Saturday, October 19, 2013

What's on your bookshelf?

Reading angry chicken's post about building a family library got me thinking over the last week. How did the selection of books on my shelves get there, what do they say about me and how do they enrich my life?

As you will have seen, I've been a little alarmed recently by identifying my reluctance to throw out things that are broken, damaged or no longer needed as the tip of the iceberg of proper, full-on can't-see-the-floors-or-even-the-walls hoarding.

The two factors came together with the realisation that most of the books on my shelf do not enrich my life. I have been holding on to lots of books that I have read and will never read again, some of which I did not particularly enjoy, but all of which I feel I have to keep hold of. This is perhaps partly a learned response, as I have always been taught never to get rid of books as they are an investment in your intellectual future, but also I think I have been clinging to an image that my bookshelves portrayed. I like being someone who has Virgina Woolf and Samuel Beckett on her bookshelves, even if I know I am never again going to read Nohow On. It was depressing enough the first time.

This means that every time I walk into the spare room, where all the bookshelves are, I feel conflicted between the life I would like to have and the one I do. Much as I would love to be an erudite reader who enjoys dissecting the finer points of Beckett after too much booze, this is not (or no longer) really a part of my life. I want to embrace new intellectual challenges - and read Beckett's plays, which I do enjoy, rather than his prose. I also look at the cluttered selection of books stacked two deep on all shelves, and piling up towards the ceiling, and feel how far this is from a peaceful, restorative and stimulating library I would like to have.

The purpose of a book is to be read. By holding books in perpetual storage on my shelves, all I do is make it harder to see the books I might pick up and read, and block new and exciting books from coming in to join the party. So I am selling four bags of books to the second-hand bookshop I frequent, and I hope they will entertain, inspire and challenge many more people. I can now actually see the books I have not yet read, and can think about which books I might like to add to a smaller but more meaningful and purposeful collection.


  1. I love that post about building a library. I kind of want to steal the bookplate thing, but the problem is that most books that come out in beautiful editions (like the latest clothbound ones from Penguin) aren't ones that have any particular meaning for me. 'I read this in school in third year' isn't a particularly great reason to get a beautiful book. Why are there no exquisite editions of Anne of Green Gables?

    Apparently the books I find meaningful aren't necessarily the same books the publishing industry finds meaningful.

    1. I agree! I love the idea of the bookplate and would love to do that for my books and for books I give to people. And there should absolutely be exquisite hardbound copies of Anne of Green Gables. And alas, a first edition costs around $25,000 (yes I checked!)

      Maybe we should set up a publishing company specialising in gorgeous editions of the most well-loved classics? Who wouldn't want a beautiful edition of Little Women? My paperback is so worn that it won't last much longer, and the spine of An Old Fashioned Girl has almost entirely disintegrated.

    2. Well, as it happened after posting this I went to have a look on amazon. It's not available yet but this is a pretty hardback copy:

      Hardbacks are very nice for display, but less fun to lug around to actually read. It is a dilemma. I'm reading Anne's House of Dreams at the moment, because I haven't read it in ages.

    3. It is indeed a dilemma. Most of my Anne books are still in the UK - I might bring them over when I've cleared some space for them.

      I wondered if you were reading Anne's House of Dreams - your new blog background and title immediately made me think of it!



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