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.
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?
“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.