Friday 26 April 2013


It happened. All the books came down from the attic, out of their boxes, and onto the new shelves. Well, most of them. There was a little culling to fit in some of the non-fiction, a few duplicates to get rid of, and I had to put the French books and the picture books back up because there still isn’t room for them. I suppose the fact that no one’s going to want to read them justifies this, but you know by now that I’d rather have them where I can keep an eye on them.

The new shelves are in the passage, so that you walk past them all the time going from one end of the house to the other. What is it that is so pleasing about having ranks of books? I see the children running their hands along them as they pass. They ask about this one, that one. Robert and I pick books up, look, put them back. I suppose in time we won’t even see these books, like the pictures on the walls, but just now they are intensely distracting.

I can’t work out when I last had all of my books on shelves rather than in boxes. A lot of them were around when we moved here, sixteen years ago, but I think at that point most of the children’s books were in the attic. Then, when the girls started to read for themselves I swapped them all over, put the children’s books on the shelves and the adult ones in the attic. That would have been, what, eight years ago? The reference books have stayed down here though, in case they were needed, apart from a year or so when we were having building work. So for the past eight years, I’ve had a couple of shelves of books I’ve recently bought, or things I’ve brought down from the attic to read, kept in check by ruthless culling and consigning more boxfuls to the attic at regular intervals.

So you would think, wouldn’t you, that after all this time, having my books where I can see them would give me deep satisfaction. I wish I could tell you that it was so. But I find myself slightly dissatisfied. My first thought was that this was because of the Missing Books. Where is my copy of Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites? Where is Midnight’s Children? Why do I only have two of the books in William Golding’s Rites of Passage trilogy? Where is Lord of the Flies? I know, I’ve probably lent them to people, but I don’t know for sure, which is unsettling.

It’s not this though, that is the really source of my dissatisfaction. Looking at all the adult fiction I own, laid out like that in front of me, I feel that I do not have enough books. How can I explain this? I don’t mean that I should have kept the books I’ve culled over time. No. When I give away a book to a charity shop or a school I do so because I feel that I do not need to own it. I am not interested in ever reading it again, I doubt if I will specifically want to suggest to anyone else that they read it, it is not beautiful enough to keep for its looks alone, and I don’t need to keep it because it is part of a set. I don’t regret any of the books I’ve given away. What I regret is the books I haven’t bought.

There weren’t a lot of books in my house when I was a child. My mother is a library-goer. She rarely reads a book more than once and has no acquisitiveness as far as books are concerned. My father has never been a reader. My brother is, but I think when we were at home he felt no need to hold on to the books he’d read. Maybe he’s different now. But me, I wanted to keep all the books I’d read, and I wanted shelves and shelves of books I felt I might want to read one day. I satisfied this urge with secondhand books. Once a month in the town where we lived, there was an antiques fair. Tucked away in the corner was a secondhand bookstall where they sold books for 10p and 20p, all sorts of beautiful, musty-smelling old books. I would come away each month with piles of everything, anything, ideally in hardback, with the occasional lovely old orange Penguin, authors I’d vaguely heard of, for that price it didn’t really matter what I bought. I still have books I bought then that I haven’t read yet. And after that, I worked in bookshops. This was still the days of the Net Book Agreement, so of course I took advantage of my 33% discount (how would I resist?), going home most weeks with two or three shiny new paperbacks, new authors, prize winners, backlist titles for authors I already loved, genres I’d not yet tried.

There’s a gap after that though. We bought a house, which needed money; we had children, who are expensive. Secondhand books don’t cost 10p anymore, and anyway, I’ve never had enough shelves to put the books I already own on. I stopped buying random books. The books I buy now, and the ones on my wishlists, these are books I plan to read. But I still want more of those others, those ‘oh, that looks interesting’ kind of books that you fill the shelves with and pick up one day. Last week I read Lolita; I must have had it since before we moved here. For sixteen years or more this book has been waiting for me to read it. It was fabulous, a revelation. Would I have bought it new from a bookshop? Probably not. Would I have borrowed it from the library? Probably not. That’s why I need to redevelop my idle secondhand book buying habits. I want more of these random books, these chance finds lying about the house. And that, lovely husband, is why I still need even more bookshelves.


  1. That was a beautiful read! So much of it is like listening to the voice inside my own head.

    I had my first cull for decades a couple of weeks back, and managed to get rid of about 20 novels. That was it. I miss them already, and want them back.

    And the final sentence is one I say out loud quite a lot.

  2. I came across your husband surrounded by heaps of books at your house just when I was in the middle of sorting my own. As I chatted and organized children's lives, half of me was thinking 'Look, you just go and sort the kids out, there are a couple of things here that have caught my eye, so I'll just sit down here for a moment or two...'

  3. I wish I had all of my books on the same continent.

  4. I cannot fit all my fiction books on to the same set of bookshelves, so there is, first, a chasm between A-S and everything else. Which is distressing, divisive and difficult to justify emotionally - just because Vergil doesn't make the cut, why should he be demoted to the passage, rather than the warm sitting room? But even before that, there were other schisms - slightly embarrassed by my complete collection of Georgette Heyer (in fact, rather more than a complete collection, as I have 'The Autograph edition' - which makes for nice regular spines *and* the first copy of each book I actually read - the lurid Pan paperbacks, which were where I first fell in love with each hero and therefore can never be thrown away), she was re-housed in the downstairs loo, along with other prolific, much-loved, but insufficiently impressive authors. Non-fiction is split very clearly between His and Hers - He gets forestry, timber, architecture, philosophy, Ancient & Near Eastern History; She gets everything else. So, between intellectual snobbery and a lack of a thirty (forty, fifty) foot library, our books are everywhere....

    1. Just listened to Patrick Ness on the radio describing the books he owns as the external representation of his soul, which is close to how I feel about mine, I think. However, I wonder what it means to have part of your soul hidden away in the loo...

    2. Like a slightly insanitary Horcrux?


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