What’s not to love about accumulating books – from the thrill of stocking up on a new authorial crush to remembering favourite titles long since devoured?
Nothing…. except, perhaps, the flip side to amassing a library: the need to winnow its physical contents. This was something the American author Annie Proulx found out the hard way on a recent cross-coast move back to New England from the Pacific Northwest.
Proulx, who is best known for The Shipping News, had to get rid of vast numbers of books she had acquired, many from second-hand bookshops around the world, because the cost of a third moving truck was beyond her.
“I thought I could do without them. It was only when I got here and unpacked things and had a lot of empty shelves that I realised the enormity of what I had done. I was filled with book grief. I still find myself looking for a book I used to have and no longer have,” she said in a recent interview.
Proulx is far from alone at suffering from book grief, an ailment familiar to many who have taken a vigorous approach to book culling. Miranda France, a critic and translator, says: “I envy the people who can regard a book simply as a container for the text inside. Too many of my books have powerful associations, either with the people they belonged to, or where I bought them.”
France, whose new novel, The Writing School, is out in May, adds: “I can’t get rid of the A-level texts that belonged to my brother, who died in his 20s, because they have his notes in the margin. Handwriting is such a powerful evocation of a person’s character – almost like hearing someone speak.”
One writer, who asked to be anonymous, recounted giving away almost all of her books last year after her marriage broke down, partly out of necessity, as she was moving to a small flat, and partly to shed her former self.
“Out they all went in a frantic purge as the moving date got closer. But almost immediately, regret set in. I miss them. I frequently go to the bare shelf (I kept perhaps 20) looking for something and realise with a start I no longer have it. I really miss my childhood editions with their faded pages and inscriptions. Now I wonder what came over me. Recently I have started going to charity shops and buying them back.”
Even Linda Grant, who explored exactly this in her 2014 essay, “I Murdered My Library”, has regrets. “It felt like I’d disposed of myself and my own history because I was downsizing. I felt a bit humiliated by it,” she says, adding: “I was very wounded by the response when other people said, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ As if I’d put the pillow over the mouth of a dying loved one.”
She made mistakes, of course. “The book I wish I hadn’t got rid of is The Buddha of Suburbia because of what’s happened to Hanif Kureishi (who is struggling to regain the use of his arms and legs after suffering from paralysis). It was felled and I’m very sorry about that.”
But Grant, who is hoping her new novel, The Story of the Forest, will be added to readers’ shelves after its May publication, knows she can re-buy anything she cares to squeeze into her flat. “The man from the Oxfam shop was very helpful, particularly regarding my foul 1970s paperbacks. He said, ‘You can buy new editions.’ And I did.”
She is particularly fond of a “really lovely” new hardback edition of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend in the Everyman series. “It has good print size and I like it much more than my 1970s’ university paperback with all the scribbles [that] I don’t understand any more.”
One book-loving friend, who recently relocated to the UK from the US, says: “At first, I did grieve for the books left behind, but I think a lot of that was the broader grief of leaving behind a lot of different things and not having found new things here. And sometimes I still miss the old books, especially when one of the kids mentions having heard about a book and I wish I could grab it from the shelf as we talk about it. But mostly it is now okay, and it is easy to build up stacks when every small village has an Oxfam shop full of books.”
I, perhaps foolishly, took the opposite approach to Proulx when we moved house last summer, first boxing up some of my worst offending overflowing books, and then paying to store them somewhere else, to make our old house seem bigger than it was. (I have a lot of books; yesterday I found my childhood copy of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg, which a stamp tells me I bought a book shop in Holland Road in Singapore. I refuse to get rid of it even though we have two copies.)
Seven months after moving, I have yet to measure up for bookshelves, let alone find some I can afford. Vitsoe are the dream; Ikea is the reality. Books are piled everywhere: the floor, my desk, any spare shelf and I can’t find anything I need, which is a problem when it’s a new book I need to review.
I should channel Amanda Craig, who wrote The Golden Rule, who tells me she is attached only to the books that made her who she is, mostly one she “read and re-read up to the age of 30”. She adds: “But these are all what I consider to be masterpieces and there are very few of those!” She finds it easy to prune the rest. “Book grief is as pointless as any other grief for an inanimate object. What matters is the text.”
This may be verging on the Marie Kondo school of advice that people should own fewer than 30 books, but those who can’t face culling their own teetering piles can take heart from William Boyd, who reckons he has about 6,000 books in floor-to-ceiling shelves and stacked on and under various tables in his London townhouse. As he puts it: “Having too many books in your house is not the worst sin you can commit, I suppose.”