Do books furnish a room? Or are they just a massive encumbrance? It’s a painful question, but one I found myself pondering while moving house recently. By the time I’d sorted through what I wanted to keep, there were some 2,000 books to be somehow disposed of.
The conventional wisdom that charity shops will be glad of them can be laid to rest. They can sell clothes and the odd utensil. But nobody, we learned, really goes there to browse for books. Secondhand bookshops were thin on the ground. So the books were eventually packed into supermarket trolleys outside the warehouse premises of a hospice charity, and even then there was much tutting and shaking of heads.
This is the first time in my life I’ve seen books — my own books — as unwanted junk. As we loaded them into the trolleys, they came to seem like the obsessive-compulsive clutter of an unrepentant hoarder.
What’s the point of keeping most books once they’ve been read? They huddle together on the shelves and then, when shelf space runs out, they stand around in precarious columns on the floor. Do they speak to your visitors of your capacious literary appetite? Or do they just count as old friends, standing protectively around you on permanent guard?
According to one way of looking at the problem, a personal library is an enormous accumulation of books you don’t want to read either because you once tried and failed, or because you’ve already read them. In past times, the library of a grand house was a domestic resource that contained a repository of knowledge that couldn’t be stored in any other way. These days, no such space-consuming resource seems necessary. There will always be books to which one wants to refer back again and again. But what of most of the novels, biographies of minor figures, the tidal wave of critical theory? The answer: they can go. Having served their moment, they can be shown the door. It’s a brutally efficient new system — buy, read, flog on Amazon Marketplace. But it feels like a mid-life rite of passage. And before anyone says “ebooks”, I spend enough time staring at screens already.
I’m looking at a picture of interior designer Sallie Trout, who’s fitted a stairwell in her home with scattered bookshelves that she accesses by means of a bosun’s chair attached to a chain hoist hanging from the ceiling. She looks like she’s dangling from a ski lift, whiling the time till rescue by leafing through an illustrated book. The crazed ingenuity of it is at once impressive and preposterous. I’d really rather get rid.