Vulpes Libris

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.

On murdering books

I-Murdered-My-LibraryReaders, 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.

13 comments on “On murdering books

  1. craftysorcha
    June 19, 2014

    Great post! I also had this dilemma after moving to a smaller apartment. I used pretty much the same criteria as Linda Grant.
    I don’t think empty shelves are a problem they, they are asking to be filled!

  2. Kate
    June 19, 2014

    oh the urge to fill the empty shelves … ‘look, we have space now, I can buy more books!’ I am writing a book, rereading almost exclusively for that book, and am getting very resentful because I can’t read anything else till deadline time. So I am buying books out of crossness so I will have more to read when I am free so to do. Moving books from the bookshelf to the TBR pile under the bedside table leaves gaps in the bookshelves …. But I will happily cull, because in Belgium, where I live, English novels get good prices from second-hand bookshops. Guest poster Holly made €60 yesterday by selling a rucksack and a shopping trolley full of YA horror and fantasy novels!

  3. Kirsty D
    June 19, 2014

    That’s an interesting point Kate. A few years ago I sold some stuff second hand and made a couple of hundred quid (mostly textbooks from uni). The downside of the rise of the Kindle is it’s cheaper, often, to download than buy secondhand.

  4. Martine Frampton
    June 19, 2014

    thanks for that, I enjoyed the review and your own book culling saga. I have not really reached the point where I feel the need to cull, though I have recently started a second layer of books on the deeper shelves. It’s the ten-years-out-of-date software user guides that my partner insists on keeping that drive me crazy🙂

  5. Kate
    June 19, 2014

    I got my husband to make me mini-shelves to stand on the very deep shelves of my ‘biographies and letters’ bookcase that he salvaged some years ago from his former office. The shorter books stand on the shelves at the back, peering over the heads of the taller books on the real shelf in front of them. It’s an excellent solution for knee-height shelves and upwards, but is inconvenient for the very lowest shelves since I have to put my face on the floor to see the ones at the back.

  6. Erica
    June 19, 2014

    I can only say – I feel your pain. Books can be a curious mixture of comfort and oppressor. I will be moving house soon. Hmm.

  7. heavenali
    June 19, 2014

    I’m in the process of doing the same. I am getting rid of lots of contemporary novels rather than the classics and old books I love best. My decision on which to cull though is always about whether I will read it again in the next ten years. As a very lapsed bookcrosser I will be passing on my culled books at an event in July where we give away lots of free books to bemused people at a street fair.

  8. Sharonrob
    June 19, 2014

    I loved Linda Grant’s essay and you’ve offered a most enjoyable review. I got my first Kindle three years ago and my paper book buying (and reading) has plummeted since then. Once my DH joined the party it slowed to practically nothing and now the only paper books we buy are graphic novels. We’ve offloaded stacks of paperbacks onto local charity shops, friends, relatives, the doctor’s surgery, the vet’s, bemused passers-by, anybody who says they’ll have them. We are pretty ruthless about it; if they are downloadable, out they go.

  9. Jackie
    June 19, 2014

    This was a very funny look at an emotional subject. I’ve never been opposed to ereaders & have a Nook, which is a Godsend for heavy tomes and those with small print. As for bought books, most of them are books I’ve read at the library & wanted my own copy of or are books that I used for research for my wildlife paintings. I’ve never been able to buy many books, so the ones I can afford are decided upon carefully and kept.

  10. Sharonrob
    June 20, 2014

    Ah yes, heavy tomes. Because of problems with my tendons, books of more than 400 pages are hard for me to hold for more than a few minutes and even that limit is dropping all the time. I love short, economical novels (Loitering With Intent, The End of the Affair, On Chesil Beach – some of my favourite books) but other readers will know that there are many times when only something fat and capacious will do. I wouldn’t have got through The Luminaries in a physical format. It’s a huge, slow-burner of a novel and needs to be read every day so that the reader doesn’t lose track of who’s who, what they’ve done and who they’ve done it to. For many people, that means being able to read it when and where it’s convenient, which may not be while sitting upright in an armchair at home and in that case, a downloadable format might be more accessible than the physical book. My DH, who listened to the audiobook said the same. If it had been in a physical format he wouldn’t have given it a second glance.

  11. Hilary
    June 20, 2014

    There’s an interesting point for me lurking in this excellent review of a splendid essay (great piece, Kirsty D!). I’ve recently done a cull and handed the results to the local Oxfam shop. But I’ve still got a long way to go, and the decisions were getting harder, so I seem to be on an indefinite pause right now. But you mention the TBR pile and its tyranny. I’ve been too conscientious about that pile, and I need to sit down with it and be honest with myself. I need to re-frame the question.

    I definitely have noticed that books I get rid of generally haven’t been in the house all that long. Books I’ve had for decades are far, far harder to discard (except for ancient computer manuals! I’ve actually managed to remove some of them, although I’ve hung onto the original, primeval Whole Internet Catalog from some time in the 1990s out of pure nostalgia).

  12. Just downloaded it onto my PC… lovely post, Kirsty.

  13. sshaver
    June 26, 2014

    Something so wonderful about empty space.

    And yet–the loss of each book is a reminder of our own mortality.

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