The Book Keeper
Recently, talented writer Linda Grant spoke in The Guardian about how she had to “kill her books” as she downsized to a new flat with much less room for bookcases. You can read the article here.
Although for very different reasons, my husband and I are downsizing in just over three weeks time, moving from a large five bedroom detatched house in rural Aberdeenshire to a small three bedroom end terrace in a tiny Argyllshire village. In our current house there are bookcases everywhere. The only rooms without books are the bathrooms. We have a shelf in the kitchen chock full of cookbooks, a bookcase of writing and social media books in my study, novels in the two living room bookcases and art and reference books in the dining room. My daughter’s room has a bookcase where the books are almost two deep and there are always a number of tomes beside the beds.
Many of these books are unread, bought with the best of intentions and the optimistic hope that the day would miraculously grow to contain an extra five or six hours. Others are read time and again, as familiar as old friends. Yet more have been read only once but have changed me in a deep and profound way and are as much part of me as my lungs and skin.
I have books on sign and symbols, the spy services, folklore, forensics, etiquette, slang, magic, science, photography, masons, cathedrals and much, much more. I have a mind like a butterfly, constantly flitting from one interest to another and my books reflect this. I also have hundreds of books on my kindle. I’ve even read some of them.
How could I possible choose which books to “kill”, to donate to charity, to disown?
My husband shakes his head at me. He doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand why I need to have so many books, why it’s so physically painful to consider getting rid of any of them. “How about this one,” he says. “You’ve read this.” He’s right, but like the Borg I have assimilated it into my literary collective and as all Trekkies know, resistance is futile. “These three?” I won them when I came third in a writing competition. “This one is just one of those Dan Brown type thingies. You won’t read that again!” But you gave it to me at Christmas five years ago. And so it goes on.
I am very lucky in that for all as he doesn’t understand why I need my books, he does understand that I DO need them, shrugs and tells me I will have the smallest bedroom to myself to keep all my books, daleks, SS. Enterprise NCC 1701s, tin toys, beanie teddies and pirate paraphernalia. And my desk, of course.
But all the packing, the taking the books down, dusting them and reminiscing has made me think about why I need to have the physical books around me. I am a proponent of ebooks and have long argued that the book was the words, the stories, the characters and plot, not the dead tree they inhabited.
When I was a wee girl in Glasgow, we didn’t have the money to buy a lot of books and my mother wouldn’t let me borrow from the library because “paper carries germs” – her words, not mine. Books were treasured, read time and again, pocket money saved to buy more. Do I hoard books now because of that? Maybe. It’s definitely one of the reasons. But a throwaway remark made by my other half finally got to the nub of my book problem.
“It’s almost as if you cling to them like an intellectual security blanket.”
I’ve documented elsewhere on this blog how I was bullied as a child and how low my self esteem was. Books were my only friends as a child and the only thing about myself I felt was of any value was my brain. My husband is right. I cling to my books as a way to show the world – and myself – that I have worth, a thinking, analytical brain which earns me my place in the world.
I am more comfortable in my skin now than I ever was. As saggy and wrinkly as it is now, it fits me more comfortably than at almost any other time of my life. But the child with buck teeth and a giant head who towered over her schoolmates is still in there and clinging to her old friends for all she’s worth.
Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it, they say. You’d think that I’d now be able to smile, shake my head at my silliness and consign my books to Barnado’s. Not a chance. Not while there is life in the friendless wee girl hiding under the bluster and bravado of the adult woman. If I’m moving, the books come too.