‘Forgot I owned it’ is a self-contradictory category: identifying such a book is like coming into a dark room and turning on the light very quickly so you can see what it looks like in the dark. I’ve undoubtedly forgotten about some books I own, and that why I can’t tell you about them here. I can tell you about one that I forgot about and remembered too late.
This line-up probably looks like incriminating evidence, but it’s not as bad as it seems:
Militarism versus Feminism (1915), by Mary Sargant Florence, Catherine Marshall, and C. K. Ogden, here in its later Virago edition with the terrible cover, is a classic of feminist and anti-militarist polemic; I first heard of it in an essay by Sowon Park which argues that some of Woolf’s ideas in Three Guineas (1938) had been in circulation for many years previously. For one year only I taught an M.St. option in Woolf, and bought a couple of these so that students could borrow them; I’ve got a third one at home. So, I definitely didn’t forget I owned it; quite the contrary.
The R. S. Thomas Uncollected Poems (2013) is a simple case of my having bought a copy and then being sent a complimentary one by one of the editors, my former Bangor colleague Tony Brown. While editing the collection he’d been trying to track down where the poem ‘A1’ was first published: all he had was a photocopy from an unpaginated newspaper arts page; it was clear that the publication of the poem had been brokered by Peter Hoy, one time Tutorial Fellow in French at Merton College. Tony rightly surmised that it must be an Oxford publication, and some other evidence on the page pointed towards a certain year. The absence of a page number and the typographical messiness suggested a semi-amateur production, and I guessed at The Cherwell. I ordered up the relevant year’s Cherwell in the Bodleian, and found the poem very quickly; very satisfying detective work.
Mark Doty’s work I first came across with his poem in the LRB about the filming of The Hours and I went on to get School of the Arts. Then in London, popping into the sadly missed Pan Bookshop in the Fulham Road, I found an earlier collection My Alexandria (1995) and bought it. I got home and found that on one page there was a poem, ‘White Feathers’, by an entirely different poet. I contacted the publisher and they were unflapped: post them the the back page and title page, and they would send me a new copy. (I thought what I’d found must mean the entire impression was faulty, but apparently not.) I’ve kept the faulty copy for its curiosity value.
But when it comes to Matthew Sweeney’s Selected Poems (2002) I’ve got to admit to an embarrassing lapse. I like his work; I had several of the earlier volumes: Blue Shoes (1989) and Cacti (1992). Ian Gregson invited him to read at Bangor — he’s a very engaging and memorable reader of his work — and in at least one year we included his work on the Late Twentieth-Century Literature module. In February 2002 I bought the Selected (I dated it on the title verso), probably from the lovely Tyler’s bookshop which I walked past every day on my way to work. But I then apparently failed to launch myself into the Selected with the degree of enthusiasm that would have made my ownership register. In October 2005 I moved to Oxford. In December that year, in a fit of renewed enthusiasm for Sweeney’s work, I bought another one. I don’t remember when I realised that I had two of them; perhaps, to excuse me, I’d never unpacked the first one after moving. And it must be added that Cape Poetry book covers at that date aren’t the most eye-catching or distinctive of designs.
If it’s any consolation to the poet, I’ve done the same with Madame Bovary. You’re in esteemed company, Mr Sweeney.