I promised you we’d talk about this (it is a tribute to the power of Lionel Shriver’s writing that one can no longer use this phrase without an echoing thud of We Need to Talk About Kevin somewhere menacingly in the background). If you have transferred all your books to Kindle, or you are an ascetic of Stylites proportions and only ever read books from the library, move on. This week is not for you. But for the rest of us, salvation may be at hand; or, at any rate, some comfort. You are not alone with your book problem.
You know the one. The problem with flat surfaces anywhere in your house mysteriously acquiring a patina, a veneer, a film – no, dammit, usually a socking great heap – of books. In the loo, obviously. By the bed, without question. It’s when the left-hand side of all stairs, landings and corridors have been annexed that you know that the Invasion of the Space Snatchers has taken place and some sort of sorting is needed. Even, possibly, a cull.
We moved house a year ago to come to live in lovely Northumberland. Preparing for the move, we put on our Sensible Faces and went through our books, weeding out all the volumes that, well, yes, alright, neither of us was ever going to read again. I should say here that, because we were living in Oxford at the time, we took boxes and boxes of books – lovely, readable books, just not by us any more – to Oxfam, where, it turned out, some of the rudest people in Britain loll behind the counters watching you stagger in from the double yellow lines to pile your offerings humbly at their sneering feet (alright, I’m not completely sure that feet can sneer, but if they can, those would be the feet that had cracked it first). We arrived here in the north smug with the knowledge of our extreme sensibleness, ruefully aware that we had probably cut deeper into the hoard than necessary, but hey, new beginnings and all that – and, oh yes, new rooms and new bookcases to build and a dawning feeling that, just maybe, this might be the house where we don’t have to squeeze between the books as if we were sheltering in the stacks at the Bodleian until the end of time.
A helpful tip. If you are absolutely certain that you have cut your book collection to the bone, put it all into boxes and leave them piled up for six months while you do something else (put down floors and fit a kitchen, paint walls, make curtains and learn how to do plumbing in our case, but you may have more leisurely pursuits in mind). Comes the great day when you open the boxes, one by one, and lift out your precious books. Use this simple, deadly phrase: ‘Really?’ as you hold each one up to the gaze of your beloved (obviously, you don’t do this with your own books, just his). Put like that, you’d be surprised how many make it onto the To Go pile. And then the rat does the same to you.
So, where to put the radically reduced Northern Reader books? What can we do to achieve a balance between knowing where a book is and becoming a creepy obsessive with a catalogue (if you have catalogued your books, however, do not think that I am labelling you a creepy obsessive. The fact that you read and (presumably) enjoy this blog redeems you. No, you are well-organised. I, on the other hand, if I were to start cataloguing …. Does the term ‘slippery slope’ hold meaning for you?)
An easy start. Cookery books, books about food, books about drink, need to be in the kitchen. So, in our house, do books about gardening, books about birds and books about astronomy, for the simple reason that the back door is in the kitchen and the garden, the birds and, for practical staring-at purposes, the night sky, are all the other side of the back door.
Fiction: easy. Alphabetical by author. To sort an author’s work, I have toyed with sequencing by date of publication, genre or (and I am a bit ashamed of this) colour of spine, but in practice they just jostle along together. I do know people who have separate shelves for contemporary literature, or who sort the whole lot by date, and I rather adore the solution reached by Anne Fadiman, who has a special shelf for books written by friends and relations. Come on, NorthernReader readers; get writing (those of you who haven’t already). Anne Fadiman’s delightful book, by the way, is called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader and I can think of no reason why you’re not going to love it.
Poems: equally straightforward. Anthologies first – grouped, so stuff about love is demurely separated from stuff about war (although of course all poetry is either about sex or death or, of course, both), then dear old Anon, then alphabetical-by-author.
Plays: trickier. I’ve ended up with a rather arbitrary division between plays, general – a swoop starting with Aeschylus and ending with Jez Butterworth but arranged alphabetically by author because that produces some arbitrary associations, but I can quite see that a chronological approach would be more sensible – and plays, Shakespeare and chums: alphabetical by author and date order within that – purely because it allows me to impose my scholarly theories about date of composition. This, strictly speaking, is showing off of the worst kind, but it is mostly harmless.
Most non-fiction: a nightmare and subject to furtive re-arrangements in the middle of the night. Clumped into subjects . But who is to say when philosophy, for example, transmutes into sociology, memoir or even (intentional or accidental) humour? Should Ronald Searle find a home with other artists (individuals arranged alphabetically, movements in some sort of chronology) or other comedies, or should he be broken up and scattered across cartoons, humour (school) and shattering recollection of prisoner of war camp?
All very exhausting. But oh, the joy when a book comes up in conversation and we are able to say, ‘I’ll just go and get it’, and we can, in a quietly impressive, speedy manner, not setting out on a hopeless quest, to be gone for hours. Although of course, like Susan Hill (Howards’s End is on the Landing) you might come across an unexpected delight that way…..