This week saw my books teetering into the realms of silliness. The LGBT history and Biography shelves threatened to swamp my bedroom door, the ‘to be read’ stacks in the bedroom had been there so long they were resembling cubist stalagmites, the neat piles of titles on the floor in my study were resembling the Berlin Wall, yet I still found myself crawling around the shelves in Waterstones and Oxfam…
But how am I to chose which old friend to discard? Are they all actually old friends? What about the classics purchased on whim and kept in the hope that one day I’ll get round to reading them? Gone.
What about those books which were rather engaging at the time, light and frothy numbers about which I now don’t remember a thing? Gone
What about the pretty books, with great covers which take up valuable shelvage but have never been touched? Tricky. Does this mean discarding my beloved ‘Puffin’ collection? Never!
What about those books which were praised to the heavens but you’ve never been able to get to grips with? I’m thinking about those signed first editions of a writer’s ‘breakthrough’ novel which is valued in the hundreds of pounds? I’m looking at you, ‘Wolf Hall’ (yes, I know. I love Hilary Mantel’s contemporary fiction but really struggle with the historical) and you, ‘The Essex Serpent’ will you survive the cull?
What about ‘duplicates’? I know, I know this is a sad and desperate thing to admit to but I have bought (usually knowingly) duplicates of books: a cleaner, smarter first edition of a former library book copy? Who wouldn’t? There is no way I could get rid of my two first editions of Nell Dunn‘s ‘Poor Cow’, one of my favourite novels, with one copy a tie-in to the film version, which happens to be one of my favourite films too. I may have a signed first edition of the ‘Stinging Fly’ version of Claire-Louise Bennett‘s masterpiece, ‘Pond’, but I really NEED to hardback US version which is just so beautiful.
I think as I’m judging, what I have become? I see myself on a Channel 5 documentary, half an hour of slack-jawed freak-porn as the hushed tones of the narrator, with a barely hidden contempt, describes the sad old man talking to his books as if they are his family, or old friends at the very least, and then over the closing titles a caption:
‘Since the filming of this programme Andy was found dead by a neighbour, crushed by a hundred weight of Agatha Christie’
But I don’t care because Jeanette Winterson understands. In her essay, ‘The Psychometry of Books‘ she writes:
‘Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it think of it as a cousin of stamp-collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind’
Of course, there are also the books I will never get rid of: the Shena Mackays and Douglas Couplands, the Smiths (Ali and Zadie) and the Wintersons and Waters. Andrew O’Hagan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ottessa Moshfegh, Gwendoline Riley, Deborah Levy and Paul Magrs are all destined to stay. Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark nestle alongside one another and couldn’t bear to be parted… There’s mad old Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, queer old Angus Wilson, Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) alongside Barbara Comyns, both in proud green Viragos,(apart from my beautiful first edition of ‘The Vet’s Daughter’, complete with a stamp from the Paris bookshop and institution ‘Shakespeare and Company)
Maybe this problem simply needs to be turned on it’s head: instead of struggling with what to get rid of, simply make more discerning purchases!
So, you might be wondering, have I actually got rid of anything? Well, I eventually managed to create a sad looking pile in the hallway, which seems to simper and wobble like a puppy on its way to the vets each and every time I pass.
And what follows is just a quick sample of some of the things I’ve managed to part with:
Lorrie Moore, ‘A Gate at the Stairs‘. Often hailed as a great American writer, I found this novel to be the incessant whinge of the privileged US middle classes. Awful.
Margaret Drabble, ‘A Summer Bird-Cage’. I do have a soft spot for Drabble’s generation of women writers: Nell Dunn, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Shena Mackay, but I must give Drabble another go – this was a novel of shrill characters with all the appeal of Violet Elizabeth Bott from the ‘Just William’ books.
‘American Housewife‘ by Helen Ellis appealed to me when I bought it (and not just for the great cover). However, now I can’t remember a thing about it.
Michel Faber‘s ‘Under the Skin‘ is a strange and creepy novel about a shape changing alien on the hunt for prey (the film is even better and even stranger!). The only reason for getting rid of this copy is that I now have a lovely first edition.
I love the League of Gentlemen, but even the delightful cover doesn’t make Mark Gatiss‘ spy romp ‘The Vesuvius Club’ essential.
I quite enjoyed Salley Vickers’ ‘The Librarian‘, about how a new librarian shakes up a small town in the post war years. The full blooded attack on the government’s chronic destruction of our library service brought passion but it was too little, too late.
‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’ is by the master of biography, Diana Souhami and the only reason this is going is that it is a duplicate. If you have any interest in LGBT history, this is a must.
I do find Sylvia Plath fascinating, even if her life has now probably become more myth than fact. So I was intrigued by this fictional recreation of Plath’s life following her separation from Ted Hughes. Necessarily chilly, Kate Moses ‘Wintering‘ somehow just didn’t connect. But it did send me back to the poems, particularly ‘Parliament Hill Fields.’
Finally, a horror story which got great reviews on release – A Head Full of Ghosts’ by Paul Tremblay. A teenage girl is possessed by the Devil, basically ‘The Exorcist’ in the age of digital media. But it committed what I consider to be a cardinal sin in horror writing: there was just too much going on and it was a bit ‘tricksy’. Anyone writing horror fiction should understand that the simpler the premise, the deeper the horror!
Coming soon: ‘This Week’s Book Haul…’