Books. It’s all very well to limit other things to the useful and the beautiful, but how does a reader throw out books?
I discovered I had more to say about this than would sensibly stay in the comment thread, so here are some scattered thoughts on the owning of books.
I grew up in a library-loving family (and one of my sisters is currently a librarian), and we went weekly to stock up on books. A key packing task for summer holidays was stashing the boxes of books to keep a family of five going for a month of lying around reading.
I started regularly buying books, as well as using the library, during university, and since then have almost always bought secondhand. Tattiness doesn’t bother me and I like a dollop of pre-owned character. I love discovering new authors on the shelves of secondhand bookshops – they carry an entirely different range from any new bookshop – and triumphing at book fairs. It’s the bookshelves I go to first in op shops.
My mind is largely constructed from the books I’ve read, and my bookshelves are a memory bank. I read a lot, and fast, and find that many books I have enjoyed or found helpful slip out of my consciousness if I’ve borrowed them, read them over a day or two, returned them and then not seen them again. If they have a home on the shelf, their place in my brain is safer.
I get great joy from matching books and friends up, blind-date-style. I treat my books as a library, wide open to borrowing, and I’m not precious about them being returned. I’d prefer to get them back, of course, but I try not to hold on too tight – this is one way I try to keep the books from owning me. I used to keep a notebook of who had what, but I never kept track very consistently and now prefer to just hope people are enjoying them. I don’t have many books that are irreplaceable – like my Mum’s childhood copy of Anne of Green Gables – but I guess I don’t lend those. My love of lending books is the main reason I could never exclusively use an e-reader.
It’s been annoying to have almost all of my books in storage. It is a weekly occurrence to want to lend a particular book to someone and realise I don’t have it with me.
I don’t keep books I haven’t liked – or perhaps, respected – and wouldn’t recommend. I don’t keep books I can’t imagine re-reading or lending. I own very few books that I haven’t read, and keep the number of novels that I think I will read one day but not soon to under a dozen at a time.
The list of books I own solely for a one-day-it’ll-come-in-handy kind of reason is small (after years of chipping away at this), but includes foreign-language books that I can no longer understand but might again one day (yeah, I know I’m probably fooling myself). Picture books from my childhood used to be on this list but are happily now in use. One of SBJ’s very favourite books is a Church Mice book that I was never particularly attached to but was in a stack of our childhood books that my parents passed on when they sold their house to move to China for a while.
SBJ has a library card which gets regular use (I decided that four at once is a good number to stick to rigidly to help me keep track of them). I love children’s books but am happy to own or borrow. I almost always give books as presents to children, but haven’t bought very many for him so far. I guess for his whole life we’ve been on the move so I’ve been considering all purchases extra carefully. It has meant that we only carry around his enduring faves and enjoy reading other people’s wherever we are.
I am quite conscious that a habit of owning books can become idolatrous or constricting. I used to keep hold of every book I read, even when travelling, which led to a fairly ridiculous luggage situation. On my first big overseas trip, after university, I read a single-volume copy of A Suitable Boy on London tube journeys and carried it all the way home via Paris and New York.
Now I treat travel as an opportunity for spiritual growth in this area: with almost physical reluctance, I choose to give away books as I finish them rather than lugging them around the world. My Mum and Dad are my role models in this. They read even more than I do, but don’t own that many books, and often bring me a few when they visit. They both have a commendably easy-come-easy-go attitude to them. (Are you up for a guest post, perhaps, Pops? Mumsie?)
So, book-lovers, what do you think? We can all agree that reading and books are great, but why not just use a library, and how do we keep them from owning us, rather than vice versa? Some of you outlined your practices and dilemmas in the previous post. Feel free to continue here.
PS: Earthquakes have just been hitting our home town while we’re away. Securing books and bookshelves so they’re less hazardous has just gone higher up my to do list for when we move into the next house.
This is part of an occasional series on property and possessions. You can see the series list here, and the next post in the series, on the privacy and secrecy that surrounds our finances, here. Have a look around!