A bookcase isn’t merely a storage unit. It’s an expression of self, belief and ideals, a daily reminder of who we think we are, and a little information for our visitors. Many people in the UK do not own books, so being one of the ones who does have a shelf or bookcase automatically sets you aside. People who read tend to favour the company of other people who read, and will scan your books to check you out.
It’s not just about the reading. I own a lot of books that I probably won’t read, or won’t read again. They have stories about where they came from; when, why, who bought them, or bequeathed them. I had, during the first thirty or so years of my life, accumulated a lot of books and I lived in a house that clearly marked me out as a book person. There was no room for bookcases on the boat, we had one book box, and the rest were in storage. Books ceased to be objects of display for a while.
Now we’re settled in a flat. It isn’t a big space, and I like that – easier to heat and clean, and innately greener as a consequence. I want to live lightly, to consume less. I’ve let go of a great many things, and now I’ve started thinking about my relationship with the books I own. Why am I keeping them all? Do I need them? Would they be better off in other hands, being read? The author gets nothing if I give books away, but at the same time I’ve been converted to fandom by book loans plenty of times.
Giving away books is a very odd process, and runs counter to feelings and impulses I’ve had my whole life, and that run in my family. Even though my people have been resoundingly working class for some time (there are some distant figures, but that’s a story for another day…) we’ve long been book people. I own a bookcase which, from the date chalked on its back, was clearly my great grandmother’s. She liked Tennyson. Did she own more books than would fit in that bookcase? I don’t know.
In the early days of books, they were not just methods of communication, but objects of power and desire. You had to be wealthy to own a book, and the book itself would be gorgeous. To display a book was to display learning and disposable income. While mass production brought cheap paper that yellows in a decade or so, and unremarkable covers, that urge to display seems wired into the book owning mindset. That’s the trouble with kindle – no one can casually scan it and appreciate your taste, wit, erudite-ness, style etc. Books you just read and do not use to adorn rooms are only serving some of the functions of books.
Most things I now find it easy to let go of when I’ve ceased to have any use for them. Most things can flow through my hands, no trouble at all. Learning to overcome all the cultural and emotional layers I’ve built up around book owning, is a process. I started with the books I didn’t much like: A tricky process of admitting there were books that I hadn’t much enjoyed and didn’t mean to read again, but still had not been able to part with. Why? I’m not sure I can answer. Learning to recognise books that I won’t re-read and that no one else in my family would read, and letting them go. Why keep them? And yet, sometimes when I can’t sleep, I recall their covers like the faces of lost friends and wonder if I made the right call.
Made of trees and filled with inspiration… perhaps it’s no wonder I default to treating them like sacred objects.