Earlier this month I took a look at one of our bookcases and realized that there were dozens of books there that I am unlikely to read in the next year or two. I grew up in a house without many books for adults. (I was going to write “adult books”, but that means something different). My father read plenty of books, but always from libraries. My family’s book-buying began when I was a child, with books for children (Ladybirds, then Puffins mostly) and continued on with books for younger readers and finally books for adults.
A milestone in this book-buying journey (sorry if that sounds a bit melodramatic, but I have been reading “Jane Eyre” recently) was the Teenage Reading List that I wrote about last month. Since the age of 13 I have bought thousands of books. Most of my teenage disposable income, such as it was, was spent on books, and most of my requests for birthday and Christmas presents were for lists of books. The four books that my parents gave me on my 14th birthday offer a prophetic look at what happens to the books on my shelves, or rather (at that age) shelf. (At 14 all of the books that I owned, not the Puffins and other young reader titles that were shared between me and my siblings, could fit on a single bookshelf.) The four books I got for my 14th birthday were: George Orwell’s “1984” (which I read immediately), Conan Doyle’s “A study in scarlet” (which I read eventually), Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1” (which I started and never finished) and “Shardik” (Richard Adams’s follow-up to “Watership Down”; I read his earlier book but doubt that I will ever read this one).
My approach to these four books could well apply to every book I have been given or bought for myself: I have read a quarter of them immediately, another quarter of them eventually, I have read at least part of another quarter and maybe I will never read a quarter of the books that I own. I buy books “just in case” as well as “just in time”. That’s why I boxed up 50 of the books mentioned in the first sentence of this piece, moving them off shelves and into a limbo state that could be storage, or for once in my life I might finally get rid of some. I still own a copy of every book that I have ever bought, with one exception. When I have lent books to people and not had them returned (because that’s what happens when you lend books) I have bought a replacement. (One book that I lent and have never replaced is now out of print, but maybe it will be returned to me. It’s only been 20 years.) I also have a copy of every book that I have ever read, with a handful of exceptions. The only titles that come to mind are Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, and Peter Turner’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”, about his relationship with Gloria Grahame, one of my favourite actresses. I could treat myself to a copy of that one soon, it’s available at a well-known online book retailer for under a tenner.
I think a lot about shelving and storage. Items on shelves should be things that you want to see or use regularly. Items that are only used occasionally or seasonally should be stored away somewhere when they’re not being used. Christmas decorations are in the latter category, and they are about the only thing that I successfully put away when they are done, year after year. I adhere strictly to the deadline that my mother taught us: the tree and all decorations should be down before noon on 6 January. Everywhere I have lived the Christmas decorations have had a clearly defined place for the 49 weeks that they are not in use. Nothing else is so clear-cut. Sometimes we have sunscreen sitting on shelves, in full view, through the whole of the winter, even though there are at least 6 months of the year when it’s not needed. Our winter coats are still on the hat-stand in the hall, not put away and out of sight for the summer. Yes, I should put them away until winter is here again, and will, when this piece is finished. I have at least put all of our washable winter gloves and hats in the washing machine today. When they’re dry I will put them away, in a drawer, honest.
The sight of dozens of books that I am unlikely to read in the future was bugging me, so the 50 that I selected are now sitting in a small cardboard box, on a unit that counts as storage rather than shelving. Their spines are no longer staring at me, reminding me that they will still be unread in 2018. For once, rather than filling up a box in a hurry and having only a vague idea of what’s in there, I kept a list of the contents, printed it and taped it to the outside of the box. A few of the books are duplicates (a paperback copy of Humphrey Jennings’s “Pandaemonium”, for instance, which I also have in a more readable hardback edition). In the interests of version control, and to offer you a glimpse into my book-buying and non-reading habits over the last 25 years, the list appears at the end of this piece.
Some people are very organized at rearranging and moving things on when they are no longer current, much better at this than I am. A business consultant I did some work with many years ago took a very strong view with things that have not been used for a while. He’d say, “Take a look at your wardrobe; if there’s anything there that you haven’t worn for a year, get rid of it.” My “wardrobe” isn’t substantial enough to get rid of many items, but it would be if I had spent as much of my disposable income on clothes as I have on books. Can I apply his principle to the many hundreds of books that I have bought and might never read? Based on past experience, no, but I’ll keep thinking about it.
Finally, here’s that list, the June 2016 box of books, acquired at some point in the last 25 years and unlikely to be read, by me, anytime soon.
A Thirsty Evil (Gore Vidal)
The Affair (CP Snow)
The African Trilogy (Chinua Achebe)
The Age of Kali (William Dalrymple)
Another World (Pat Barker)
Astonishing the Gods (Ben Okri)
Black Swan Green (David Mitchell)
Bliss (Peter Carey)
Cinema of Andrzej Wajda (Andrzej Wajda)
Close Quarters (William Golding)
Cocaine Nights (JG Ballard)
The Debt to Pleasure (John Lanchester)
The Detainees (Sean Hughes)
Existentialism (John Macquarrie)
The Expelled and other Novellas (Samuel Beckett)
Fire from the Ashes (Kenzaburo Oe)
From the Holy Mountain (William Dalrymple)
General in his Labyrinth (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Germinal (Emile Zola)
Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
The Heel of Achilles (Arthur Koestler)
Helena (Evelyn Waugh)
In Evil Hour (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Last Days of the Beeb (Michael Leapman)
Lenin in Zurich (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
The Long Firm (Jake Arnott)
Lucky You (Carl Hiaasen)
Mr Stone & the Knight’s Companion (VS Naipaul)
Mrs Thatcher’s Economic Experiment (William Keegan)
Naked Lunch (William Burroughs)
The New Men (CP Snow)
Old Goriot (Honore de Balzac)
Pandaemonium (Humphrey Jennings (duplicate))
Providence (Anita Brookner)
Restoration (Rose Tremain)
Scargill and the Miners (Michael Crick)
Sense & Sensibility (Jane Austen (duplicate))
Shame (Salman Rushdie)
The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)
Snow (Orhan Pamuk)
So much for that (Lionel Shriver)
Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)
The Third Man & Fallen Idol (Graham Greene)
Thirst for Love (Yukio Mishima)
The Tiger’s Wife (Tea Obreht)
Too Far Afield (Gunter Grass)
Torrents of Spring (Ernest Hemingway)
The Underground Man (Mick Jackson)
What a carve up! (Jonathan Coe)
White Mughal (William Dalrymple)