Books and Bookshelves (contemporary)
- 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
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.