Oppressed by books

January 23, 2019

My study has needed re-painting for a while, and I finally tackled it last week; it took far longer than I expected, because of the books, and rather alarmingly, by the end of it, I felt quite oppressed by them. Although the study is quite roomy, it’s full of stuff, all of which had to be moved, along with the 1000 or so books on six different sets of shelves, before a particular section of the room could be painted. As I finally re-shelved the last of the books, I did a small cull, wishing I could do a bigger one. Am I ever going to read that again? I found myself thinking.

There’s always an – and yet – though.

There’s a particular physical comfort and sensual pleasure from being surrounded by books, most of which I’m quite attached to in some way or other. Many of them are physically nice objects, with quality paper, good quality binding, well looked-after… and that’s before I think about the contents. I love the Everyman’s Library series and have quite a lot of these: they are not OTT in the way I find the Folio Society collection, for example. And I also have quite a lot of cheap French paperbacks, which I like for their fine design – echoing Penguin in earlier days – and basic quality paper.

I like the various sections that line my study: almost a wall of travel writing which I’ve gradually collected over the last couple of decades, a wall of literature with its complete hardback Arden Shakespeare Second Series in individual volumes, shelves of history, atlases. I feel at home in this room, and it’s good to have so much within easy reach of my enormous desk.

And yet, I felt oppressed. Many of the books will go eventually, as I age, and re-read before reluctantly parting with them. But others need to go now. I piled up all the Polish albums of photos of cities, gifts from the socialist era when there was plenty of spare cheap printing capacity and the regime wanted to boast both of the nation’s past and the socialist construction: I probably looked through them a couple of times forty years ago and never since. I don’t have the time or the inclination to try and sell books online, so they will go to Amnesty. And there are many other lovely coffee-table type books that I cannot bear to part with at the moment.

I know that a disciplined approach would have me ruthlessly go through everything and select only the books I could definitely justify keeping (ha ha!). I recognise that my feelings are changing with age, and I do try and de-clutter, but I cannot understand the various lifestyle coaches who just say ‘get rid of it all, you can always buy it again if you need it’ and readers who claim to keep everything they need on their e-readers cannot really be serious, in my books. My books do increasingly remind me of my mortality: they can outlive me, and will not have the associations they have for me, for others…

Anyway, I now have a newly-painted study, in exactly the same colours as it was before but cleaner and fresher, and in another ten years I may well not care about re-decorating…

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