Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Living with books

Funny how a domestic upheaval can make you reassess your relationship to your physical books - both one's personal relationship with them, and their place in our newly digital book world. My relationship with my physical books had been - well, you know how it is after years without change: you get too comfortable, you start taking it all for granted, you hardly notice the accretion of the years or your habits, you even lose sight of some of the things about it all that matter, so it's not actually so comfortable, really, it's all sort of running away with you...

We have books all over the house - in the back room downstairs we have poetry, short-story anthologies and non-fiction; the room I write in is crammed with lit crit, feminist books and lit mags. John's a psychologist by profession and writes on linguistics so, naturally, the room he writes in houses his psychology and linguistics books as well as his particular poetry collection; there's a shelf of cookery books in the kitchen, of course, and I have a line of books published by Salt at my bedside. Our biggest collection, fiction, we have always kept on these shelves in the front room downstairs, and when we came to strip the room in the summer for fairly major building work and decorating, it took me a fortnight of afternoons to shift the books elsewhere. Painting the shelves was a pretty time-consuming job and took up gallons of paint, but spacious as they are I had begun to realise that they were no longer adequate for the books they'd been carrying: the books been double- and even triple- stacked, with others piled horizontal on top of the rows (you can see something of how it was in the sidebar in the videos of me reading from The Birth Machine). We hadn't been able even to see more than half of them and had forgotten we owned some of them, and the difficulty of getting to some of them had meant that they'd got more and more muddled as the years went by.

So what to do when I finally finished painting a couple of weeks ago and it was time to fill the shelves again? John suggested we limit them to classics and hardbacks. I wanted to know if he was mad: we wouldn't even fill the shelves and then we'd have nowhere for the modern paperbacks of which we have far, far, more. But I was wrong. We have far more of everything than I'd realised. Here below are the shelves filled as John suggested, and we still have boxes and boxes of paperbacks lining the landing, and we're going to have to go to Ikea for more shelving for the landing.

It makes me wonder: when, how did I acquire quite so many books? And what does it mean? Am I some old-fashioned fogey clinging on to an outdated way of life - because it is a way of life, the keeping of physical books: all that effort and time carting them around, all that thought, time and expense in creating places to put them... And they just disintegrate, don't they? The spines, I found, had started to come off the little leather-backed classics I was so thrilled to snap up from a secondhand-book shop when I was a student, some of the paperbacks had fallen apart, and those on the very top shelves, packed too tightly in a room inadequately heated before we set it to rights, were even going mouldy.

But I tell you what: I only found one plastic bag's worth that I was prepared to take down to the charity shop...


Claire King said...

I know what you mean! I have carted boxes of books around with me for over 20 years, in and out of countries, the collection ever expanding. Every now and then I try to do a clear out and give some away, but it's so hard. They aren't possessions like most things I own, they're memories and ideas and resources and doors to other worlds. How can you give away a door to another world?

adele said...

It is astonishing how attached you become to your books, isn't it? Mind you, we culled LOADS of stuff when we moved. Your house is looking divine..well done for all that. I'd rather have this sort of problem than have my reading matter all on a DEVICE! Happy New Year to both you and John and hope to see you sometime in 2013.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Claire, you're so right: books are indeed doors to other worlds. We're not just carrying around physical things, but a whole set of parallel universes!

Adele, I don't know how you managed a proper cull, but I expect actually moving house is a different proposition! Happy New Year to you and yours too, and yes, hope we can meet up sometime soon! x

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