Books and declutter; I am not sure whether those two words can belong in the same sentence. But I am hearing other people combine them because I am moving. Moving house that is. Moving house means moving everything inside the house that isn’t nailed to the floor: my furniture, my clothes, the lamps, the food in my fridge and my books. As soon as I told them I was moving, kind friends began asking how I am getting on with decluttering and something they call ‘sorting out my books’. I consider my response: I’m not – getting on with it, that is; books aren’t clutter; my books don’t need sorting. In that pause my friends think I am considering the size of this task. Sometimes they add – ‘books are so dusty’ or ‘aren’t books heavy’. Both statements are true but obvious. Milk goes off. Someone’s hidden my Allen keys.
Now I am not being precious about books. I write in them, their corners get manked because I carry them in my rucksack, I stick post-it notes and those lovely plastic coloured page markers in them, give them away, and even throw them away sometimes. I just assume I’m going to have books around me, like mugs, spiders and socks with holes in the toes.
My Inner Critic pops up to remind me that I have not solved the problem of where I am going to keep my books in my new house. I anticipate hours of moving books around, organising shelves, changing my mind, sitting and reading a rediscovered volume, or searching for the companion to (say) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: ie Housekeeping and wondering if I can buy the recently released paperback version of her essays When I was a child I read books yet. Or wondering why I need three German-English-Deutsch dictionaries. I do, I do. Oh bliss!
Back to disposing of books. In preparation for my move I have been forced to look in my cellar, where I find that there are boxes of books (and it has to be admitted other things, such as a roof rack, paint tins, suitcases of different sizes, cat basket, empty jam jars, a box of tile spacers and other potentially useful stuff. I have neither cat nor car, by the way). The thing about the boxes of books (but not those other things) is that they have been there since I moved in 29 years ago. I try to apply a general principle that if I have not looked at them in 29 years I am unlikely to want to look at them in the next 29, so I can move them out and on. But of course this breaks down as soon as I come across War and Peace in two volumes, or Julian Barnes’ early works, or The Tin Drum. Rather than a decluttering fest I have a delightful and time-consuming reunion with many of my books.
In the past I have tried throwing out a book every time I buy a new one. I have cut down hugely on book buying in the last few years by the simple expedient of using several libraries. But I do still buy books. For example, this week I had to get EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I went to the shelf where I keep his novels and I was rather horrified to find it was not there. I wanted to check the name of the older woman who hears the sound in the Malabar Caves – it’s Mrs Moore. Not having a copy made me want to read it. And I seem to have given myself another problem: what should I throw out to make way for this new book?
Here are some of my criteria for ejection. I usually need at least six of these to apply before I dispose of a book:
- I’m unlikely to read it again.
- It was not especially remarkable in the first place.
- It’s a duplicate because I forgot I already had a copy.
- It’s on a topic I am unlikely to read about in the future (eg most of my university history books).
- It was given to me by someone I hate.
- No-one wants this book because it’s an out of date text book.
And what do I do with them if the decision is OUT? Usually I take them to the local charity shop. Sometimes I give them away. Occasionally I put a book that no one will ever want in the recycling bag.
For a couple of years I passed on books through something called BookCrossing. You register the book on the website and if the person who finds it reports its location you can track its journey. One book, left in Gordon Square ended up in New York. Who knows where it has gone now. But not enough people reported finding them to hold my interest, so I stopped doing it. I liked the idea of people finding books on buses, in cafes, in cinema foyers.
Are you one of those people who can’t throw any books away? Or do you have a system for keeping your collection under control? Go on, say it, you have a Kindle. But a Kindle would not help me in the onerous task of moving house, would it?
If you have enjoyed reading this and want to be notified of further posts please subscribe to my blog. Enter your email address in the box in the column on the right.