge-read several of his books in the mid 2000s, including How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. Where did they all get to? I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t an overlooked a box that I forgot to open.

Literary criticism

One book I was particularly keen to recover was Christopher Ricks’s Essays in Appreciation, which includes his brilliant reading of Doctor Faustus, inspired by William Empson’s highly idiosyncratic one.

As for Empson himself, I abandoned a lot: everything, in fact, except Seven Types of Ambiguity and Milton’s God. Again, I’m not sure why I made this choice: I think it was more instinctive than thought out. Perhaps I felt that there was a risk of letting Empson overshadow my future work. I’ve wanted for almost 25 years to write about his interpretation of Faustus. If I write anything else to do with Empson, it will be about his essay on Marvell’s marriage, where he arrived (apparently by instinct) at something very close to the truth, by way of a series of factual mistakes, unsupported assumptions and misreadings of historical records. I already have what I need for those two pieces.

Where Marvell is concerned, I couldn’t possibly leave behind Rosalie Colie’s My Ecchoing Song: Andrew Marvell’s Poetry of Criticism, but there was plenty that I did leave, including a box of photocopies of scholarly articles, and many solid, valuable, hardback books in good condition. Thinking about it a day later I was quite impressed, but also a little horrified, at my own ruthlessness. I’ll try to explain why I was so ruthless in the next section.


As far as I remember, I took almost nothing that falls into this category. I know I hesitated over the three volumes of Richard Tuck’s edition of Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace. They had been expensive and would be hard to replace, but on the other hand they are very bulky and I couldn’t be sure that I’d ever need to consult them again. Other substantial books I left behind included Glenn Burgess, Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution, J. G. A. Pocock’s The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law and quite a bit more in or near the same vein.

In each case, my thinking was that I now want to write about Marvell from an accessible, critical perspective rather than a rigorous, scholarly, historical one. This is not in the least to disparage rigorous historical scholarship. I admire it hugely and recognize that it’s the indispensible underpinning without which a great deal of criticism would be nothing more than groundless speculation. But the fact is that I (like most people, I imagine) am much better at groundless speculation than I am at rigorous scholarship and having made an attempt at the latter while I was writing my thesis, I now wish to concentrate my attention on the former.


I saved the Margoliouth/Legouis edition of Marvell’s Poems and Letters. I didn’t think it was acceptable to separate the volumes and take the Poems but not the Letters, so I made room for the latter. I also got William Empson’s Collected Poems, apparently undamaged, though some other books in the same box were showing the effects of damp. One of these was the Norton edition of Robert Browning’s poetry. I think I decided to take it anyway, though I don’t clearly remember packing it. In general, I don’t like the Norton editions very much: in this one the pages are too narrow in proportion to their length and it’s too tightly bound. But I need some kind of edition of Browning and this will do in a pinch. I took my hardback New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse edited by Christopher Ricks, but left the Penguin Classic edition of Arthur Hugh Clough.

To my surprise, I didn’t hesitate to take Yeats. (Perhaps I felt that I haven’t finished with him yet.) I also took Auden and Larkin, but not Eliot, Hardy, Herrick, Donne or Milton. I particularly wanted to find my copy of Selected Poems of Louis MacNeice but there was no sign of it. Another volume in the hypothetical overlooked box? Anyway, that gives me all the excuse I need to buy that or a different edition of MacNeice’s poetry.

A glaring absence?

I see that all but one of the authors I’ve mentioned are men. That gives a misleading impression of my current reading habits. In fact, I did pack some books by women but just one book each: Sophie Hannah, Karin Alvtegen, Melissa Bank, Emily Brontë and Rebecca Goldstein (now that I think of it, two in her case, one fiction, one non) are the names that immediately come to mind. I would have taken Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or One Good Turn if I’d found either of them but they must be in the overlooked box. I hesitated over Zadie Smith’s White Teeth but in the end decided to leave it.

So that’s it. Inevitably not a perfect choice, since I can’t predict exactly what books I’m going to want to read again in the future or which ones I may need to refer to. But I feel that I’ve freed the ones I selected from the collective weight of their never-again-to-be-read fellows, as well as from their inaccessible location at the back of an attic in Occitanie. That feeling has put a certain lightness in my step in the few days since.

Posted by Art on 28-Sep-2020.