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Keith Richards' other church

Keith Richards' autobiography 'Life'A favourite book of mine is At Home with Books: how booklovers live with and care for their libraries (Thames & Hudson, 1995).

There are converted barns lined with vast volumes, Scottish castles with glass bookcases laden to the ceilings, New York apartments where all living quarters (even the bathrooms) are designed for the multitude of monographs.

The owners offer their views on preservation, how to control bibliomania, and even such painful subjects as weeding the collection. They are what we would expect, wealthy antiquarians in the Classics, erudite translators of French poetry, inheritors of their great-grandfathers' fondness for the folio.

Incongruously on page 208 we are shown into the library of Keith Richards. The librarian in me immediately reaches for the magnifying glass to read the spines in the photographs. Richards has a deep interest in history, in particular the Second World War.

(Librarians keep mental checks of borrowers' reading interests, for future reference and to know how the library is being used. Not that I am expecting Richards to walk into my workplace, he is a Rolling Stone who plays rhythm and blues in deafening stadiums, usually on the other side of the world.)

'Incongruously' only because the public image of Richards as the drug-heightened, whiskey-inspired soul survivor No. 1 is at odds with the conventional image of the regular book-loving inhabitant of the library. Both of these images are misleading and librarians know better than anyone that the library attracts the most unusual and unlikely clientele.

Richards writes, 'When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully — the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser. As a child, you get to feel all these books are yours.'

All of this came back to me when I read about the promotion of Richards' new autobiography, Life (Little, Brown, 2010). The launch was not in some sleazy nightclub or glamorous rock dive, but at the New York Public Library.

Richards spoke eloquently, revealing that he had originally aspired to be a librarian. He said that the library is the only place around where he willingly obeys the rules. This infers that he is an old-fashioned visitor, used to libraries that have not been turned into chat cafes.

He declared that when he walks into a library he is always made truly aware of civilisation, of something that we are part of and that is at the same time greater than we are. This from a man who once led a side project band called The New Barbarians.

At primary school in the 1960s I was inevitably caught up in the major dispute of the times and have never changed my position that the Beatles are greater than the Rolling Stones. I am not the only one who thinks their last great record was Some Girls (1978), with its magnificent soul masterpiece 'Miss You'.

Their subsequent career reminds me of those old bluesmen who keep playing the music they love best until the end of time, even if there's nothing very new going on. But this is unimportant, compared with the dignity, honesty and humility in fact in which Richards relates his indulgent but harrowing life.

Once when trying to describe our modern era concisely, the distinguished historian Simon Schama said he couldn't think past the changing face of Keith Richards. Perhaps another reason for the seeming incongruity is that Richards epitomises the clash between culture and counter-culture of that time.

That rock and roll rebellion is now a norm, even a cliché, of Western societies has blinded us to the dependence of all this behaviour on the broader culture. We still expect Richards to chain smoke, knock back Jack Daniels like it's water, and never sleep. But Life reveals he hasn't had heroin for 30 years. The mainstays of his existence seem to be the love of his family, the creation of his music, and libraries.

Books were his refuge before he discovered blues music. Growing up in austerity England, Richards had no library at home, so values the retreat he has built for himself late in life. 'It's my sanctuary,' he writes. 'Reading keeps me in one spot. After a life on the road, reading anchors me.'

It might be just as well Richards never became a librarian. Apparently he recently tried to organise his collection, even teaching himself the Dewey Decimal Classification system before giving up because 'it was too much hassle'.

My advice would have been not to worry. At his age, Richards' time can be better spent reading rather than classifying. I imagine he has the inbuilt ability of the private library owner to know where most of the titles are, anyway. He keeps his favourite books on special shelves and takes the risk of gregariously lending books to his friends and relations.

This would be anathema to a collector who knew the price of his books, but the value of none of them.



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria. 

Topic tags: Keith Richards, Rolling Stone, books, librarian, beatles, Some Girls, miss you, At Home with Books



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