Not the best few days I’ve ever had.
I began dealing with the boxes slowly. But two of my neighbours, seeing me struggling with books up and down the tenement stair, kindly decided to help me. In just a couple of hours, we had transferred the contents of the boxes into my living room.
It was hideous and overwhelming.
While I was studying for my masters degree in the mid ’90s, I worked in a University bookshop. The returns policy on mass-market paperbacks was simple: you had to rip the covers off, and throw them in the bin. I remember regarding this task as both depressing and sacrilegious. Books were just commodities?! NO! Acquisitive as well as appalled, I developed a habit of rescuing these books at stock-take time. Having ripped the covers off to render them worthless, I then bought wrapping paper, and re-covered them to render them of readable value again. I found several of these personally wrapped books among my boxes: George Eliot, Dos Passos, John Stuart Mill.
I have always loved reading, and regard the book-as-object as something to be cared for and treasured. And since I was a teenager, I’ve also enjoyed having books, and spent many happy hours seeking them out at library sales, bookfairs, second-hand shops.
I kept on reading and acquiring my way through three degrees. By the time I was appointed to my first lecturing post, my office at work had become a necessary storage space for all my many tomes.
I am still reading and acquiring — ironically, at the very moment the delivery company arrived with my 49 boxes, I was in the process of ordering a couple of books on ABE – but I no longer have the luxury of an external space in which to store my acquisitions.
And they are just that – acquisitions, possessions.
I treated myself to a compact OED when I finished writing my PhD. As an object, with its wee magnifying glass and drawer – it is incredibly pleasing but when was the last time I actually used it? I absolutely love the digital OED, which does not pose storage issues. . .
I hold no truck with authors like Graham Swift, who like to gripe about the effects of digitisation. As far as I’m concerned, e-books hold the potential to put the power of the word back in the hands of writers, encouraging an artisanal independence. And you don’t have to worry about where you are going to put the bloody things.
In their simple status as objects I no longer have use for, I have no problem getting rid of my 49 boxes of book-possessions – but, unfortunately, they are also objects invested with a personality – mine.
The objects speak of fifteen years of teaching.
And of thoughts toward a doctorate.
I spent most of Thursday being profoundly irritated by the fact that, after sorting through thousands of books, I still couldn’t find the paperback copy of Sartor Resartus that I bought on Bury market when I was 16. But, in the end, what does that particular object really mean? I have another copy (of course), my original thoughts about it, and a reinvigorated interest in Carlyle. But it is sometimes very hard to shake off the meanings one invests in objects. As long as these particular objects weren’t here, I didn’t have to think too much about what they represented. Dealing with their presence – as well as their sheer volume – has been quite difficult – much more emotionally difficult, than, say, getting rid of my shoes. Quite apart from the fact that properly cataloguing and selling them would be a gargantuan task that I have absolutely no enthusiasm for, I fear that if the books had stayed around, they would have started to seriously mess with my mind. So, after putting aside all the poetry, the old Marxists, the books written by me or by my friends, I have got rid of the rest. I felt quite peculiar, but lighter, as if sloughing off a dead skin. I am not going to tell you where they went. But if anyone ever comes across a book with my name or notes in it, I don’t want to know.