(with apologies from me being a day late entering this Rant – for those of you who are looking outside at rain pouring down, MJ)
Today is, for me, book disposal day.
Not yet nine o’clock, already the sun is beating down from a cloudless sky, and in the garden a pleasant breeze ruffles the leaves. But I must set to work gathering up different leaves.
Getting rid of books is a hateful job. I have had many of them for half a century, longer than I have had most of my friends. Their presence on the bookshelves in my library has been reassuringly familiar, even though the jackets have faded over time from exposure to the light and dust would billow up in ectoplasmic storms if I ever tried to pull them out.
But it has to be done. My library shelves are filled to capacity, wall-to-wall, and for the past ten years new arrivals have been piled up in horizontal stacks that grow ever higher. Some books are now tilting precariously on the cliff-edge. I had better start with those. There are books in my bedroom, hundreds of them, and books in each of the guest bedrooms. In some rooms they have taken up residence on window sills.
The discarded books must be packed up in cardboard cartons and consigned to some charity shop. There some sniffy old dragon will open the boxes, sigh a distraught sigh, and then make some comment about why people bother sending them such rubbish. Then she will mark up some of the most brilliant authors in history for a pound – an ignominious end for members of the literary elite, but then we all have a course to run.
Getting rid of books is a hateful job. It is like organising a party and, finding the guest list too long, discarding names. Some of the books on my shelves have not been read for years, decades even, but somehow their presence, spanning the age of this man, has contributed to memory and in doing so proved a welcome continuity in a fast-changing world.
Many will survive the cull, of course. The complete works of the Bard will be treasured to the end, if only for an occasional glimpse for reference. Ditto – naturally – Mr. Dickens. Also safe, as the television quiz contest presenters say, are Messrs. Vidal, Frayn, Leonard (Elmore), John Banville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Wodehouse, Saul Bellow and Winston Churchill. (What a gloriously eclectic bag of names that sentence contains!)
But what do I do with such worthies as Robert Harris – such readable thrillers, but are they re-readable? – and William Boyd – going downhill fast of late, I think – and John Irving, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, William Golding et al. Their fate will be decided, I fear, on nothing more than a whim, as I falter between the boxes marked ‘stay’ ‘go’ muttering “eeny, meeny, miny, mo”.
The easy decisions fall on those pristine unread volumes acquired as birthday and Christmas presents, from people who had obviously found themselves in a crowded bookshop desperately trying to fathom the preference in ‘reading materials’ of the recipient – despite having known him for decades – before invariably jumping to entirely the wrong conclusion. “A Short History of British Buses” can go. So must “Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years” and “Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia”, as fascinating as the subjects may be to some – but not, alas, to me, at least not to the extent of wading through 1,000 pages.
So, now, off I go. Wish me luck.
And, if any reader would like to pop round to see what might be reprieved from the hospice shop, you will be very welcome.