What do you feel about getting rid of books?
Despite endless fashions for de-cluttering and Marie Kondo style advice of the joys thereof, books are always difficult to part with, bookshelves harder than wardrobes to clear out. Fashion disposed of holds a few memories of expensive mistakes or squeezing into dresses for long forgotten parties. Yet, books taken away seem to take part of us with them. They are friends that are comforting as that old coat but much less shabby.
Why do we find it so hard to part with our tomes? An essay written by Julian Baggini appeared in the FT weekend on this very topic. Books are too bound up with our sense of self, he says. Also some of us (moi?) have unrealistic ideas about the length of our ‘to read’ lists. As if.
In a statement which I find worrying relatable, he says:
“…I am sure that despite the evidence to date, I will read my 25 year old copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography one day. But the truth is, the time it would take to get through my “to read” list is longer than the rest of my life.”
I must point out to you, Mr. Baggini, that my own (unread) copy of “Long Walk to Freedom” is nothing like 25 years old. It is a mere 8 or 10! President Mandela was certainly still alive when I bought it. It sits on a shelf in the kitchen making me feel guilty every time I walk past. I hang onto it in the expectation that I will read it – one fine day.
So much for the books I haven’t read. What about the one’s I have read and still find it hard to part with?
“We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them. Most old books are momento mori for distant selves, since the person who read them no longer exists.”
Aka there is a book for the person you are at a certain point in your life. You can never again revisit it because you can never be that person again. What was it A.E. Housman said about happy highways where we went and can never come again?
I would like to not believe a single word this writer tells me, yet I am surrounded by the truth of it. Take for instance Tolkein’s LOTR trilogy which I read and re-read and loved. I don’t think that it can ever seem the same post Peter Jackson. But hold! My copy is a Folio edition and it was quite expensive at the time. Also Tolkein was my mother’s favourite author! I tell myself this even as I know I will not read it again, and Mum really doesn’t mind.
We justify our possessive natures around books with little fables. Our children or grandchildren will enjoy this book, we say – but they won’t because they’re watching YouTube and have vastly different tastes. Or, we can’t get rid of that particular book because great-granny inscribed the frontispiece when she was 6 years old and it is therefore an irreplaceable part of our family history!
And don’t get me started on cookbooks. I don’t have a large number of cookbooks; I’m not a cook. Mr. Rune and I have been eating chicken and vegetables for centuries. Not of course the same chicken and vegetables I hasten to add. Those cookbooks that I do own are left over from similar centuries ago (Step by Step Cookery, Marguerite Patten). Could I get rid of these? Absolutely not. A handwritten version of my mother’s cheesecake recipe which originated I’m not sure where – Claudia Roden perhaps – lives tucked inside the covers. I will never part with it, but no doubt it will be carted off somewhere when I am gone.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. Deborah Ross writes: (The Times, September 16th)
“I have shelves of cookbooks that I barely open including one that I inherited from my grandmother (Florence Greenberg’s Jewish Cookery Book, 1947, which I never go near for fear it’ll fall open on her favourite recipe (tongue). Or my father’s favourite recipe that she would cook for him (ox heart).”
There are of course great libraries, vast storehouses of knowledge, long may they survive and thrive. But most individual collections don’t come into that bracket. Then again antiquarian books are intrinsically valuable – leatherbound with exquisite gold tooling – but hands up anyone who owns books like that? For myself I just have endless paperbacks and some hardbacks. I have books that I used in research for essays written years ago and will never refer to again. Why?
Baggini reckons we keep books because they look good, not just in an aesthetic way but because they represent us to others as being of a certain studious or intellectual kind. (I have previously written of services which curate libraries for appearances on zoom calls!) I suppose this is not rocket science but what is a room with no books I ask myself, and answer comes there none.
In fairness to the writer he is not suggesting we dispense with every vestige of the written word from our homes, but that we stop hoarding and be prepared to whittle down to the indispensable few. Books, he says, demonstrate nothing so much as our inability to move on.
Alas for those blue remembered hills. I fear that despite my heinous lack of ability to move on I shall keep my books, and remain mired in my half-read intellectual past, grieving for the person I once was and shall ne’er be again.