Rick Gekoski: The Jewish Bill Bryson

By Simon Round, October 1, 2009
Separated at birth? Writers Rick Gekoski

Separated at birth? Writers Rick Gekoski

He is an expatriate American who sports a beard and glasses and who enjoys writing humorously on serious subjects — but he is not Bill Bryson.

Rick Gekoski is a rare-books dealer and former academic who has written in previous books about both his work and his strange passion for Coventry City football club. But he does look like Bryson and some reviewers reckon he writes like him too. The Tatler said of him: “think Bill Bryson, just on books”.

Gekoski is flattered by the comparison although, with dare one say a Brysonesque style of self-deprecation, adds that he will know he has truly made it when the blurb on “Bill Bryson’s next book says: ‘Think Rick Gekoski, just on everything else’.”

Gekoski’s new work, The Outside of a Dog, is what he calls a “bibliomemoir”, in which he attempts to explain his life through the books which have influenced him most — starting with Dr Seuss’s Horton Hatches an Egg and proceeding through J D Salinger, to

T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Germaine Greer and Sigmund Freud, to name but a few.

He wrote the book, he says, because he kept wondering to himself what kind of effect his reading had had on his life. “It seems to me that reading is a primary formative experience in the way that parents are, or teachers are, or the lovers in one’s life are, or one’s children are. No one has ever pursued this thought at book length before.”

The problem for Gekoski was that while he thought it might be “an amusingly narcissistic” thing to do, his publisher needed convincing.

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson

“He said, ‘You’d better make it a lot about the books because no one is interested in you — you’re not anybody’. So I wrote a first draft that was mainly about the books and he came back to me, saying: ‘We must get more about you, you’re rather fun’.”

Two of the chapters are as much about the writers as their books. Gekoski met psychiatrist R D Laing when Gekoski was contemplating ditching his career in academia to study to be an analyst himself, while feminist writer Germaine Greer was for a time a colleague and friend at Warwick University. “Greer is a very serious character — larger than life, admirable and smart,” he says. “The Female Eunuch is an immensely provocative book. I always considered myself sympathetic to the cause of feminism, but Greer was saying to men like me: ‘You’re not part of the answer, you’re part of the problem, don’t patronise me by being sympathetic’. A lot of women thought that was terrific.”

Gekoski had some awkward decisions about which books to include and which to leave out. “Dr Seuss was absolutely clear to me — I adore that book, the same with D H Lawrence and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which is one of my favourites. But why Conrad isn’t in there, I don’t know. I wrote my philosophy thesis about him.”

He also considered including John Fowles’s Diaries, mainly because he did some business with the author and actually made an appearance in the second volume of the work. However, he chose not to. “In the end there was nothing formative about it,” he says. “It was slightly shocking, though. Fowles was almost incapable of writing about me without including the adjective Jewish. I had never before encountered that kind of strange English antisemitism.”

One of Gekoski’s own books did make it into Outside of a Dog. Staying Up is a behind-the-scenes look at Gegoski’s beloved Coventry City. So how did an American academic-turned-rare-book-dealer come to love English football, and in particular a decidedly unglamorous Midlands club? “When I went to study at Oxford, I could no longer follow American sports — there was no internet back then. So I started to going to watch Oxford United. Then I moved to Coventry when my son, Bertie, was six. I thought it would be fabulous fun to go see the local team. Children like identifying with winners but actually it’s much better training for life to identify with losers, and for that purpose, Coventry are a fairly good bet. Now they are such losers I hardly go any more. That makes me feel guilty in the way not going to shul makes you feel guilty.

“Staying Up was a book about observing myself observing football. One of the reviews in a football fanzine described it as ‘middle-class w****r hangs out with footballers and is hurt because they are not interested in him’, which seemed like fair comment.”

One of his other books Rare Books, Rare People, told of the world of book dealing. “I think of Outside of a Dog as the third in a trilogy about my passions — football, rare-book dealing and reading. My wife said to me: ‘I’m not sure you can carry on writing books about yourself being interested in things’.”

However, as long as he can find things to write about that the readers are also interested in, he will continue. For now he is interested in discovering whether as a book addict, he is the product of what he has read. “You could argue you are what you’ve read in the same way that people say you are what you eat. This is ridiculous, because in that case I’d be a salt beef sandwich.”

Bill Bryson could not have put it any better.

Outside of a Dog is published by Constable at £14.99

    Last updated: 11:33am, October 5 2009