The secret life of books

I’ve not been doing very much writing recently. The flotsam of ideas in my head have been stubbornly refusing to connect, like flecks of soured milk in a cup of tea or clumps of wet sugar. Then I saw this delightful little film and realised, not for the first time, that the best place to look for inspiration is at home. Specifically in the rows and rows of books that furnish my house and weigh down the bookcase in my spare room.

Shelving books is not an activity I approach casually. When I finish a book, the first thing I do is put it on the ‘recently finished’ shelf in the corner of the bedroom. This holds roughly 50 volumes, good for a year’s worth of reading for the two of us. (We work. We have children). I find it aids the process of digestion to have the books I’ve just finished all together, in a quiet niche of the house where they can tickle my mind for a little longer. It’s a good way of fending off that alarming faculty we have of forgetting almost everything we’ve ever read, or burying it so deep in our subconscious that it takes a massive effort of will to retrieve it (If you don’t believe me, see if you can recall, right now, the last three books you read – without looking at your shelves. Bet you can’t).

Obviously, however, every time I shelve a new volume on the right-hand side, something has to give at the other end. And this is where it gets complicated. In the first place, they go downstairs to the ‘display unit’ in the living room. This, confusingly, is mostly hidden behind one of the sofas; its status is a hangover from our previous home, which we left four years ago. The top shelf is occupied by English-language fiction, the second shelf foreign-language fiction (Dutch, German and – I think – two slender volumes in French), the third non-fiction (all languages). There are rules that govern which books are removed to make space: a book can only be replaced by one read in the same language and by the same person, unless there are exceptional circumstances. For example, sometimes a book is so large that two volumes must be sacrificed to make room for it.

Now I must reshelve the books that were taken out to make room for the book that was removed from the main bedroom (still with me?). Here there are a number of options. Books I still really rate go in one of two units in the living room, which are loosely organised by category: fiction (arranged alphabetically), sport (previously arranged by height, now alphabetical), poetry, drama, short stories, history, crime, travel writing, miscellaneous non-fiction. There is a shelf devoted to hardback fiction, again arranged in alphabetical order. Outside in the hallway is another shelf for fiction, humour and travel guidebooks; a lot of the fiction here is the overspill from the living room. Then there is another, smaller, shelf unit in the bedroom, almost entirely stocked with fiction, most of it books we read years ago but still remember fondly. Some of them date from childhood. A place on the bedroom shelf usually indicates one of us has some kind of intimate bond with that book – perhaps it inspired us when we were younger, or we associate it with a particularly enjoyable holiday.

Once the shelving process has reached this point, and it has often been through three or four stages by now, there is still one unit left. This is the tall bookcase in the study. The lower shelves are reserved for particular types of books: graphic novels on the bottom, language reference (such as dictionaries) on the one above, but the top four shelves are the ‘last chance saloon’, where books go when they have nowhere else left. I often feel a twinge of guilt condemning once-cherished books to these shelves, but whatever Stephen Hawking (whose Brief History of Time is a long-term resident) may tell you, space is not infinite. Again, one shelf is for non-fiction, one for English-language fiction, one for foreign fiction and a final, wider shelf catches any larger or remaining volumes. But if putting books on these shelves can feel like taking a cat to the vet, choosing which ones to remove is positively brutal, since the only place left is the black bin liner bound for the charity shop.

It’s at this point that I realise how hopelessly sentimental the whole endeavour is. I don’t really need to look at these books forever; I’ve forgotten 95% of what’s in them and will probably never open them again. It makes much more sense, really, to put them on another shelf, in a more public room, where people can pick them up and revive them, giving a small donation to charity along the way. But there’s an awful finality about letting go of books, in the same way that I felt a twinge of sadness at the end of Toy Story 3, even though the toys had escaped the furnace and ended up in a loving home.

That might be why I haven’t been to the charity shop in months, and there are now nearly 40 volumes gathering dust on top of the ‘last chance’ shelves. They’ll reach the ceiling soon, and then I really will have to do something.

Oh, and before you ask, I have no plans to get a Kindle. Ever.

* Thanks to Jonathan Pinnock for the link.

3 thoughts on “The secret life of books

  1. You’re so right. I have a similar system, though not quite as organised. I would want to buy a new Kindle for every book, which would somewhat defeat the purpose, but books are artefacts, they are things, they matter as things; they have smell, texture, memories, history – and they age. They turn yellow, pages fall out. This is not a disaster. This is part of the life of a book. If it is deeply precious, it can be re-bound. I’ve had this done at wincingly great expense for a couple of Victorian art books. These are enormous, heavy tomes. Unless someone designs an enormous Kindle (which again, would somewhat defeat the purpose) then they need to be lovingly preserved on the lower shelf of my ‘display’ book case so that anyone can come in and take one of them out and leaf through its pages and wonder at the sheer joy of such a thing.

  2. Working at a charity shop has made me far less attached to books per se but more aware of which ones I cherish and will not part with – and they are all old volumes from my mother or mother-in-law, with the exception of signed editions and out of print specialities.

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