Friday, 29 August 2014

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Bookshelves: a book lover's six-month challenge

As a child one of my favourite books was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Penned about the childhood of her husband, Almanzo Wilder, it brims with detail about the farming and food of 1860s upstate New York. Nine-year-old Almanzo eats and eats, desperate to grow as fast as possible so that he will be big and strong enough to own his own calf; one meal-time, his mother looks perplexedly at his piled-high plate and says 'your eyes are bigger than your stomach!'

It's an idiom that's stuck with me because it perfectly describes my own particular consumerist weakness: books. It's always been books, and it always will be. My bookshelves are double-stacked. Books line the floor in front of my radiator. There are books on my chest of drawers. There are books on my desk. There are books under my desk. There are (work) books under my other desk in the office I share with postgraduate colleagues. There are more books in the hallway which have not joined, and spatially cannot join the permanent book flashmob that is my bedroom. And then there's my Kindle - it's nearly full.


Moving back home for the summer (with more books), I realised that something had to give, so I began a book purge. I had relatively fresh eyes for it as I had lived away from home for almost two years, and it took me down all the winding imaginary trails of my adolescence and early adulthood to date. With bookshelf space at a Malthusian premium, I told myself that each book had to be considered in the light of what I wanted to own now - but this proved surprisingly difficult with each tug on the heartstrings. Colditz by Henry Chancellor had sat on those shelves for fourteen years; I'd thought about reading it a couple of times but just never got round to it. I knew, secretly, that when sitting next to The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng or The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, it was going to lose out by a small margin every time, barring external intervention or inspiration. That small margin - endlessly repeated, and extrapolating from fourteen years of evidence against its favour - diminished to microscopic the possibility that I would ever read the poor thing. Coldly, mathematically, functionally, disregarding our fourteen-year material relationship, I put it on the Oxfam pile and willed for it a more attentive owner.*

It joined many books that I had read many times, and many books that I had never read once. The latter were what really bugged me. With each discarded book I sensed the closing of a tiny door of knowledge, a Dark Materials-esque parallel world of the imagination sealed off. Readers read because they want to explore new worlds; many of the books I own were tiny doors that I opened when I was twelve, fifteen, eighteen, twenty-one, and beyond. Purging my books en masse entailed acknowledging that actually, I was never going to enter the world of Max Arthur's Lost Voices of the Royal Navy, or Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms - because, tempting though they are, I don't have time to read them; and if I do have time, they will probably lose out to Susan Neiman's Moral Clarity or the journals of Sylvia Plath. As a teenager, and even as an undergraduate, I thought I had all the time in the world to read these books and all the carpet in the world to house them. In my mid-twenties, I am facing up to the fact that my eyes are bigger than my bookshelves.

Book hoarding does of course have its advantages. A decade after I took a year's Japanese lessons, I'm finally making a trip to the land of Murakami, Ishiguro, tonkatsu and Mount Fuji. My textbook and Japanese dictionary have sat quietly undisturbed on the penultimate shelf of my first bookcase since I was fifteen, and in September they will be pored over and flicked through at thirty thousand feet as they accompany me six thousand miles east. Sometimes there is a lapse of many years before the reader takes the plunge through the book-door, which is all well and good and, indeed, rather satisfying. But while I could hold onto the promise of a gazillion open doors in the form of piles and piles of books awaiting my retirement in 2065, it's quite freeing to let some of them go - although I do it wistfully. In the imminent future I am not going to learn Russian, nor I am going to be a historian of twentieth-century British aristocratic families. I don't have the space to collect beautiful old Penguins, even though they appeal achingly to my history degree and anthropological inclinations. Instead I have stacks of contemporary fiction, books about psychology and social science, histories of medical phenomena, volumes on mindfulness, biographies of nineteenth-century philanthropists, and, most importantly, shelf-loads of Bill Bryson. These are the ones I seem to read.

This all leads me to a challenging conclusion: maybe I should stop buying books. By definition, the books that remain on my shelves and under my desk, on my desk and in front of my radiator - these books are the portals that I'm still willing to enter. Maybe I have enough of them for now; maybe to keep buying books is to outpace, outface, and fib to myself.

Maybe I can make it six months without buying myself a single new book. This is going to be tough. I will have to withstand the promise of Waterstones on a winter's evening and, most challengingly, the Christmas shop, which shamefully most often takes the form of 'three for you, one for me'. I will have to resist Amazon marketplace with its books for a penny plus postage and packing. I will avoid, at all costs, the £3 bookshop on New Inn Hall St in Oxford. I will repress the itch that comes with a new interest or the review of a novel from a much-loved author in the weekend papers - and try not to sob as I do so. I will only be allowed to buy books that are (hand-on-heart) necessary for work.

Let's see how I get on, and what I read.


*My mother rescued it for her bookshelves. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief.