Epilegomena

Sign welcoming visitors to Hay-on-Wye © C A Lovegrove

Prolegomenon

Despite my plan to discard books
(which then are destined, once completed,
for recycling) few spare nooks
are now appearing. Seems I’ve treated
this most worthy fine endeavour
not as fiercely as I sought to,
buying books as fast as ever,
not One In, One Out as ought to.

Epilegomena

The Ancient Greek for ‘things that have been chosen’ — epilegomena — applies to my outsize book collection, each title selected because, once upon a time, they somehow appealed, every one for which I entertained the intention of eventually reading. Yet a recent visit to nearby Hay-on-Wye — the World’s First Book Town — plus a trip to Bristol for babysitting duties found me in ensconced in bookshops behaving like a child in a sweetshop, a youngster whose eyes inevitably prove larger than their stomach’s capacity.

This of course is a litany you’ve heard me chant before, a psalm that has grown tedious in the repetition. Is there a worthy reason — or even an excuse — for this compulsive behaviour, or is it sheer greed that accounts for this seeming avaricious acquisition?

When seeing our originally modest bookshelves for the first time a few decades ago my late father-in-law wondered aloud whether we’d bought them as a ‘job lot’ at a jumble sale: he presumed they were merely there for display so as to impress visitors like him with an apparent but fake erudition. Because why else clutter a wall with a domestic library when all you needed was the Good Book, some biblical commentaries and a handful of illustrated railway books? Anything else you could surely borrow from the public library?

He (and he wouldn’t be alone in this world) clearly didn’t understand the attraction of books, not just for their aesthetic and sensual appeal — the look, the smell, the touch — but for their intellectual and emotional content. Because these attributes (and especially the latter) are what distinguish the book collector, who primarily values the monetary value of an edition, from the true booklover who sees individual titles almost as people, whether as passing acquaintances or as lifelong friends.

And here’s why I hang on to so many books, particularly those in the fiction category (though much the same is true of non-fiction). Sometimes what may be passing acquaintances have a certain spark about them which makes me think re-acquaintance might prove a joyful or at least an enlightening experience. And true friends are those who not only bring a warm glow with them each time you see them but who also revive one’s hopes for the future.

More than that, a revisit nearly always means that I appreciate them not only more but also in new or different ways, because my own experiences and understanding have in the meantime allowed me to see aspects that weren’t evident on a first reading. And that I think is the principal reason why my discard rate rarely exceeds my acquisition rate — though I’m starting to be more pragmatic because, you know, fewer spare nooks.

And I suspect there are likely to be others among those reading this who may be of like mind, isn’t that so?

Epilogos

“We read to know we’re not alone,”
penned Nicholson for Shadowlands
— the film about the Narnia writer
thus echoes these, my reading plans:
the writer writes to reach out to us,
the reader reads to feel a part
of something greater, nicer, better;
this I hold with all my heart.

© C A Lovegrove

45 thoughts on “Epilegomena

  1. As I read this I was nodding in agreement, Chris. I experience that same emotion with books I’ve read, some are dear friends that could never be banished, others hold a particular interest or thoughts that perhaps may help when I revisit at some point in the future. If and when I find time to re-read often a different aspect or character holds my attention. It’s satisfying but in a subtly different way to the first read. If we ever move house high on my wish list is space for a “library”.

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    1. Good to know you’re of like mind, Anne! One of the things that attracted me about the house we’re now living in was the presence of copious shelving (as in the photo) erected by the late Jeff Nuttall (the partner of the previous occupant) who wrote the classic Bomb Culture in the 1960s. When we viewed the house the shelves were filled with his books, all now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. I can’t imagine living happily without access to much-loved books.

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  2. I used to keep all books once read, but my TBR is now so large I’ll never read everything on it before I leave this world, and I hope to downsize in coming years. So now a book has to be doubly special for me to keep it after reading. I should stop adding to the TBR but like you, can’t!

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    1. I fancy that I categorise books much the way you do, Annabel: worthy but don’t keep, if doubly special it remains on the shelf. Unworthy ones? Not worth the mention…

      Mind you there are a few unworthy ones I keep as a reminder of how awful or misguided books can be, to be eventually discarded when I’ve written the definitive critique!

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  3. I can definitely relate to this problem! I have long since passed the point where I can fit all the books I have on my shelves and have taken the coward’s way of boxing up some of them rather than giving them away.

    I try to read them and then be honest about how much I loved them and how likely I am to reread them. But I find it REALLY difficult to decide! And then the past couple of years have found me rereading books other than those I anticipated. And – I want to reread MY copies, however warped or battered, not new ones that I’ve had to purchase.

    Your bookshelves look lovely and I hope they continue to give you pleasure for many years to come! And I enjoyed the poems very much – are they your work?

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    1. You describe familiar scenarios, Helen, though many of the books I’m now boxing up are recent secondhand acquisitions — read, enjoyed but mostly ephemeral. When the box is full it goes to the Red Cross shop or offered to anyone who wants them. Ditto many from my TBR mountain which had languished far too long and now will be released into the world having at last served their original purpose.

      Reading loved but long-owned books is a joy, though occasionally if I come across a secondhand hardback edition I’m happy to substitute that. New editions of, say, classics occasionally appeal if they have a panoply of academic commentaries that I find helpful or informative.

      Glad you like the bookshelves, though since this photo was taken there’s been some rearranging. The poems — doggerel really — are indeed mine, my way of pretending flippancy to avoid over-sentimentality!

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  4. JJ Lothin

    ” …the Good Book, some biblical commentaries and a handful of illustrated railway books”: now, what could anyone POSSIBLY need other than those?!?

    Given my rather more decluttering temperament, I’ve got rid of quite a few books over the years which I now really wish I hadn’t … Never mind: another set of shelves is on order!

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    1. Admittedly my father-in-law was a Methodist lay preacher, but his limited outside interests (well, more limited than mine) hugely reduced the books that he was drawn to, unless the railway books could be combined with his enthusiasm for photography. I like to think many of my non-fiction titles would cover more than half of the Dewey classifications, but I may be kidding myself!

      Worse than realising as you have, JJ, that I’d got rid of a book I now regret is realising that a book I want to revisit is nowhere to be found! Whether I mistakenly discarded it, or it’s fallen down a virtual black hole is impossible to say, but great is the distress when it can’t be located…

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      1. jjlothin

        It’s amazing what I manage to lose in my relatively small space – I daresay that each of us is spied on by an ever-vigilant black hole ever ready to pounce!

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  5. I hear you, Chris! Beautifully put, totally understood. I have become a little more discerning in recent years than I was at the height of my book buying years. These days, I read more, buy less. Now I try to buy as part of a collection – not valuable collections but groups of books which collectively speak to me. I try to make more use of the library, charity shops, independent shops. But I’m sure there are still more coming in than going out. And I don’t think I can quantify the feeling attached to seeing shelves of books such as yours. (I have similar shelves.) It’s not grasping; not the acquisitiveness; not the ownership as such. There is a feeling from looking at my rows of books akin to looking at a family photo perhaps, or a sunrise, or a simple meal. That sense of familiarity and comfort. I’m wondering, perhaps those books are what marks my place in the world. Fanciful. Just what came up as I thought about your words 😊

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    1. I really should, Sandra, use the library more (having joined an ultimately successful campaign to keep it) but there’s nothing like having a book available to read when the mood takes me, however long it might take (and it will be decades in some cases). But, like you, charity shops and indies are usually my go-to sources.

      As for the emotions attached to having generously-laden bookshelves, you put it so well and so succinctly—that’s exactly how I feel.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. 😊 The words William Nicholson puts into C S Lewis’s mouth (“We read to know we’re not alone”) epitomises my feelings exactly, Mayri, feelings which being in a crowd of people just doesn’t match up to at all. And having physical books on shelves in particular underlines how not-alone one can be just by picking up a book and opening it.

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  6. Yes! They are friends, and I need my friends around me. My husband and I both love books and have collected them around us over our lifetime, mostly in the downstairs part of our expansive house, which is entirely lined with bookshelves. Every once in a while we have someone over who asks “have you read all of these?” I don’t really know why that’s a question. There are a few books of baseball statistics belonging to my husband that I haven’t read and a few novels and specialized books about 18th-C British Literature that he hasn’t read, but otherwise, of course we’ve read them; why else would we keep them?

    The only ones we’ve ever boxed up are books we never want to read again or duplicates. The most trusting thing we did when we got married was to get rid of our duplicate books. That, more than anything, was our affirmation that we were staying together, because how could either of us live without, for example, a copy of the Riverside Shakespeare?

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    1. Friends indeed. And so varied too!

      “I don’t really know why that’s a question.” Yep. And even if the answer may be (as in my case)* “No, not all,” what kind of embarrassing query is that to consider making? They might as well say “Have you said out loud all the thoughts in your head?” or “Having said them, why bother repeating them at another time?” It makes as much sense.

      * In fact, I will have dipped into each and every one, either when considering acquiring it (I rarely buy books sight unseen) or when I get it back home, even if I don’t read it cover to cover. And some nonfiction and most reference books don’t lend themselves to being read all the way through, do they?

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  7. We got rid of most of our books when we moved to our retirement community; after all, there is a library downstairs. And ebooks – though I really need to clean a lot of that out.

    It’s been three years. I read few books when writing (and am immersed in finishing the second novel of my mainstream trilogy) because I get pulled in, and lose sleep. And don’t function.

    But I read to live other lives in whole or in part, and I’m sure I will do some accumulating again post-pandemic and post-move and post-publishing, because that desire never stops.

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    1. If you’re trying to avoid distraction and undue literary influences on your own writing it makes sense to not be concerned about a massive collection of your own, especially if you have access to a library when you do feel the need for a distraction. But I do wish you godspeed with completing your trilogy so you can rediscover the variety that’s out there but which mayn’t be available on your ereader.

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      1. With my mental limitations and lack of energy, I can do ONE thing at a time. This week it is a trip for our son’s wedding – and nothing else is going to get done. It’s my life, I’m stuck with it, and I sneak around it to do the writing I want to do.

        If you’re a writer, and you love what you’re writing, it comes as close to first as you can manage. If you’re like me, you constantly reevaluate whether that’s the way you want to spend your time.

        I can’t compete on speed; it has to be depth and resonance.

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  8. Very well said, Chris.

    It’s interesting isn’t it…some people don’t read, can’t see the point of books or why one would want to spend hours curled up in a favorite chair “just reading.” But I always think, when I pull a book off a shelf, “I wonder what I’ll find here?”

    As I always say, Books Are Life!”

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    1. Thanks Laurie. It takes all sorts, I know, and there will be some people with interests and obsessions that I don’t share (many sports, for example) so I do understand any puzzlement why so many books might be on display.

      But it’s weird — some individuals appear to feel intimidated, reproached or even attacked by the sight of shelves of books. It may be that poor learning experiences put them off or genuine difficulties with reading, but I don’t get the negative responses when other people revel in books. Because books are genuine portals into other worlds, other lives, other imaginations.

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  9. Oh yeah. Also, for me physical books on my shelves serve as a memory prompt, bringing to the fore the memories of reading and digesting them. In a way, they are the walls of my bookish memory palace 😀

    I do limit myself since I moved to NZ, though – not enough space, and rented space at that – but I do plan to take all my books with me once we settle for good!

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  10. Ah, I haven’t been to Hay for ages, love it there. But have been acquiring like mad recently, so probably best not to!

    I am getting pretty good at only hanging on to books I will re-read or are special to me from who gave them to me or where I got them … I mean, otherwise my house will burst. I’m also getting pretty good at finding new places to jam bookshelves in, though! I’ve got a good lot of narrow IKEA CD shelves you can get in all sorts of places!

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    1. Yes, we’ve had those IKEA shelves too, but I’m not sure how I’d get paperbacks in except horizontally with no good view of the titles!

      I try to be as ruthless as I can with books that, much as I loved them, I don’t think I’d either find or make time to read again; I just hope they’ll find new owners who’ll treat them right!

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  11. Absolutely! I think a library is in many ways the same kind of space as C S Lewis’s “wood between the worlds”. It’s a place where you can jump into a pool (book) and end up anywhere doing anything!

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        1. Yay! All those magical portals — rabbit-holes, pools, looking-glasses, windows opened by the Subtle Knife, wardrobe doors, the entrance to Platform 9¾, the Room of Requirement — they’re all entrances echoing our childhood secret dens, Wendy Houses or space under the bed, aren’t they, which become places of wonder

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