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Books and Bookshelves (contemporary)

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  • Michael Robinson
    Books speak volumes about life s milestones Purchasers of houses do not like books. They make houses look old and tired. Lose the books! I heard this advice
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2008
      Books speak volumes about life's milestones

      Purchasers of houses do not like books. They make houses look old and
      tired. Lose the books!" I heard this advice in one of those "how to
      sell your house" makeover programmes, addressed to the hapless owner
      of a house (like mine) stuffed with books.

      The madeover television house never has books. It has a single candle
      in the fireplace and pointless sculpted objects, and pebbles, and
      clever lamps – but nowhere to put books. Or hang your hat or swing
      your cat. It doesn't have a larder or walk-in storage cupboard, desk,
      bike or dog basket. Just a leather sofa, a plasma TV screen and acres
      of wooden flooring between.

      Just look at any advert for a "stunning" new apartment: "Incorporating
      pure silk wall-coverings, bespoke furniture sourced from around the
      world and an integrated audio-visual system, this apartment is one of
      the most sophisticated and stylish in London. Rent £4,000 a week." No
      visible bookshelves.

      This would not surprise Professor George Steiner, who predicted years
      ago that reading would become a monastic and solitary pursuit, as it
      was originally, confined to the literate minority. Look on the Tube:
      people are texting and listening to iPods, not turning pages. True,
      bookshops are packed at Christmas, but books are "a luxury item" now,
      a bookseller told me on Christmas Eve. He didn't have The Meaning of
      Life by Terry Eagleton, which Simon Jenkins had just recommended on
      Radio 4. But there was a pile of Do Ants Have Arseholes? and plenty of
      Who Writes This Crap?

      I staggered home with the Ted Hughes letters and the Noël Coward
      letters (weighing 4lb each) knowing that there would be no space for
      them in this unsaleable house, where books are stacked behind doors,
      under desks, on and below stairs, in the cellar. It was time to google
      the Kindle. The Kindle, portable and pocket-sized, weighing just over
      10oz (283g), is Amazon's latest electronic reading device: $399
      (£200), with 200,000 titles available. Not out here yet, but in
      America it sold out instantly.

      Surely, I tell myself, clinging on to books (including a roomful of
      long-outgrown children's books) is as crazy as keeping every item of
      clothing since the age of 5 hung up on the walls on show for ever.
      Have you ever heard a wall of bookshelves crashing down? I have. When
      the thunderous rumbling abated, there was an Everest of books and
      rubble on the carpet. I did not heed that warning; the shelves were

      The habit of hanging on to even unread books was scorned by Helene
      Hanff, of 84 Charing Cross Road fame – "Otherwise, how would people
      know that you're educated, right?" she said witheringly. Her tiny New
      York apartment had just a single bookshelf. Nothing was less
      sacrosanct to her than a mediocre book. I did not heed her either.

      A friend who downsized ruthlessly last year, from family house to
      rented flat, said that it was agony. But being an agony aunt by
      profession, she was upbeat about it: "If you need a book that you've
      junked, you can always get it within 24 hours, online, and dirt
      cheap." But it was still agony, because each book reflects a slice of
      your life: childhood, student days, first and later loves.

      My books' endpapers are covered in scribbles, review notes, lecture
      notes; they have yellowing reviews tucked inside their torn covers,
      dedications on fly-leaves, authors' signatures. Every book – from
      Molesworth and Just William and Stuart Little, to political Pelicans
      (now history) to dark green Viragos and illustrated Folios, to first
      editions bought at auction when I was feeling rich, to paperbacks
      oil-stained on Greek beaches and jotted with hilarious menu items – is
      a memory. Books have tentacles because of what they represent. A
      book-lined room announces that here is a world of silence and slow
      time, the obverse of "a culture inebriated by noise and
      gregariousness" (Steiner again).

      I want to hold them, not click on them. On these dark wintry mornings
      I reach out for Rupert Everett, which is bliss. No volume is left
      unmarked. You can't do that with a Kindle, can you? Yes, apparently
      you can highlight passages (click) and dog-ear the corner (click) to
      mark your place. But it's not A BOOK. As Groucho Marx said: "Outside
      of a dog, a book is man's best friend." (He added: "Inside of a dog,
      it is too dark to read.") I have yet to reply to Sir Tom Stoppard, who
      wrote to all members of the London Library (to which I am pathetically
      attached, however rarely I browse its dusty stacks) explaining the
      rise in annual subscriptions from £210 to £375. How many books could I
      buy for that sum, I wonder? This way madness, and resignation, lies.

      So let's start the cull. I reach out at random from my desk and find
      The Kemsley Manual of Journalism, published in 1950, unopened since
      childhood. Opening it again I find that it is signed by (Viscount)
      Kemsley! And the chapter on foreign news is by Ian Fleming! I google
      it and find it is a "collectable": £10 to £75. But no, I will not flog
      a book that belonged to my pa, who had in 1950 just achieved his
      ambition to be a cartoonist, on a Kemsley paper. Books are more than
      just books. Mine, like everyone's, are life's milestones. But they are
      also millstones. And the Kindle may be as ubiquitous as the Blackberry
      by next Christmas. So soon? Yes. The typewriter went, and so did the
      vinyl LP, and the cassette.

      I can imagine the children despairing one day, not over one's death
      but over the books. Some house-clearance outfit will tell them that
      there's no call for books any more, even from libraries; and they will
      cart them off to the dump.

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