Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Being asked to raid a dead man’s library is surely an invitation to one of voyeurism’s forgivable sins.

I was asked recently by the man’s daughter to come and have a look, and was encouraged to help myself. She knew I was a sportswriter (her dad was one, too) and she was about to cart off the collection to the Hospice store in Orange Grove. Could I pop by and see if there was anything I wanted?

Curious and grateful, I went along and, watched by a house full of objects in various states of disarray, rummaged through the dusty jetsam of a life. The books I found were supplemented by items once collected, little things secreted away on the bookshelves: coins and cartridges, a button or two.

An old Mercedes-Benz engine — for spare parts, I was told — was mounted on a desk nearby. Abutting the koppie at the top of the garden, there was a croquet lawn, flat as a flapjack. Above that, Johannesburg’s depthless sky.

As I rummaged, I was reminded of a story I once wrote about an SA infantryman in World War 2. After the Italians’ surrender he hid from the Germans in the marshlands around Venice and, though he stayed alive, he withered away. When he later walked down the gangplank of the troopship returning him and thousands of servicemen to Durban after the war, his sweetheart didn’t recognise him. For years afterwards she would find evidence of his wartime desperation: a mouldy cheese sandwich under a pillow, an apple beneath the bed.

I visited the dead man’s library on two consecutive mornings. During one it was ventured that the man became increasingly withdrawn and prickly, a fellow on sabbatical from the world. I might have realised this without being told, for he seemed to have stopped reading or, if he didn’t, his library stopped growing – and, sadly, he seemed to have stopped collecting books.

Worst of all, some of them had been damaged. On the top shelf was a copy of The New Journalism featuring Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Michael Herr and others. It was sour with damp but I could see from the breaks on the spine of the old Picador paperback edition that the book was once a much-read revelation.

Occasionally we submerge ourselves in books. Our mental labour finds physical expression, and so we bend the spine and annotate the margins and dog-ear the book’s pages. The only drowning here, however, was by the book itself, for it had been submerged under a leaking ceiling as a kind of impromptu bucket.

It was a book whose message had been truly watered down.

On further inspection I realised the collection was vast and rambling, with a bent towards books on boxing (AJ Liebling, Jack Dempsey’s autobiography), sport, yachting and self-help. (In this last category was a primer from the 1970s devoted to mastering the joys of your own computer, the cover showing a woman with a hair-do so absurdly lacquered it looked solid. She was standing in front of a computer the size of a dog kennel, wearing a smile which spoke winningly of self-liberation.)

The boxing books, annuals and pamphlets in the collection further emphasised the sense of stasis, the idea that the collection had reached its very own full stop. Boxing increasingly belongs to the realms of sporting archaeology, its stark viscerality an affront to a more politically correct and physically circumspect age. Yet boxing was once the sport, a sport whose brave and foolhardy brawlers were eulogised by blue-collar romantics and East Coast aesthetes alike. (Sometimes the two tendencies found themselves temporarily stranded in the same man — think Norman Mailer, another one of those swaggering, boisterous voices who found its way into the pages of The New Journalism.)

For confirmation of the idea that boxing was once the sport, I had only to look at some of the programmes in the boxing book collection. They were sponsored by King Korn and spoke of amateur bouts in outposts like Virginia, Stanger, Verulam, Butterworth and, best of all, Wesselsbron. Such bouts featured practitioners like Canny Mashele, Thulani "Sugar Boy" Malinga and Winnerton "Baby Boy" Kondile. Here was a stream of seemingly endless undercard bouts featuring assorted Obeds, Zebulons and Blessings.

We were divining another life: the oft-trodden road of working-class bravery leading to an Elysium of glamour and riches. Rather than viewing a collection, we were in a museum: idiosyncratic, intensely private, an array of offerings best understood as random.

Spend enough time with another man’s book collection and you begin to follow the books’ clues backwards into time, burrowing into his life and those of others. Some books suggested booksellers in the centre of town that were no longer around (Butch Burman’s Book Store, 12 Wanderers St, Johannesburg) via little stickers stuck on the inside front cover.

Other books seemed to have been inherited from someone else, which led one to wonder if there is ever a first book in a collection, or if first books always get superseded by later acquisitions that are printed earlier (and therefore lay claim to be earlier first books?).

One, by a chronicler of early Jo’burg life, Hedley A Chilvers, contained the following gem about the indentured Chinese labourers who helped save the Rand mines in the early 1900s — reminding us, with good reason, that there are certain things nowadays which are deemed politically and morally unacceptable: "Another Chinese incident occurred," writes Chilvers breezily, "which illustrated still more strikingly the queer psychological ‘slant’ of these mystery men."

Don’t call us, Hedley, we’ll call you.

Perhaps the most touching book I took home was a blue hard-backed copy of The Boy’s World, a primer on how to become a proper boy and therefore be well on the way to being a self-respecting man. Published in 1950, it had chapters on "youth hostelling", "kites and model aircraft" and "the solar system and beyond" but nothing on cooking, sex and sexuality — or, heaven forbid, contraception — or gardening.

It looks rather quaint, something washed up on the beach of contemporary life from a stranded, faraway world. And a reminder, perhaps, that in the 1960s, there was something our parents might have called "Women’s Lib", a movement that allowed us men to reinvent ourselves beyond the ghettos of stamp collecting and "life on other worlds".

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