I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant
Books breed. You start with a handful, a few shelves as a kid perhaps, but pretty soon you’re graduating to a bookcase. From there, another bookcase. Then another.
Soon you haven’t space for any more bookcases, so you start looking to see how you can fit in more books with the ones you have. You stack books sideways in front of the already-shelved books or on top of them. Perhaps you double-layer, though then how do you see what’s behind the front row?
Piles of books start to emerge, perhaps a reading pile near the bed, a few dotted around the living room, if you run to having books in the bathroom (I don’t) they start to gather there too. Books accumulate on tables, on chairs, under beds and on slow moving pets.
Eventually it comes time to move, hopefully to a bigger house. You stop flatsharing, move in with someone, maybe have a family. With more space comes more room for more bookshelves. Removal men curse your name and stick pins in voodoo dolls fashioned in your image.
Perhaps you dream of one day having a room solely dedicated to books. Unless you’re very, very rich it’s unlikely you’ll ever afford it though (perhaps in North America, they have more space there), and the genuinely rich tend not to be readers. Anyway, even if you did the books would still keep breeding.
If your partner’s also a reader, the books breed even faster. If they’re not, they’ll occasionally try to set rules about no books in certain rooms, no new books if there’s not space for the old ones, ask whether you really need all these books. Whatever they try it’s a losing effort on their part. Books will be smuggled in, shamefully squirrelled away where they might not be spotted. Contraband.
For some readers every book read bears their mark. Stained covers, scribbled notes in the margins, shattered spines and folded down corners. For others all that is blasphemy, every book treated so gently that visitors can’t tell which have been read and which not (that’s where I sit, Linda Grant as the quote titling this piece suggests, is in the other camp).
What happens though if you finally run out of space? What if you move and instead of going somewhere bigger, you go somewhere smaller? That’s what happened to Linda Grant. After 19 years living in a large flat crammed with books it came time to move, and there just wasn’t space in her new place for all her books, a lifetime’s reading, to go with her.
A book cull. It seems a suitable thing to blog about as we come up to Halloween, the season of horror.
Grant opens by describing her old flat, the shelves she had built for it, the nooks and crannies it held where books could be. However many shelves she had built though, there were still never enough:
The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs; I had to vacuum round them. You cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books.
Unfortunately I do have a taste for minimalist décor, but she’s right, I’ve never achieved it because I’ve always had too many books.
So Grant had to do the unthinkable. She had to get rid of most of her books, thousands of them. She had to decide which would go with her, and which would not. In doing so, as any reader knows, she’s doing more than making some choices about mere property, she’s making choices about herself: who she is; how she connects to who she was; who she wants to be.
It is more than 50 years since I began to build my library, from its earliest foundations in the elementary sentence construction of Enid Blyton. Now at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hate myself. But not as much as I have come to hate the books.
When I last moved I had to do something similar myself. We were paying for removal men, and even though we were moving to a larger place we wanted a chance of having it be a place we could enjoy, relax in, not a library with humans and cats moving carefully between the shelves. I found what Linda Grant found, it’s not actually as easy as you’d think to get rid of books.
Many charity shops don’t take books at all, those that do pulp most of those they take (a dirty secret of the charity industry, but most books have no resale value, particularly the more literary ones). Libraries aren’t as keen to get other people’s castoffs as you might think. If your friends are readers they probably already have too many books themselves, if they’re not they’re unlikely to want to give a home to what to them is a large pile of unsightly clutter.
If you’re getting rid of a few books none of this is insurmountable. Homes can be found, and Linda Grant does get a good few to where they might be read. If you’re getting rid of hundreds though as I was, or thousands as Linda Grant was, well, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself throwing books in the rubbish. Not just a few books either, and not just bad books, you’re going to be throwing good books away by the yard.
The process starts with care, with an assessment of merit and emotional connection. If you’re discarding in bulk though you really can’t keep that up, and besides sentiment leads you to spare too many. As Linda Grant says, “After a couple of hours, the process of deciding literary merit speeds up considerably.” In my own cull’s first hour I got through a handful of books, saving almost all of them. Three hours in and a second’s consideration was more than adequate.
It’s not a light thing to destroy books, particularly if you’re a reader, someone for whom they’ve been essential your entire remembered life (as Grant says, and I could say it myself, “Reading wasn’t my religion – it was my oxygen”). You literally though can’t give most of them away. Your books are priceless, but at the same time quite without value.
Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics. Their fingers itch to build a pyre and strike the match. On 10 May 1933, students gathered in Berlin to dance around a bonfire of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books. They burned, amongst many others, Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Heinrich Heine, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and H.G. Wells. They destroyed them because the contents were too dangerous. Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no-one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but also of disposable living and small houses. And I too have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.
Grant goes on to discuss wider themes, about how books fit into our lives as readers, and how they don’t for people who aren’t readers. If you’ve ever watched one of those tv shows where smiling experts help people buy or sell homes, it’s noticeable that there’s never any books. When Grant went to look at flats, particularly those being sold by younger people, they too largely seemed to be book-free:
Sometimes the alcoves were lined with shelves but they didn’t hold any books – they were for DVDs. The shelves pronounced taste, as my student bookshelves had pronounced a counter-cultural identity, but taste in interior décor and dinner. And I knew this because when the estate agent came to look at my flat, he winced when he saw all those books. What did he see? Clutter. Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room – books make rooms look messy. Books’ multi-coloured spines muddle and muddy the Farrow & Ball neutral paint colours, the Ammonite and Hardwick White and Savage Ground. They completely destroy the impact of the accent wall.
Estate agents advise her that books put off potential buyers. Grant’s cull begins long before her move as if she hopes to sell she can’t have a home overrun with books.
What then is the value of books? Particularly books we’ve already read? For us as readers (as Grant discusses) they are perhaps reminders of past pleasures, statements (to whom? to ourselves?) of who we are or mementos of who we once were (my own purge included a lot of SF I’d carefully accumulated over years, before my tastes shifted). They hold the promise of the possibility of revisiting an old literary friend or pleasures yet to be had if a book’s still unread.
They can also seem to be legacies, future gifts of knowledge and experience. Grant, like many, thought that perhaps in time she’d pass them on to the next generation, but really why would they want them? You see the same with people with carefully curated record or CD collections, is it really likely their children will want a lifetime’s accumulation of recordings by artists most of whom they’ve probably never even heard of?
My nephew’s wife took a suitcase full of the fashion monographs, but nothing else tempted them. The idea that I was building a library to bequeath to the next generation is one of the greatest fallacies of my life. The next generation don’t want old books – they don’t seem to want books at all. This is very painful to me.
The desire to pass on our library, our albums, our pottery collection or antique furniture or whatever possession we most prize is in part a desire not to die. It’s a bit of us continuing, our tastes, our memory brought to mind each time the imagined grateful recipients pull a book off the shelf or put a CD on (on what? It’s likely they won’t even have the technology to play them).
The reality though is that when we die our treasured possessions will at best be sold for whatever cash value they have, at worst will be a tedious and possibly upsetting chore for whoever has to sort through them all and put them in sacks for disposal. Grant touches on all of this, how in holding on to our books we hold on to our lives, how in getting rid of them we have to recognise our own mortality.
Grant also explores how her relationship with books and the wider world of books has changed. In the UK the loss of the Net Book Agreement led to deep discounting by chains such as Waterstones, who in turn were hit by even deeper discounting by the supermarkets, the charity bookshops and Amazon. Then came ereaders, at first poor substitutes for real books in terms of their reading experience, but increasingly as good if not better than their physical counterparts. A while back I bought Earthly Powers in hardcopy. The font was so small I couldn’t comfortably read it. Now I have it on Kindle, where I can increase the font size as needed. What use a book you can’t read?
Grant’s experience with Kindles is strangely similar to my own (making hers ironically a book “relevant to my personal experience”, a reader metric she rightly hates). Her first purchase is even one of the first I bought (Galgut’s In a Strange Room, though I’ve yet to read my copy). I love books, but wherever I can I get them now on Kindle. It means they’re always with me, and I won’t have to pay anyone to carry them next time I move. Besides, I buy a lot of books, I prefer independent bookshops as much as the next reader but ebooks are cheaper and don’t take up any space, like so many others I want the independent bookshops to survive but I can’t sensibly justify how much more it would cost me to make all my purchases at them or really the extra time it would take to get to one of the surviving stores (none are anywhere near where I live).
I Murdered My Library is, fittingly, available only on Kindle. It is, as you would expect, extremely well written and since anyone reading this is pretty much by definition a reader it’s a book that I think will resonate with you. It’s only around 28 pages, and sells at 0.99p, cheaper than a cup of coffee which as Grant notes is the price-point readers seem to expect of electronic books.
I’ll end with one final quote, one that I liked too much not to include somewhere:
I threw one box in the recycling bin. I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.
If you are interested in this, there’s a lengthy extract at the Guardian, here, which gives a good feel for the style.