Linda Grant recently reduced the size of her library. She now feels guilty, but she also knows how to milk another publication out of all this.
It is more than 50 years since I began to build my library from its earliest foundations in the elementary sentence construction of Enid Blyton. Now, at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hate myself. But not as much as I have come to hate the books. Hate books! A thought-crime at the very least. Only a philistine, a religious zealot, a Nazi would hate books.
It is not the words I hate, not literature, but their physical manifestation as old, musty, dusty, yellowing, cracked objects, heavy to lug around. When I open the pages swarms of black ants dance on the paper. No one told me. No one said: “In the future you will squint and screw up your face and try to decipher these words you once read so easily.” When I look at my books I feel like Alice in the closing pages of Alice in Wonderland, when the cards all rise up and overwhelm her.
When the estate agent came to look at my flat he winced when he saw all those books. What did he see? Clutter. Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room; books make rooms look messy. You would not display the contents of your knicker and sock drawer or your bathroom cabinet with its face creams and cough remedies, so why put off potential buyers with your taste in literature?
In order to market my flat, the books had to be pruned back. At the very least, they would not be permitted to exceed the number of shelves available to house them. So the murder began.
The methodology I used for my cull was very high-minded: I would preserve those books of literary merit, the books I had not yet read but wanted to and the books given as gifts with an inscription on the flyleaf. Judging literary merit at the top of library steps is a beautiful and contemplative activity. I see Catherine Deneuve, halfâ€‘lit with the illumination from a Parisian window on a Rive Gauche boulevard below cloudy, pearly autumnal skies, a few streets from Shakespeare & Co. She picks a book out from the shelf, examines the spine. Ah, Mathieu! The much older lover, a grizzled intellectual with whom she spent a summer in CadaquÃ©s when she was 20. Fade â€¦ dissolve to Charlotte Gainsbourg in 1967 in the kitchen cutting tomatoes, while out on the terrace Daniel Auteuil is typing the masterpiece that will win the Prix Goncourt and later be filmed by Truffaut.
I sneezed. The shelves were filthy. I wobbled, looked down, got vertigo. How do we assess AndrÃ© Gide’s reputation? By we I don’t mean the French Academy. Does anyone still read him? If no one still reads him what does that tell me about literary merit? I went down the steps to the internet and looked him up. He won the Nobel prize for literature; he died in the year of my birth. Strait Is the Gate was one of the Penguins I bought in my early teens. I have absolutely no recollection of its subject matter. It gets thrown to the floor and joins the other splayed volumes of rejects.
Read the whole thing.
My wife and I have a library of something on the order of 30,000 books. In our prime, we lived in a twenty-odd room 1712 Colonial house which had been enlarged a few generations back into an inn. As old age approached, we found ourselves obliged to uproot ourselves and move all over the country for business reasons. Some books went into storage.
We were finally compelled by the recession to retrench, and are living in retirement at our rural vacation home/hunting camp. Now we have two storage facilities. The nearby one is absolutely immense. It resembles the government facility where the Ark of the Covenant wound up.
Books packed in boxes stand piled high, and there are endless rows of metal library bookcases. The task of unpacking, sorting, and shelving is so intimidating that I go there, poke around, open up a few boxes, and decide to postpone further progress until next time.
The thing is: ironically enough, you can get just about any book published before the 1920s these days in electronic form for free. My entire life has been dominated by a constant effort to acquire and house every book I might need to satisfy an absurdly diverse range of interests and curiosities.
During my boyhood, books were difficult to find, rare, and valuable. So I grew up a book hoarder and idolater. Today, the wisdom of the ages and the complete (out-of-copyright) contents of essentially every research library in the world are a mouse-click away.
Hat tip to Frank Dobbs.