I was intending to write a review today of Ali Smith’s newest novel, the very recently published There but for the, which I bought read and loved, all in the space of a few days. But my brain is sort of soggy after all the excitement we’ve had around here lately and that’s a novel I really want to do justice to. So instead I want to think about what happens to the books that don’t get read the moment they are brought home. I’ve been obliged to consider their fate this weekend as I’ve been having a cull of my bookshelves. I know! It’s so distressing, and I absolutely hate to let any book of mine go. And yet, there comes a point when books start to look accusingly at me from the shelves and I know I have no intention of reading them in the near future, or perhaps at all. That it will need some sort of coincidence or chance to re-ignite my interest and make me take them off the shelf. I use my bookshelves as a form of meditation; I sit in the armchair and let my eyes run over the titles, and my spirits perk up as I see books I have still to read and that I’m looking forward to, and books that I’ve loved that one day I’ll maybe read again. This is a lovely, lazy occupation, full of promise, but I don’t enjoy it so much when there are too many books that make me feel slightly uncomfortable, like we used to be friends but I haven’t been in contact for too long.
It all began this weekend with my French books. These I didn’t have any qualms about culling. Now I’m no longer teaching French literature, I was quite ready to get rid of the books that I wasn’t so fond of teaching, Boris Vian, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, André Breton, and some of the research books that I know I’ll never return to again. I don’t read enough French these days, so I wanted my shelves to look really tempting, with new books that I’m intrigued by, or old favourites I’d love to reread. Now I’m working at the secondhand bookstore, I have a great place to offload old copies (I’m manic about keeping my books really neat and smart), and their French language section is really good, so I don’t think they’ll languish there unloved.
Having started the cull, I was on a roll, and began to tackle the bookshelves in the study. (‘Are you feeling all right?’ Mister Litlove asked me, concerned). I began weeding out books I’d read and knew I’d never read again. That was the easy bit. Then there were difficult decisions. The last time I worked in a bookstore I had a third-off discount as staff, and I ran a bit wild with it. There were a lot of books dating from the early nineties which I’d bought for no better reason than that they sounded a bit interesting. I’ve always been a fairly indiscriminate reader (because you never know what’s going to turn out to be great) but I suppose I do have a better sense now of what I’ll really appreciate. It was funny revisiting this decade and realising just how much fashion there is in book publishing. There was a careful, wordy, literary style in vogue applied to sparsely-plotted family tales back then that you never see in the shops any more. There’s not so much of it on my bookshelves now, either.
But once I’d finished and had a crate full of books in front of me, I did feel sad. There are reasons why I need to have a mountainous TBR pile. One the one hand those books are a buffer between me and my mortality. I’m intending to have a lifetime of fantastic reading, and to have a significant chunk of it lined up and waiting is a sort of spiritual reassurance. On the other hand, books for me are a material form of hope. Between those covers, I hope to find enlightenment, entertainment, wisdom, escape, insight, solidarity, pleasure. The more hope I have banked up around me, the more positive I feel about the future. It feels like a little death of hope to have lost interest in some of those old books, as if I didn’t keep faith with them, as well as they offered to keep faith with me. But let’s not get too maudlin here – I promise you that I have plenty of unread books left! And it’s nice to see my shelves reinvigorated with some different titles. I can do this, just not often; once every twenty years or so seems about right to me.