What We Did On Holiday

For the last couple of months, Mr Litlove has been busy making me new bookcases. It will probably not surprise you to know that we have been experiencing a bit of a book crisis once again. Mr Litlove has been rumbling darkly to the effect that rather than live in a house with a lot of books, we have now veered into the territory of hoarders and eccentrics, and are living in a library that happens to have beds in it. I’m not sure why this should be an issue, but he seems to think it is. So when my new bookcases were good to go, I decided that I would grit my teeth and have a cull.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

New bookcase #1: crime, non-fiction and recent acquisitions.

Like most difficult things, the hard bit is getting started. I don’t like letting go of any book, and mostly my feeling is that what I own is part of my mind, part of my inner life. Even if I haven’t read a book yet, I’ve wanted it and intended to experience its world, and that says something about the extent of my tastes and interests. But as I get older, I find my feelings are beginning to change. I used to be interested in everything because I believed I had the inner flexibility to appreciate and encompass it. There was very little I didn’t want to read. I wanted the life of my mind to be vast and adventurous, and believed firmly that the job of the reader is to find the pleasure in a book and to stretch their imagination to fit.

But now I am gradually becoming more picky. I accept that there are kinds of writing that I like more than others, ways of handling ideas that I prefer. And it’s beginning to bother me to see books on my shelves that I’ve read once and know I’ll not want to read again. A new ideal library is evolving for me, based not on breadth and depth of literature, but on books that really fire me up when I look at them.

So with this in mind, it was easier to cull than usual. I ended up with a significant pile of books to find homes for – and that was the other part of the equation. I couldn’t throw them away. I love my books tenderly, and I wanted to send them somewhere they’d be appreciated.

For ages I’ve been putting off donating a whole load of my French academic texts to the library. This had nothing to do with the books and everything to do with the weirdness of returning to my old faculty. Walking up the stairs in the Raised Faculty Building is one of those deeply ingrained memories that make regular appearances in dreams. The stairs have such a particular smell – cleaning fluid, concrete, hot book dust – and haven’t changed at all since I was a first year student. In consequence, whenever I walked up them as a lecturer, I could still remember exactly how it felt, as an overawed 18-year-old, to be heading off to the terrifying experience of a language class. I wasn’t sure how it would be to return with no connection to the university at all. The power of oppression that the building made on me fed into my sense of status when I was teaching. I had taken on that building and won. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to walk up the old stairs having lost.

In the end it was the rather lovely librarian that made all the difference. I’d rung up that morning to test the waters.

‘What would you say to a donation of books?’ I’d asked her. ‘I used to teach here.’

‘I’d say ooh lovely and thank you very much,’ she replied.

That made me laugh. It’s always such a pleasure to come across a human being.

‘But would you mind if we gave the books to the students rather than put them on the shelves in some cases?’

‘I wouldn’t mind in the least,’ I said. ‘I just want them to go to good homes.’

Mr Litlove and I loaded up the car and set off for the faculty. Any tension I might have felt at the site was dissipated by the fact that I couldn’t locate the Raised Faculty Building; since I’d left, they’d put up a whole new block of Criminology. (I would have liked a peek at that library!) When we carried the boxes in, the librarian was delighted.

‘There’s lots of good stuff here!’ she said. ‘I’ve already seen several set texts.’

(Yes, I thought, they were the among the first to go.)

‘The students will be so pleased with these,’ she said. ‘Thank you!’

I felt so buoyed when I got back in the car.

‘It’s just like being Father Christmas,’ I said to Mr Litlove.

‘I suppose that makes me Rudolph,’ he replied.

We didn’t get such a rapturous welcome at the local library. I’d brought a large number of old review copies, mostly hardback, that were in pretty perfect condition. One volunteer took a distracted look at me waiting with my bags at the desk and headed into the staff room to make herself a cup of tea or something. The other had her back to me and was checking out some very complex selection of books and DVDs (and was still involved in that by the time I left). Eventually the first woman returned and accepted the bags with unrelenting vagueness. They may still be where I left them.

Finally we had a big box of paperbacks to take to the charity shop in the village. The woman there was initially suspicious – over her shoulder we could see a back room that was full to bursting with junk – but she accepted them happily enough when she could see they were good quality. I knew how she felt. I’d seen enough donations come in to the Amnesty bookshop to know how discouraging boxes of mildewed, gritty books can be.

When I got back home, I felt much lighter somehow. I was almost ready to start weeding again. My head wishes I was still that wide-open-minded reader, curious about everything, keener to find meaning and skill in a book than to appease a desire for reliable comfort. But my heart was happier to look around my shelves and see only books I loved or felt excited about. Perhaps now, I thought, I can keep to a one-in, one-out policy.

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

New bookcase #2 comfort reads (well it IS in my bedroom).

So when six review copies arrived over the course of this week, do you think I found six books to throw out? Nope, you’re right, of course not!

32 thoughts on “What We Did On Holiday

  1. What a delightful text about the problems of a real reader! I will show the first paragraph to my husband. It made me laugh out loud.
    And I really like your solution to the more serious questions – which books to keep and where to put the ones which shall go. You will make some students happy, people browsing through the charity shop will be delighted to find quality paperbacks. The unenthusiastic and unfriendly people at the library are part of a secret international club: Exactly the same happenend to me when I wanted to give high quality hardback books to my local library.
    And it is always – at least for me – difficult to keep the fine balance between buying new books but not buying so many of them that I feel burdenend because I know I simply don’t have the place to store them and even worse: not the time to read them.
    One thing works differently for me: I love getting rid of books I know I don’t want to read again.
    Have a rewarding time with the next books you want to read and treat your Rudolph nicely. I’m sure someday you’ll need more shelves. Anna

    • Anna, that is such a lovely comment, thank you! I’m particularly reassured to know there is a secret international club for small local libraries – that explains so much! I find it quite impossible to keep my hands off new paperbacks that I like the look of, despite all my best intentions, so I will definitely have to keep Rudolf on side… bookcases do only seem to last so long in this house!🙂

  2. Lovely shelves – and well done on the cull! I am going to have to have one over the summer and I’m limbering up for it mentally now – I get terribly attached emotionally to my books but I need to be realistic about what I will actually read/read again. We shall see…..!

    • I know exactly what you mean. I really don’t like letting books go, and usually manage about five years between each cull. It certainly did help to have a big think about what I wanted to keep and what I was prepared to let go before I started. ‘Limbering up mentally’ is the perfect description for it!🙂

  3. My academic library is discarding books rather than taking them in so I haven’t been able to adopt that strategy as part of a solution to a similar problem. Good quality review copies I tend to pass onto friends who aren’t able to afford new hardbacks but really relish having the chance to read in that format. My only stipulation is that they have to be passed on again so that as many people as possible can get some pleasure out of them. The problem I find with donating to charity shops is that I have to go into them in order to give them the books. Unfortunately, this means that there is a fair chance that I will walk out with as many books as I went in with in the first place. Putting me in any book environment is a very bad idea! And as for keeping to a one in, one out policy! The Bears are having hysterics at the very thought!

    • I like the idea of passing hardbacks around a group – I think I know too many people with bookshelves rather like mine! – but it’s a really nice idea. And I know exactly what you mean about going into a bookshop to give books away. Funnily enough, Amnesty did cure me of that after a while. If you get used enough to the books on the shelves, you do begin not to see them. However, blinkers might be the only solution for a normal visit!🙂

  4. I put all my books up for sale. Amazing how undiscerning you are when you have to pay rent.

    Those shelves are awesome!

  5. I’m very close to giving in and getting a couple of new bookcases myself. I have a full bookcase of unread books, and the built-in bookcases, where the books I want to keep live is getting close to full. I’ve been resisting because I don’t have much room, but it occurs to me that short bookcases, like yours, would give me some valuable surfaces as well as book storage.

    My library is usually happy to accept books, unless they’re in the middle of preparing for a sale and unable to cope with more. I keep a bag handy, and when I read one of my unread books, if it doesn’t seem like something I’ll want to revisit, into the bag it goes, and when it’s full I take the bag to the library. It’s not quite a one-in, one-out policy, but I try.

    • Teresa, I remember you having some serious culls before now. You always strike me as someone with a very healthy policy on border control of your book shelves! But every so often a new bookcase can be useful in all sorts of ways. I agree I like the surfaces of mine, too, for display purposes and more.

  6. As silly as this is going to sound I find that very brave actually! I really need to do the same–weeding is calling to me, but I have such a hard time letting go sometimes of books. I am fearing having the label ‘hoarder’ slapped on me, too, and the scary thing, I think I am close to it. I would have to spend a week of vacation doing it, too. Of course, surely it must feel good, too, to see all that space–now you can buy more books! (Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mr Litlove). Lovely bookcases by the way–he is very talented!

    • That’s nice of you to say, because it did take me a while to gear up for it! I don’t let books go lightly – they are part of my nest and part of my life. Plus it happens every time that I get rid of a few; suddenly I turn out to need one I’ve given away! Heh, I’m glad my secret is safe with you!🙂 I think Mr Litlove likes building bookcases really – or at least, I’m determined to run with that thought!

  7. You did do well. When I retired and cleared out my office, I managed to sell quite a few books on Amazon, but had to donate a lot as well. Nowadays I am much more ruthless than I used to be, and have been giving review copies away left right and centre, which makes me very popular. I like your criterion of books that fire you up when you look at them. An excellent basis for decision-making. x

    • Dear Harriet quite frankly it’s a great way to live ones life (substitute friends, lovers, cats etc. for books). I think one of the (few) advantages of getting older is that you begin to care less about what other people think and I think you care less about what your inner demon/angel thinks too.

      I ask people at work if some meeting or other is going to be “fun” from time to time; that might mean intellectually stimulating (i.e. “fires me up” )or it might mean we all have a good time. A few of my colleagues “get it” but many look quite bemused. Around the time of my inaugural lecture some years ago my lovely witchy friend Professor T said “You need to have more fun in your life.” To my surprise I took her advice …

      Bad Cat x

    • Harriet, I confess I’ve got a lot further I could go with my old work books. I have shelves of French lit at the moment, and I haven’t quite been able to part with it, though I really don’t read much French at the moment (now why might that be, do you think???). I am certainly getting more ruthless, though, and will probably return to the great pile of theoretical and critical works I own to weed out a few more. Alas, they do not fire me up when I look at them! (But then I fear I’ll need them as soon as I let them go…).

      Dark Puss – Heaven only knows what cats get up to for ‘fun’ – it doesn’t bear thinking about!😉

  8. This blog post is just perfection . I’m just so happy to have read this blog post . First of all the bookcase looks beautiful . I really envy you for that stunning bookcase . It’s just perfect . Secondly , now I understand that every reader , at some point feels like getting rid of certain books that don’t make them feel “needy” anymore . I’ve had this experience too . At such times , it kinda leads me to some sort of a depression . Books that makes you feel special , are like the greatest gifts you give yourself . This blog post just made my day .

    • Aw bless you! What a kind comment. I completely agree about the books that make a person feel special. They are one of life’s greatest pleasures.🙂

  9. What a lovely post🙂 I often find it difficult to get rid of any books – I tend to even keep those ones that I’m unsure I’ll read/reread just in case I want to read them at some point in the future! I can already see that this system will mean I’ll have very full bookshelves before long…

  10. I love your concept of what your home library should be now – book that fire you up. I will have to make a serious cull sometimes soon as the sitch here is also rather out of hand.

    PS. Amazed your public library took the books at all – some of ours aren’t allowed.

  11. Very helpful. i have shelves of books never to be read again – must overcome the inertia and find them homes – a charity that gives them overseas would be good if anyone knows of one.

    I really did not like the main university library – such an imposing edifide – went in once and glad I never had to again.

  12. Mr. Litlove makes beautiful bookcases! I would love to go through my books like you did as I have come to realize that there are some I bought and will now never read for whatever reason, mostly a change of interest, and ones I have read and no longer feel like I need to keep them. But Bookman hasn’t gotten to a point of wanting to let go of some things yet and since we share a library it has to be a mutual weeding. I had to laugh at the end of the post. I think you can be forgiven because they are review copies, not exactly ones you bought. Just be sure to deal with them immediately after you have finished reading them!

  13. Your new bookcases are beautiful! And I am in support of the great cull — as much as I love my books, it is a lovely thing to get rid of a bunch of stuff. So freeing! You always DO end up feeling lighter, even if you were reluctant to start with, and I’ve found the more you make a habit of getting rid of things, the easier it gets. I LOVE getting rid of things.

    (I only keep books I’ve given my heart to. My TBR list is aspirational, but my bookshelves are who I really am.)

  14. I’m still smiling about you two living in ‘A library that happens to have beds in it … .’ What a glorious idea … do you think Mr LitLove will come round to it?

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