Thursday 8 November 2007

Books – why do we keep them when we've read them?

Hooray! Diane, author of the ever-wonderful 60goingon16 is back! Her most recent posts have just sent me off on one of my tea-break tangents. Diane’s been helping her daughter unpack her book collection in her new home. Which has given rise to a number of questions: Why do we keep so many books? Why don’t we discard them when we’ve read them, as we would with newspapers or magazines? Do books ‘furnish a room’, or are they merely clutter?

I was forced to ponder these questions this time last year, when I moved to the Muddy Island from a house which comfortably accommodated my collection (‘accumulation’ would be a better word) to a house which – to put it bluntly – would not.

Everything had to be picked over. Bags and bags of (mainly) children’s books were carted to the local charity shops. I sold a number on eBay (two or three pleasant surprises there – things I’ve picked up for a snip at boot-sales simply because I knew they were worth more than 10p – and by golly I was right!). But the rest . . . I can’t part with. Even books I absolutely know I’ll never read again. Just can’t do it.

I never did get round to sorting them all out. Cookery books are in the kitchen; big art and photography books are in the sitting room, current and essential reading is at my bedside; but the rest were bundled onto shelves as they came out of boxes and, I’m sorry to say, that is how things have remained.

This would doubtless drive more orderly souls quite mad. Luckily, I have such a long queue of other things waiting to push me over the edge, that muddled books don’t really get much of a look in.

But why so many? Books are not a fashion item – not like soft furnishings or even furniture, which can go out of date or style and need wholesale replacement. They’re not ‘clutter’ – well, they’re not when they all have a home, on a shelf – or even in a neat and purposeful pile somewhere.

They’re not, for me, a ‘collection’ that demands to be catalogued, arranged in alphabetical order, or by genre, or chronologically by publication date, or – as here (scroll down to see some wonderful examples), by spine colour (though the latter does appeal to me enormously – partly owing to the amount of pain it would inflict on the rigorous adherents of scientific cataloguing principles out there (and we all know at least one of those)).

No – my books are simply part of what makes me me. To let my eye wander along the shelves is to experience a lightening film montage of my life – I can remember where I was when I read them and how I felt, and what was going on in my life at the time.

There are train books and plane books and books I’ve read in cars (as a passenger!). Holiday books, fireside books, outdoors in the garden or on the beach books. Books which instantly remind me of with whom I was in love, or indeed in labour (first child took a l-o-n-g time to get herself in gear and I got through two novels and a lot of Goldberg Variations in the maternity unit).

I remember which books kept me up all night, which necessitated mugs and mugs of black coffee to keep me awake; and which accompanied me through illness (I still find it difficult to know whether I feel feverish and unwell whenever I read Wuthering Heights because I first read it while suffering from the worst tonsillitis I’ve ever had – or whether the effect is more literary than Pavlovian).

There are books I’ve chosen to read to heighten and celebrate the good times, books into which I’ve jumped headlong and shut the cover behind me in order to escape decisively from reality.

There are books I’ve inherited, with my grandparents’ and godmothers’ names on the flyleaves; books that were gifts, with inscriptions wishing me happy birthday or Christmas or simply love, in varying degrees. And some which I gave, and inscribed, to people who are no longer with us, which have made their way back to me. How could I ever part with any of those? Unless it be to loved ones or descendants who will understand what they mean?

But, would you believe, not everyone (gasp!) considers that having a houseful of books is, essentially, A Good Thing. Can this be true? Gentle readers, I'm sorry to say that it can. As Grumpy Old Bookman’s excellent blog reminds us:

'Reedin iz 4 geekz n sad ppl' -- Chantelle fan, May 2006.

He continues:

This blog is respectfully dedicated to geekz n sad ppl everywhere.

Good for you, Grumpy OB. Long live sad ppl, I say.


60GoingOn16 said...

Well, there's only one thing more fascinating than one's own book collection and that's someone else's. So now it is my turn to be distracted - by looking at what you have on your shelves Mrs Muddy Island and I can see we definitely have some overlap: Nelson Mandela, Oscar Wilde's biography, all those Antonia Frasers, Amy W's Aga books, Century, Elizabeth David to name but a few. Dee dah, dee dah, dee dah.

You probably won't be surprised to learn that I left my daughter's with more than a pile of books. Much more, two box loads in fact, not to mention assorted CDs, cassettes and a couple of Eddie Izzard videos because a) I still have all my dinosaur technology as well as the high-tech Mac stuff and b) a gal's gotta have something to look at, read, listen to on these long winter evenings.

Martin Edwards said...

How I agree about the importance of books in one's life! The trouble is, there is a dark side to hoarding books (and I find it almost physically painful to dispose of them.) What if tedious real life interrupts one's reading too often and yet one continues to acquire interesting-looking books remorselessly? This is one of my weaknesses and it does mean that I possess many books that I haven't read and which it would take a very long time to read even if I devoted myself to them full-time. I feel guilty about it. If someone set up Bibliomaniacs Anonymous, I'd be tempted to join.

monix said...

How delightful to see bookshelves as chaotic as mine. When we moved to Devon 18 years ago we left a rambling Edwardian house with a dedicated library for a small cob cottage. It was heartbreaking to dispose of several thousands of books. We have managed to line most of the cottage walls with shelves and have filled them, often with replacement copies of the books we left behind. I started off well, arranging boooks by subject and all the fiction alphabetically by author; then reality happened and everything is a glorious mess!

As you point out, books hold so many memories and associations. My son, now aged 30, has never recovered from the loss of his 'Frogband Fanfare' in the move and I have combed the shops at Ross-on-Wye, the internet and every bookbarn and charity shop I see to try to replace it.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely piece. I never get rid of any of my books. For me, you can't beat a wall of books. Nothing I like more than nosing through friends' libraries.
But what do you do when your parents move into a smaller house and suddenly offload 2,000 books onto you? My parents have done just that.
Some of these books are probably quite valuable, and some meant a lot to my folks. But I doubt that I'll ever get round to reading that many of them.
The joiner is putting up 25 yards of shelving, but I don't think it'll be nearly enough. And trying to sort them all out ... will be tricky. Billx

Sam Charles Norton said...

Bookshelves are to readers as bottoms are to dogs.