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.
I have spent my entire life surrounded by books. I can’t remember a time when there weren’t books in every room of the house – in the kitchen, on the landing, in the hallway and the vestibule – every spare piece of wall, every flat surface has always been clothed in books.
They weren’t just there for decoration; they were books that were read, re-read and consulted, a part of the fabric of my life and as natural and normal to me as the radio on the kitchen windowsill or the toy cupboard in my bedroom.
My mother and father were born early in the last century, to Edwardian parents. They came through a devastating global depression and a world war and learned through hard experience not to waste anything. They were the make-do-and-mend generation who never threw anything away ‘because it might come in useful’. They were into recycling before it even had a name. Clothes were patched and darned, collars and cuffs turned, torn sheets made usable by turning edges to middle, and my mum was a past master at producing healthy meals from leftovers.
That philosophy extended to the books: once bought, forever on the shelves. A book was for life, not just for Christmas.
Fast forward to the present, and I find myself alone in a vast barn of a house with thousands of books. It’s only sensible to downsize – to sell to a young couple with a growing family and move myself into a smaller, more affordable and more manageable property. The only problem with that, of course, is the books. They quite literally need a room of their own.
Sensible Me says they have to go. Sentimental Me says I can’t just give my childhood away.
Sentimental Me shuts up when I contact a local removal company for a quote and they come up with a figure that sounds more like a small African nation’s debt to the International Monetary Fund.
And so it began: the Great Book Cull.
My first pass down the shelves was frankly pathetic. I mentally categorized books into:
(1) Those that weren’t worth keeping by anyone’s standards – horribly out of date reference works, ancient paperbacks with no covers, and several – both hardback and paperback – that looked as if they might be harbouring notifiable diseases.
(2) Those that were of no interest to me. Yacht-building for Beginners, anyone?
(3) Those that were of no interest to me and of little material value but which had been around forever and it just seemed wrong to get rid of them – like a form of betrayal.
(4) Those that were of no interest to me but to which I had a sentimental attachment because of the memories they carried with them – who gave them to me, where I bought them, why I bought them.
(5) Those that represented past and current enthusiasms and interests.
(6) Those I would never part with under any circumstances.
Plainly, only books that fell into categories (1) and (2) above were culled at the first attempt, and even then I held onto some of them on the grounds that I could sell them online at some future date.
If we say, for the sake of argument, that I started out with approximately 2,000 books then the first weeding process reduced them by about 100.
I had another go.
I realized, a little belatedly, that there was no point in holding onto books that I could sell because the amount I could make from selling them was insignificant compared to the amount I could save by buying a three-bedroomed property instead of a four-bedroomed one. (I now refer to this as my ‘Doh’ moment.) Out they went.
It was harder to cope with the books to which I had a – frankly – irrational attachment simply because they’d always been around me. My father’s many interests over the years – in metal working, electrical engineering, foreign travel and wine – manifested themselves in dozens of books that I know the covers and titles of so well that I can still recite them from heart, but which I had never taken from the shelf, let alone opened. Likewise his obsessions with Georges Simenon, China and Montgomery of Alamein. I hardened my heart and out it all went. Ditto all the thrillers, war novels and general thick-ear blokey stuff.
Then a strange and unexpected thing began to happen: the more books I got rid of, the easier it became. The ‘coffee table’ books – looked at once and then consigned to the bookcase to lie flat because they were too big to stand up – were the next victims, followed by multiple out-dated antiques price guides, a complete set of Dennis Wheatley novels, most of my ‘A’ level textbooks and a whole slew of cookery books bought – bizarrely – by my (non-cooking) father and never used by my mum because she always relied on her old faithfuls and her memory.
Next to go into the boxes were most of the modern fiction (the only exceptions being those books written by friends, many of them signed for me), general reference books, books relating to old enthusiasms, quiz books, ancient crossword companions, dictionaries (I mean really, who needs EIGHT dictionaries?) and all the books that I knew, when I looked honestly into my heart of hearts, I would never open again.
By the time I’d finished, there were fifty boxes of books in the summerhouse awaiting collection by the British Heart Foundation – along with the five large bookcases needed to store them.
I’d succeeded in reducing the number of books in the house by 75%, and as they disappeared into the back of the van, I felt nothing but relief.
What was left was both interesting and enlightening.
I still have a large collection of hardback cloth-bound literary classics that have travelled with my family throughout its 30+ house moves over more than 60 years, some of them beautifully embossed and gilded, others plain and war-economy, but still robust and handsome and a pleasure to handle and read.
Poetry books are also well represented along with books relating to my current and ongoing interests and enthusiasms – gardening, the Brontës, Tolkien, natural history, astronomy, arts and crafts.
Next there are the books that I would never willingly part with:
Last, but far from least, are the books that have marked significant moments in my life, or carry with them special memories of people and places that are or have been important to me; to part with them would truly be to give away a piece of my life and who I am.
Sitting here now, beside my depleted bookcases, I’m unexpectedly happy with what I’ve done. It’s only been a couple of weeks since those 50 boxes of books left the house, but already I’m beginning to forget which books they were. I don’t miss them at all.
When I think of the books that provide the route map of my life – the ones that have been, and remain, important to me – they’re the ones that are still with me. The rest, I now realize, were just luggage and – like most luggage – I’m better off without them.
(Photo credit: Jukka Zitting, on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.)