The benefits of good books


Books furnish a room, they say; indeed they do, perhaps a little too forcefully in our house. Periodically I decide that it needs to be gotten rid of, but it’s really hard to put into practice. The weather just after Christmas always renews the problem, as we try to fit all the gift books on already crowded shelves. We no longer just have bookcases, but also walls to put bookcases in front of, so we will either have to move or find a new home for some books. My husband makes piles and leaves them in strategic places, but at this point in the year they become very unstable.

Before, it wasn’t so bad. The children all had their own bookcases in their rooms, and there were general bookshelves throughout the rest of the house. Past experience, however, shows that the problem gets worse each time someone returns from an absence. As each child came home from college, they needed more shelf space, and we (parents) had no legs to stand on, as we were considered to have all the general books ( mostly true). Our own downfall came from having several posts in a row. These were places with no libraries (in English), so we had to take enough books with us to live on; but that meant there was new and available shelf space at home. Some have been colonized by children, but I have to admit I also felt this meant we could find room for other books. Then we came home, and there was nowhere to put the books we had originally left; and then there was the Covid, and the children came back to live and work here, with their own books. Two have since moved on again, but the pounds have not inexplicably diminished.

Remember the paperless office? We all thought when Kindles were invented that it might mean fewer books on the shelf, but I only know of one person who actually got rid of some books and went digital. It was John, our second son, who regularly brags about it, as he took a lot of his student books to a charity shop, but I notice his bedroom shelves are always full. For me, I find it hard to get rid of a book I love even if I have it on my Kindle, partly because the Kindle is a much less satisfying experience. Because it’s made of a ribbon of text instead of pages, things change position on the page. You cannot scratch forward and backward. You can’t check something quickly (John says you can, with practice). The title is not written on the front of the Kindle, but again John says it would be if we had more modern versions of Kindles, but I’m used to my older version. There are misprints and you cannot correct them; and there are errors, such as missing sections or poor digital reading of a facsimile text, and there is nothing you can do about it. Above all, not everything is available, even if the Gutenberg project has helped a lot. But nothing beats the pleasure of a physical book.

However, books proliferate, worse than socks or wire hangers, so something will have to be done. I can’t blame the increased shopping during the pandemic because everyone has actually been pretty sober and the house hasn’t shrunk, although it sometimes feels like it. You have to buy new books from time to time, for work, gifts or reference (and because our local library, even here at home, has been closed for almost two years), so I have to find a way to make room by deleting some old ones. It means to choose. As the Bible says with amazing foresight, there are always more and more books, and moving them is physically exhausting (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

We have loads of children’s books, but woe betide you if you try to add any to a charity bag. Someone will walk past and notice a favorite book being quietly removed, and quietly put it back on a shelf, usually where they can keep an eye on it for a while. I can’t blame the kids: we still have a lot of children’s books from my husband and me. I would get rid of his, and he might get rid of mine, so we have to compromise by keeping both. Even if a book is tired and damaged, that’s no reason to throw it away, it’s often a sign of love. I was pushed to get rid of a children’s book (Mog’s Christmas, by Judith Kerr), as the binding had disappeared and the middle four pages were in fact missing. So I threw it away with determination, because the story was missing a crucial plot step (believe me on that). Nobody was too upset, because the break was so boring. However, once the charity shops reopened, I stumbled upon a copy of the book with all of its pages, so I bought it. I blamed myself for not being stronger in spirit (the youngest was twenty-five and no grandchildren), so I did an experiment: I just mentioned in passing that I had managed to replace the book. Every reaction was relief and pleasure; so it’s not just me.

I can get rid of clothes, shoes, bags without scruple, unless it’s something special. I like to recycle and throw things away; but not the books. I suspect you never grow up with books, especially those that have been important to you at different stages. My husband loves Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazons series, although it never did much for me; but we have the complete set, some from his childhood and some bought later. Then he decided he would like to have them all in the old binders (green hardback books), so over time (several birthdays and Christmases) we found them all. But we can’t really get rid of old paperback copies. Children might need it. They might, someday, but they all keep most of their books here, even the few that have moved out.

Books are much more than text. Without passion, I should be able to get rid of some of the picture books, picture alphabets, poetry collections and nursery rhyme books. I even still occasionally buy new children’s anthologies because I’m trying to track down a half-forgotten poem from my own childhood. But I can’t recycle or throw away any of them, because I remember reading them to a sequence of little people each for the first time, or even more poignant, reading them so many times we could all recite them together even without a book. To avoid having to list everyone’s favorite, I’m not giving specific examples here, as that would lead to heated discussion. Every children’s book is like a memory capsule. I’m sure each member of the family remembers different aspects of the same book as well as different books. There were books that I definitely found more boring than children’s, and I’m glad I ditched the ones with lots of animal noises. But there are several books where, if you mention the title, the one you’re talking to stops and suddenly has a distant look in their eyes, almost a listening look. It’s very precious, and I couldn’t get rid of those books. Meeting them on a shelf I haven’t checked in a while is a great pleasure (if it takes a while). Very good picture books stand the test of time, where less good ones fall under the wheels of chariots and are forgotten.

I can get rid of thrillers (except Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey), but Mary loves Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes, and my husband loves Maigret. I could drop the boy’s adventure storybooks, like treasure island and The three Musketeers, but he also loves John Buchan and Dornford Yates. I don’t really like science fiction; – but our sons consider the parental house the National Collection of early Asimovs and the like. I wouldn’t give Stephen King storage space; but it brought out John’s protective instinct, and he piled them all up in his room, so now it’s my fault again that his shelves are full.

I managed to hand over many versions of King Arthur and Robin Hood to Rachel, who took them home, which is a win, but I can’t part with my Victorian novelists and early feminists, neither do I want to give up my collection of Ladybird fairy tales. Not exactly picture books, they nevertheless shaped the mental images of witches and princesses for generations of children, and Margaret (especially) and I still judge more modern versions against them. Margaret was happily terrified of the ferocious red-haired witch stepmother of Rapunzel, far scarier than anything Disney ever imagined; and we are child’s play for anything reminiscent of the colors and patterns of The twelve dancing princesses. Later in its childhood, Ladybird modernized some imagery, and we weren’t very fond of it, especially when accompanied by easy-to-read narratives, when those were in vogue. I think we might be able to let them go, but only if no one notices what I’m doing.

I want to keep all the handmade ladybugs, the historical stories and biographies, the scientific and explanatory ones. Those in the Bible are good for the Old Testament, but rather weak and in white nightgowns for the New. Herein lies another great advantage of the Ladybird book: they are small and so portable, easy for little hands to hold, full of color and interest, full of different pages and images, and can fall on the floor of a pew during the sermon without making much noise. It’s easy to hack these books, and indeed people have been doing it for a few years now, using the illustrations with new text on The Shed, The student, the husband and the like; but like the old I-Spy books, there’s a lot of explanation in (say) Our Weather or Planets, which is actually very well done. And I love the pictures.

Getting rid of any book is really difficult, and it can only be done one book at a time. Thank goodness at least the charity shops are open again, because if we give up any, they have to go to a good home. In our family, we all find these images extremely distressing where people have cut and glued the inside pages of books into fantastic shapes to make paper lanterns and the like. Do this with journals if you must (and not with partitions either). This is not the object or the raison d’etre of the books. Books furnish the mind; they ‘makyth man’; they are some of your first friends and certainly some of your most enduring friends. They deserve a good treatment, and they always have more to give, ready for the next reader. But where the hell am I going to put the books I was given for Christmas?

Kate Keefe compound setting to music of the mass and writing on the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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