Tuesday 13 March 2012

Books do furnish a room

You can tell a lot about a person from the books they read, or at any rate own. I have long found craftily scanning the shelves of new acquaintances a reliable way of assessing whether we might be on compatible wavelengths.

But even before the arrival of the Kindle (and remember, other tablet devices are available), books had begun to be banished from the sitting rooms of the fashion conscious. An estate agent helpfully suggested that it would increase my chances of selling my house if my four thousand plus volumes were less prominently displayed. I countered that they might well turn out to be the only things holding up the roof. Shortly afterwards I took my house off the market.

Then last week, for the first time in 24 years, I decided that the very lived-in look of my study was no longer tolerable, and braced myself to clear it out so that it could receive the attentions of a decorator. As a result I am now completely shattered, while the resulting boxes of displaced books are filling most of the rest of the house.

Not actually my study, but something to which I aspire

My whole life unfolded before me as I cleared the shelves. I even found Look & Learn, Dandy and Beano annuals from my childhood. My initial thought was that my two youngsters might appreciate these in a year or two. Then I remembered the habitual violence of 1960s cartoon parents and schoolteachers, and the casual racism of Corporal Clott in Africa, and realised that I could be accused of poisoning their minds to such an extent that they might have to be taken into care.

Corporal Clott: he used a lot of mysterious words like 'Sambo' and 'picaninny'

There were many well-worn classics I clearly remembered reading in my teens and twenties, along with crisp, almost new volumes I longed to have the time to read now. Only in many cases I glanced at the inside back cover, where around 20 years ago I started making a brief note every time I finished a book, and discovered that I had already read it, and promptly forgotten every detail.

Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have instituted a star rating system so that I would know whether a book was worth reading again. If only I had realised at the time that my brain was completely saturated with information, and incapable of absorbing more.

Not actually a joke to me now

The lessons for the young are to get your reading in early, when you may actually recall it, and to go for quality so that you do not reach your dotage with a memory stocked only with rubbish.

While for the old, at least being marooned on a desert island by BBC Radio 4 with just one book no longer represents a hardship, because it will be as fresh and enjoyable on its fiftieth reading as it was first time around.

I more or less stopped buying books a few years ago because I had completely run out of space, and realised that I would have to live to be 250 to get through the ones I already owned. And that was before I grasped that most of what I have read since the age of 40 had left only a vapour trail in my memory, rather than an indelible mark.

Now the question is whether I should bother to put the many hundreds of books back on their shelves, or consign them to a skip and devote more display space to my collection of Coronation mugs. It is a tough call. But on the whole I think I will put the books back on the off chance that they are indeed increasing the stability of the house, which stands on a very windy hilltop.

And at least I can console myself with the thought that, if I stick to a once in 24 year decorating cycle, I will surely not be around to face the nightmare task of clearing them out again.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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