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Why it can be so hard to get rid of old books

I’ve been meaning to do something about the books for several years now, but dispensing with the souvenirs of your internal life is about as much fun as drawing up your last will and testament, and easy to put off.

My house is small and there isn’t much wall space, so a couple of years ago, 20 or so boxes of books were dispatched to a storage unit. This has turned out to be an expensive exercise in procrastination. What was/am I thinking? That a bigger house would/will magically appear, with space for floor-to-ceiling bookshelves?

At some stage, I probably thought bookshelves were a fundamental part of the furniture, as crucial as a couch. They were reassuring to have around – so, you don’t have much, not even a dishwasher, but see how many books you’ve read!

What do your bookshelves say about you, really? I used to scan other people’s books for evidence of their literary tastes, their political leanings, their interests, whether they’re likely to be any good in the kitchen, etc. But can you trust what you see on other people’s bookshelves? Or even your own bookshelves? To be honest, mine have always been a boulevard of best intentions, filled with books I’ve meant to read but haven’t got around to, like those volumes of poetry and Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry. But one day... so I tell myself.

As for the books I have read, they wouldn’t reveal anything about me that an Amazon algorithm couldn’t tell you. If you buy Alice Munro from Amazon, for instance, Amazon will regularly remind you that customers who like Munro also like Anne Patchett, Lorrie Moore, Elizabeth Strout, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, etc. So my bookshelves might showcase my literary preferences, and also that I’m an algorithmic cliché.

The writer and former literary editor Diana Athill has described how reducing her collection of a thousand books to two or three hundred was one of the hardest things about moving into a rest home. Each time she tried to decide which books to keep, she “sank into a state of shaming uselessness”. She had a nephew, though, who “spent the best part of a day holding up, one by one, every book in that daunting mass and saying, ‘In or Out?’, then boxing it as appropriate – something which I truly believe I could never have done on my own.”

She hasn’t missed the books she got rid of. If you’re old enough to move into a rest home, she points out, you’re probably old enough to forget what happens in most of the books you’ve already read, so you can just keep rereading those you’ve decided to keep. Which is why I put my books in storage, rather than get rid of them – being not old enough to move into a rest home, old enough to have forgotten what happened in most books I’ve already read, and young enough to be putting off deciding which ones I’m likely to reread. The stupid thing is, when I’ve wanted to revisit a book I’ve got in storage, it has been easier to go to the library, which is just up the road. And I can order the book online rather than wade through 20 large boxes containing the souvenirs of my internal life. Yet the books remain in storage. This could constitute a hoarding disorder, only the hoarding is happening off-site.

The art of discarding has become a fashionable topic in book publishing these days, including books on how to get rid of books, such as those by bestselling decluttering adviser Marie Kondo. In The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, for instance, she notes that unread books do tend to accumulate. “You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.”

She takes a similarly stern position on the ones you’ve finished. “Books you have read have already been experienced and their content is inside you, even if you don’t remember.” In short, she instructs us to “keep only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones that you really love.” Ha, as if my affections weren’t so fickle.

Books that offer advice on getting rid of books usually prescribe a Japanese minimalist aesthetic, and are illustrated with images of sun-drenched apartments with polished floors, hardly any stuff and, if there’s a bookshelf, it has only a dozen or so books on it. Part of me thinks, “I want to live like that.” Part of me thinks, “Stop making me feel bad about my disorderly bookshelves, you book-dumping, decluttering conformists.”

It might not be so hard to get rid of books (which once gave you so much pleasure/insight/consolation/made you feel less alone in the world) if it weren’t so hard to find a good home for them. A local real estate agency has a bookshelf outside its office, stacked with free books for anyone interested, but I’ve never seen anyone browsing it. The local library often has a trolley of books going for 50c each, sometimes offering a bag of books for a buck. Trying to sell books on Trade Me is rarely worth it, there aren’t many secondhand bookshops left to offer them to, and even hospices can be choosy.

Where there’s a will, or circumstances dictate, there are ways. A friend recently downsized from a sizeable villa, where she had several walls filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves containing hundreds and hundreds of books. Most of them were distributed among a number of different hospice shops, some went to friends, five boxes went to a friend’s daughter’s teacher, and several to the local Lions club that was fortunately putting on a big book sale at the time of her shift. She’s getting used to living with fewer books. “It was hard to pack them up, but as they were carted off, I felt kind of indifferent.”

Her most-loved books and authors are now shelved in the bedroom, rather than displayed in her living area. I browsed her modest bedroom bookcase, this friend I’ve known for 15 years. I said: “But I didn’t know you liked Ian McEwan!”

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.