As the Bluebird prepares to move home soon, the great Book Giveaway has begun. I have assembled a collection of 500 books or so, my husband double that number. In honesty, as a literature post-graduate, I am slightly ashamed at the size of my book collection and think it should be bigger. But we are downsizing in space, and unless I start gluing home-made bookshelves to the ceiling, or storing them in the bath, bringing all of them with us is a no-no. Instead I have to abandon those which are no longer required. In half an hour yesterday 140 of them were earmarked for the loneliness of the charity box.
The criteria for ridding is as follows : I cannot remove anything that may be of academic value in the future of whatever academic career I may chose to have, nor can I remove those books brought down from the shelves in company, at one in the morning, after a festive, alcohol-fuelled evening with me spluttering – “THIS! – This book – this changed my life did you know that do you UNDERSTAND?” Clearly, I cannot remove anything for which my heart beats or which I truly love and deserve to keep. This leaves a glut of paperbacks enjoyed once, and never to be enjoyed again, of teenage Beverly Clearlys and Judy Blumes, of the Time Out Guide to Bars and Clubs 2004, of well-thumbed, dog jacketed pocket-size guides to Athens, of David Nicholls and Jane Greens. These take up a vast, troublesome amount of nothing books that have been my companions from bookshelf to bookshelf in the 18 years since I moved to London and what shocked me was the ease and brevity with which I identified a hefty whack of them for the lady from Jewish Care. I have a selection of books stolen from my school library on my last day there ( Iris Murdoch’s” The Sandcastle” and the Collected Poems of Shelley) which I shan’t return because they’ll put me in detention or something. Anyway, I love their ’50s retro jackets. I had four copies of “Great Expectations” and two each of “The Scarlet Letter” and “Decline and Fall”. I found pink London Transport travelcards from the 1990s, split and missing sections to build roaches, from my copies of “A Passage to India” and, scarily, “A Womans Guide to The Car”. Those I am proud of will not be evacuated : my Victorian bookshelf is only now truly coming into its own, I have every single book ever written by P G Wodehouse from when my father wrote a literary biography of him, I have also a wide selection of 1970s and 1980s history and literary criticism books sent free for review, including the brilliant “The Long Weekend : The Social History of Great Britain” by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge – now disastrously out of print and being exchanged on Amazon for £65 per used paperback.
It doesn’t bode well that in recent popular opinion the word “bibliophile” has been mistakenly replaced with the word “bibliomaniac”. Does it say more about certain societal values that people who develop a high quality library for personal use are assessed in ways that people who have 20,000 songs on their iPhone are not? In other words, is this about the long running, and boring, opposition of high and low culture? Probably not. It’s more to do with CDs being flexible enough to chuck into your computer and instantly convert to iTunes, and the refusal of books to do the same. After all, you cannot convert a paperback to a Kindle ebook. You have to buy the ebook. An ebook for fuck’s sake : – an invisible, slim, delicate, vulnerable file, bereft of coffee stains and the underlined pencil passages, and prone to breakage at the sign of a technological white-out. Yup. Perfect. I cannot present a class with a Kindle. If the anxiety surrounding the acquisition of a lot of books – and I do mean acquisition, I do not mean hoarding – isn’t about inverted cultural snobbery, then perhaps it’s time we agreed with Foucault : “I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space”. Books take up space. They invite dust and they are clutter. We are depressingly programmed in the modern age to act with irritation and unjustified territorial anguish when something takes up space within our precious tiny homes of alloted modern space. But something is always clutter. If it’s true we are all suffering with spatial anxiety in the modern age, then it’s also true that nature abhors a vacuum. Inevitably some other bit of modern detritus will come along and replace the books with less meaningful and instructive clutter. It will be a sizeable coffee table, or a calendar, or a framed picture – and then you’re in the same position, except this time, when searching for something to help you rise above the malaise and seek solace from this world of material detritus and spatial anxiety, you can’t reach up for a comforting chapter or two of “Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky” because you threw it away. At least, if we must be spatially impoverished, we don’t also have to be poetically or literally impoverished.
The difficulty in throwing away books becomes apparent when you recognize that books are not books. Or rather, they are books, but they are more than the sums of their parts. If you were raised in a godless house, as I was, your shelves become your spiritual guides. And what guides they are, because – at risk of falling into platitudes – literature renders our world comprehensible and when confronted with the bits we can’t understand, takes them by the short and curlies and grapples them like there’s no tomorrow. You could argue that once they have been read and absorbed their philosophical work is done, but that’s not true. Reading a book ten years apart is a different book (as the beady-eyed amongst you will have noted from my entry “A Right Charlie” a couple of weeks ago) and offers a different manifestation of beliefs for you to applaud, converse upon, or downright disagree on and throw the book out of the house. Even the depressing ones might offer some comfort or reflection in the years ahead – even that great pessimist Virginia Woolf sitting high and frigid on top of the tree of turgid dustheap of English modernism. All right Virginia, you have scraped the test and will stay with me. There she goes, bonnet a flutter, dressed in her flat-chested smock-type dress, into the back of the removals van. Thomas Hardy, who I don’t enjoy at all, but who I think I ought to keep as its supposed to be very good and one day I might get it, is staying. His face just blinks at me, resplendent mustachios a-quiver, with a supercilious faraway look, as if I have yet to realise that he is a literary marvel, despite all that clumsy, metaphorical lay-it-on-with-a-trowel-stuff about strawberries in Tess of the Dooberrys. He goes off into the van, nostrils flaring with fear when he realises he has to sit next to Virginia Woolf. Little does he know. I’m sending Patricia Highsmith into the van next. Nothing can agitate your fatalistic writer of nineteenth century naturalism more than a massive lesbian from Texas.
I am parting with the monstrous “Guide to Olde English”, “The Canterbury Tales”, anything by Dawn French, paperback Margaret Atwoods, Gilbert Adairs and second rate frothy literature. But the Life Guides I keep : nothing more brilliant has been written about the hypocrisy of respectable society than “Vanity Fair”. No one could read of the cruelty in the first seven chapters of “David Copperfield” without becoming a better, kinder, more sympathetic human. What could make alcoholic addition more dangerous or more destructive than F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned”? Not much – apart from F Scott Fitzgerald himself, of course. But don’t worry, I’m not about to take Life Advice from a man who spent two decades blustering about in plus fours, bitching about Zelda and chucking the rye whiskey onto his morning Coco Pops. There’s enough madness in the world already. But his stories – the stories will be staying.
And so I’m off – back among the spine-filled shelves and delving into my reading past to continue my packing. As soon as I’ve finished reading my book.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.