On Solzhenitsyn

Not so long ago, I popped out to Hampstead for half a day to get away from the confines of my house and get some peace and quiet...in Hampstead Heath. I really don't know what I was thinking. (I did manage to spend two hours sitting quietly on a stump reading Plato and Chekhov, though.)

Before that, though, I had to walk down Hampstead High Street, studiously avoiding many an overpriced shop, and I still couldn't resist the temptation of turning into Flask Walk and having a look around Keith Fawkes, arguably one of my favourite shops. It's a bookshop, for a start, and I can't resist bookshops - I literally can't. Put me near a bookshop and I'm almost guaranteed to wander in, then come back out carrying armfuls of books and being very short of cash. It's also a second-hand bookshop - even better! As I write this, I have a copy of some of Chekhov's short stories sitting next to me from that same Keith Fawkes, and it has that charming smell of ageing paper and ink that I so love. It instantly transports me to another realm, a realm of learning and pleasure; of isolation; of wandering through room after room of books and devouring them as I please. New books don't quite have the same smell - it needs time to develop - and they don't have the history behind them, the yellowing pages, the sense that someone has held this same book in their hands and scanned these same words with their eyes. That's what I particularly love about old books. That and the fact that I just like old things. There's something very novel about them, something different and interesting to explore.
Besides which, I think old shit is cool.

But I digress - as I always do, especially when talking about books, one of my favourite subjects! Anyway, I darted into Keith Fawkes and promptly had to make my way through a mass of books. It's a squeeze in that shop, it really is: despite taking up three places it's only on one floor and books are crammed everywhere. They don't quite fit on the shelves that stretch far above my head (in fairness, I'm annoyingly short), so books are plonked in boxes and keep threatening to slide onto the floor in a heap of second-hand literature. Despite there being books behind the shopkeeper and on the counter, and despite my buying up most of the shop (let me in a bookshop with infinite time, money and space and I'll have bought a fair amount of their stuff), there really is never enough space.

So I was wandering around making conversation with the gentleman who happened to be staffing the shop that day (a very nice person, showing me around the area even though I've been to this bookshop a few times before) and looking not without a twinge of nostalgia (I'd found a book of nonsense verse, the same edition as one I used to have as a child) at the high bookshelves. Besides getting myself some Plato, some Chekhov and some Mann, I also bought a copy of Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle. And all with a discount too! (Keith Fawkes is very nice about offering discounts on already cheap books.)

Well, why am I not talking about Chekhov or Mann? Why am I talking about Solzhenitsyn? It's a banal little tale, but I intend to bore you with it anyway. You see, my copy of The First Circle has seen some use and when I bought it some of the pages were falling out. As soon as I got home, I sellotaped those pages back together and in the process, well...I couldn't avoid the smell of the pages or getting a glimpse of Solzhenitsyn's prose, and it moved me profoundly.

Maybe some of you don't like Solzhenitsyn. Maybe some of you disagree with his views. Maybe some of you haven't even heard of Solzhenitsyn, in which case Google is your friend. But even though he died when I was 12, when I was still very young and still absorbing some of his work, he holds a special place in my heart.

Up till the age of about ten, I mostly read children's books and popular science. (Incidentally, one of my favourite pop-science books back then was Descartes' Baby by Paul Bloom, which I used to read over and over again and which I can't bear to get rid of because of its sentimental value.) Then my mother started encouraging me to look at Solzhenitsyn. A curious child, I was fairly happy to if my memory serves me correctly, and at one point I got One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich out of the library.

I don't remember what I had been expecting from that book, but I remember that I was absolutely enchanted by it. I looked it up and I wanted more, more, more - not just from Solzhenitsyn but from the world of classic literature, which started to appeal to me more than the books I used to read. When I was in Year 7 and receiving my first achievement prize on our school Speech Day (though we call it Visitation Day), I got another book by Solzhenitsyn - Cancer Ward. The way he presented the characters, so rounded and so flawed, touched my heart. I read more classic literature then, too.

My love affair with his work cooled when I couldn't find any more of it, except for The Gulag Archipelago, and I found that less interesting than his other books - though I plan to rekindle it. But I am eternally thankful to my mother, and touched by Solzhenitsyn, for it was his writing that stirred my interest in classic literature and in Russian literature too. It was his writing that made me curious and eager to know more. It was his writing that made me buy piles upon piles of good books and sit there devouring them - and without those books I would not be the person I am today. Surprisingly enough, I'd be even worse.

Thank you, Solzhenitsyn.