This is beyond parody.
Every year, between Christmas and New Year, I have a simple ritual, which is to get rid of 50 books from the overcrowded bookshelves. This is to make room for the 50 that I bought or been given in the year just gone, and the 50 that I will certainly buy or be given the next year. The theory is that they go down to the British Heart Foundation or Macmillan shop in Midhurst, and do something a tiny bit useful as they head away from my clutches and into that unknown world beyond the pavement.
It never quite works like that. Because it turns out that there is no excuse I cannot find to keep something, even if its memory sparks in me violent revulsion (Tony Blair’s diaries), insane jealousy (anything by Horatio Clare) or deep personal shame (the non-stop whine of a diary that I wrote in my ski season in 1978). Every now and again, I gear myself up to clear out a whole category but when it comes to it, I just can’t. Somehow, I get it into my head that the world will stop turning without my Restoration Poets (all untouched for thirty years), or Birds’ Egg identification (unread…ever) being safely tucked into my own shelves.
And the excuses tumble out, one after another.
- Some categories are untouchable. Obviously. Like cricket, birds, wilderness, mountaineering, travel, cookery, US history, sport, biography etc etc etc.
- My children might want them. They don’t. They have better things to do with their lives than flick nostalgically through an old paperback edition of Bernard Levin’s columns from the Times in 1967/8, or marvel at how brave my teenage self was to write ‘tits’ in huge letters on the inside cover of my school copy of Sons and Lovers. Especially as there weren’t any there; they were all in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
- The grandchildren might want them, an outcome belied by the single status of my sons, and the fact that each generation chooses its own childrens’ books anyway. It’s the same story with the Lego.
- I might need them for reference. What, like it isn’t all out there in the vast digital library beyond my front door? Presumably I would prefer to have an outsize book of appalling black and white images of the Wildfowl of Eastern Europeto fall back on just in case?
- They remind me of a special moment, like reading Michael Morpurgo’s stories to my spellbound young children, or the unread book on 100 Great Vegetarian Recipesthat an unremembered girlfriend left on my half-remembered bachelor bed as a hint 35 years ago.
- They look too expensive or precious to give away. Like the unread biography of Macmillan, or the unread War and PeaceI got at Sandhurst as a prize for a grovellingly brown-nosing essay on the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.
- They are part of a complete collection. Like Jan Morris, or Asterix, or Tintin.
- They mark me out as intelligent to shelf browsers. After all, who could not be impressed by a modern bloke with the Seven Pillars of Wisdomnestling up against Yet Being Someone Otheron his shelves?
- I love them. But then I’ve potentially loved just about every bloody book I’ve ever bought or been given.
So in a cardboard box by the front door lie a meagre 12 books, including Living with Kilims, Mary Berry’s Aga Cookbookand a duplicate copy of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin. And up into the attic goes a box with the other 38.
And I don’t know how I even managed that.