A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Readers, you find me at a crucial point in my literary life. I have been culling my book collection. Not completely decimating it or anything, but lately I’ve been feeling compelled to – and I hesitate to use this word – declutter.
How dare I refer to books as “clutter”?! They furnish a room! Yes, but my problem is that they are furnishing the rooms a little too much. Put simply: some of them just have to go. But where does one start? Me, I’ve been starting with the books I know I’m not re-reading. I finished my Masters five years ago, and while I briefly flirted with the idea of going on and doing a PhD, circumstances dictated that it wasn’t the route for me. Yet, I still have piles of academic texts taking up precious shelf-space. I’m not reading them for pleasure, and should I ever actually go back and do more study it’ll be a number of years away and these books will have long been succeeded. They need to go.
That’s sort of the easy bit. What about fiction? What about the books I have bought for pleasure? How does anyone curtail that particular collection? It’s a question that the novelist Linda Grant has been grappling with, and has recently explored in her Kindle Single I Murdered My Library. She was about to move house, and would no longer have enough space for the thousands of books she had collected over the years. She had to decide what would stay and what would go, even as early in the process as putting her flat on the market. She describes the estate agent coming to visit and seeing not a library, but that dreaded word “clutter”. The piles on the stairs were to be reined in immediately.
“The decision about what would stay and what would go, live or die, began with kindness, and ended in rage and ruthlessness.”
Getting rid of books has dark connotations. One thinks of banning and burning, funeral pyres full of not just pages, but the very ideas they contain. How could anyone be complicit in this purge, even if it’s in just taking books down to the charity shop? It is still a banishment. I recently started tentatively going through my non-academic books and trying to decide what I could bear to part with. My criteria were:
1. Have I read and loved this book? If yes, keep.
2. Have I read and not loved this book? If yes, go.
3. Do I seriously intend to read this book if I haven’t already? If yes, keep. If no, go.
4. Is this a book I just feel I “should” have?
5. Is there any sentimental attachment?
Those last two points start to get a bit hazy after a while. How do I judge what I “should” have? Are there really any books that come with an obligation attached? And if so, where do you stop? Linda Grant found a similar quandary in her cull. She decided to keep books of “literary merit”, which perhaps amounts to sort of the same thing.
“Judging literary merit at the top of library steps is a beautiful and contemplative activity… I sneezed. The shelves were filthy. I wobbled, looked down, got vertigo. How do we assess André Gide’s reputation? By ‘we’ I don’t mean the French Academy. Does anyone still read him?”
Having decided to keep the book, she realised that the edition she had is unreadable. The print’s too small. If she can’t re-read this particular book, it’ll have to go. Which leads us to another crucial factor – the ereader. Grant is a Kindle owner, and finds it very convenient to carry several books on a single device. It also has the benefit of adjustable text size. She also makes another point which I hadn’t thought of, because I am not a writer. When she writes a book, she writes on a screen. The screen is, as she says, “the medium”. She does not write that lovely tactile object with the binding and the cover. “The ‘real’ book that I write is 12-point Arial at 150 per cent zoom, with the page set in draft view so that it fills the screen. Double spaced, margins justified.” A book is not just the object in the shop, after all.
I also have a Kindle. I love it. A few years ago, I would have been aghast to think I would ever be an e-reader. I mocked the very idea heartily. “A wireless reading device? Isn’t that a book?!” Then I tried one, and I loved it. It’s lighter to carry than a hardback, and goodness knows there seems to be a bit of a trend for whoppingly massive novels at the moment (yes, Tartt and Catton, I’m looking at you). As readers of my previous posts will know, I love crime fiction, but it’s not something I tend to re-read. Once you know who has dunnit, it makes returning to it less satisfying in many cases. So, I tend to buy crime novels on the Kindle. They’re one-time reads that I don’t want taking up increasingly-limited shelf space.
But to go back to the process of the book cull – the bookocide, if you will – when I was rooting through my shelves what started as a tentative, agonizing process gradually got quicker and quicker until I felt I was chucking things in the pile with gay abandon. It became a weird catharsis, a clearing of the decks. I realised that I had been feeling nothing less than oppressed by the sheer, literal weight of my TBR Mountain. In the words of Linda Grant, “I was being freed from the burden of all those bloody books”.
“It is more than 50 years since I began to build my library, from its earliest foundations in the elementary sentence construction of Enid Blyton. Now at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hate myself. But not as much as I have come to hate the books.”
I know what she means. I hate that I know what she means, but I do. But at the moment, I feel liberated. I am cockahoop with space-clearing and guilt-clearing. There is nothing worse than having shelves of unread books glare at you as you come back from the bookshop with another purchase. I have found myself avoiding the local library, thinking “how can I have the cheek to borrow more books when I have so much unread at home?” I don’t want to feel like that. I like libraries, and I like using them. I don’t want to feel guilty about it.
“I threw one box in the recycling bin. I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.”
There are, though, words of caution from Linda Grant. After moving into her new flat, she found she had “murdered” too many books. She had empty shelves. It was “wrong, abnormal”. I do not want to make the same mistake. I must not let the cull run away from me.
Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library (Kindle Single: 2014). RRP £0.99. There is also an excerpt on The Guardian website.