Here’s a much blogged-about article from the Times on New Year’s Day, which I imagine everyone’s read by now. (If you haven't, you should!) I'd intended to link to it on the day it appeared, but what with leaking water tanks and dripping ceilings and still feeling quite sofa-ish, I didn’t bother and now it’s very old news, but it raises so many pertinent points that I feel it's worth revisiting.
I have tidied books – and even dusted them! - before selling a house, but I have never ‘got rid of them’ before putting up the For Sale sign. My house, too, is stuffed with books, yet each of the three homes I’ve sold has been snapped up within a week of going on the market, so the books can’t have been quite so off-putting as the estate agents and makeover artists claim. (On the other hand, they were Victorian/Regency 'properties', rather than shiny new Executive Homes, so maybe a bit of homely clutter was what people were expecting . . . ?)
Valerie Grove touches on many issues close to the heart of bookish types in the course of her delightfully rambly piece. Having listened to a Radio 4 dramatisation of 84 Charing Cross Road over Christmas, Helene Hanff’s stringent views on the matter of keeping books after they’ve been read (or indeed if there is little prospect of their being read) had already sprung to mind before I’d reached that part of Grove's article.
I’d always found it rather shocking that Hanff, the author of the original booklover’s book, should have taken so cavalier an attitude to books as ‘objects’, worthy of love and respect for their appearance, tactile qualities, smell, associations and meaning, quite apart from their content. Surely a book is (or can be) far more than the sum of the words on its pages? We don’t (or shouldn't) keep them to show we’re ‘well educated, right?’ – sometimes we keep them simply because they bear the handwriting (or even merely the unseen fingerprints) of a lost or departed grandparent, parent, lover, brother, sister, friend. More public than a letter, more likely to survive and to be passed down the generations or even cherished by a stranger.
Here’s a test: if you had to arrange your books in the order in which, if pressed (hard), you would be prepared to see them burned to a cinder, how would you line them all up? And why?
I know how I'd answer, and it’s entirely to do with the meaning, to me, of the books as artefacts. It’s little or nothing to do with their printed content. I would willingly offer up some of my favourite and most beloved novels to the flames – the Ian McEwans, the Carol Shields, the Salman Rushdies and Anthony Burgesses, the William Trevors, Anthony Powells, Alan Bennetts, Antonia Whites, Rosamund Lehmans; all the ‘classics’ - the Brontes, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, D H Lawrence, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chaucer – whooosh! Up in smoke you go! Why? Because they could be replaced. Any time, anywhere, at large or small cost, depending on edition.
What would be last on the list? Why, of course, six novels by Ethel M. Dell (never read – too awful!), but passionately annotated by my grandmother and bearing her youthful signature on the flyleaves;
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – annotated by late-teenage me throughout and inscribed as a Christmas gift from someone I thought I would one day marry (but didn’t, thank goodness!); Pilgrim’s Progress, owned by my beloved godmother and great aunt Elsie; two letterpress volumes of the Gospels, with illustrations by Eric Gill; my nearly complete set of Thames & Hudson World of Art volumes – some dating back to University days, the rest a reminder of my years at T&H;
my set of Penguin 60s – to which I am still adding (how I wish I’d splashed out on the complete collection at the time); Now We are Six and When We Were Very Young – hardback editions from the 1960s, inscribed by my parents, given on my 6th birthday and subsequent Christmas, the poems memorised by me, aged 6 and 7 long after I should have been asleep; school prizes – both my own and those of my forebears (the former a reminder that my schooldays, while not always idyllic, were not entirely in vain, and including Enid Blyton’s Five Go Off in a Caravan, which I won, aged 7, for ‘progress’[!] and read seven times over - my first 'long novel' and almost unbearably thrilling);
my mother's Gladys Peto's Bedtime Stories from the 1930s, with fabulously quirky art deco illustrations (I can feel another post coming on here) which I used to read when ill (as I was quite often, with ear infections) in bed;
little kid-bound volumes of poetry (Longfellow, Wordsworth, Byron) given by my grandfather to my grandmother before they were married (and it was, as so often in those days, and with the Great War to be survived in the interim, a long betrothal);
the Ladybird and Observer's Books of plants, trees, pond life, insects (and spiders), seashore, rocks and minerals, etc etc, which I read by torchlight under the blankets in bed aged 8 to 10 and which were patched with now yellowing sellotape against the ravages of frequent use;
various ancient tomes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most in Latin, never read, but acquired for the sheer perfect beauty of their letterpress printing, their divine rag paper and their intoxicating smell of ages past;
And so it goes on. This list is off the top of my head, at the end of a long working day - I'm sure a more considered and leisurely assessment would bring others, screaming 'save me!', to the fore.
But the obvious conclusion is that the books to which I am most passionately attached are those which, as objects, hold some personal meaning far exceeding their printed content. They quiver with the history of Me.
Which means that the whole enterprise of keeping books is one of personal vanity!! Arrghh! So maybe it’s not a Good Thing at all. Perhaps it would start me off on the road to redemption if I were to start a big bonfire right now?
Help! What should I do? What would YOU do?
Please advise soonest.