Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Murdered My Library: Linda Grant

From the book description at Amazon:
What happens when you begin to build a library in childhood and then find you have too many books? From a small collection held together by a pair of plaster of Paris horse-head bookends to books piled on stairs, and in front of each other on shelves, books cease to furnish a room and begin to overwhelm it. At the end of 2013, novelist Linda Grant moved from a rambling maisonette over four floors to a two bedroom flat with a tiny corridor-shaped study. The trauma of getting rid of thousands of books raises the question of what purpose personal libraries serve in contemporary life and the seductive lure of the Kindle. ...
Linda Grant is an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer. Her novel WHEN I LIVED IN MODERN TIMES won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008 and won the South Bank Show Award.

In May 2014, Moira at Clothes in Books featured this Kindle Single on her blog. In July, Col at Col's Criminal Library read and reviewed the essay also, sharing his thoughts about keeping books and culling books.

Then my husband read it and here is his review at Goodreads:
Fascinating account of growing up shy and in love with books, of building a library and mercilessly purging it, of patronizing favorite book stores and seeing them vanish, of moving from printed books to e-books in a world that reads less and less. This eloquent work - at less than 30 pages - is really much too brief.
Knitters and crocheters have their yarn stash, I have my book stash. The majority of the books I own are unread -- my TBR books on bookshelves, in stacks, or even in boxes in the garage. I have kept some books that are special to me. Specific authors that are favorites or authors that I can see rereading some year, and these two sets of authors may overlap. I also hold on to books with great covers that I cannot bear to part with. I even collect books with certain covers to a limited extent, but they are only a small fraction of the books I own. (My husband owns more books than I do, and more of his books are already read, so we have no arguments about the validity of owning a lots of books or hanging on to them.)

Linda Grant's essay was an enjoyable read. As I went through highlighting the parts I liked or that spoke to me especially, it was interesting to find the highlights that my husband had added. I am an indiscriminate highlighter when reading Kindle books, but as in other areas, my husband is much more restrained. We both highlighted this area:
I am the adult outcome of the shy, awkward only child who, instead of running around in the garden or clambering on slides and swings or slapping bats against balls or skipping down muddy lanes, preferred, above all else, as I still do, to stay indoors and read. Only children are no good socially.
I do take issue with this statement about small houses:
Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but of disposable living and small houses.
I have lived in small houses and apartments and condos all of my life. The only time I lived in a large house, I had few books and was very unhappy. Since then, I have amassed books in the small places I have lived, with husband and son. Every room except the kitchen is filled with books. All of the walls of the small dining room are covered with book cases. I have books in stacks on the floor, on tables, even in place of plants on plant stands. And the overflow is in boxes in the garage.

I have no objection to culling books. My culling is gradual and voluntary, not forced. If we compare my culling and Linda Grant's ... she is talking about getting rid of a lot of books she has read and treasured and kept as a kind of legacy. Now she hits a point in her life where she has to cut back drastically and it hurts. It is painful to make decisions like this.

Grant also talks about bookstores, and getting books as a child. My family could not afford to buy books when I was a child. Almost everything I read came from the library. It wasn't until I had a job in my late teens that I could afford to go to a bookstore and purchase a book. And I did not do it much then. It was not until I met my husband that I changed from borrowing books from the library to buying books to keep. So, although Linda Grant and I are around the same age, she has been acquiring books for a couple of decades longer than I have.

I do love bookstores, and if I could turn back time, that is what I would want to return to. The area I live in has never had loads of bookstores, either independent or chains. The population does not support them. We used to have a Barnes & Noble and a Borders, but both were closed. We used to have more independent bookstores and some that were specifically for children's books and even one bookstore that specialized in crime fiction. The one bookstore that has always been my favorite is Chaucer's Books; it has been at different locations over the years, but is still in existence, in a great location. And it has a wonderful crime fiction selection.


22 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you read this Tracy, and I very much enjoyed your comments on it. We're all slightly different in our reaction to books and the way we accumulate, read and dispose of them: but I get a fellow feeling with some people, I know that they, like me, have had an all-consuming interest for all those years.
    I have changed my book habits drastically since the coming of the Kindle, and at the moment feel a) that I have passed peak book: ie the number of physical books in my house will not increase, and will very slowly decrease and b) I have passed peak TBR - I have stopped accumulating at such a high rate, and will work at reducing the unread books.
    Maybe I am like an addict who *thinks* she can control her habit. We'll see!

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    1. Moira, it was interesting to see how different book habits are from person to person. Kindle has not changed my habits much, but I do welcome the flexibility it allows when needed. I cannot imagine books not being a huge part of my life, and it is strange since no one else in my family in Alabama is / was that way. My father perused a lot of library books, picking them up at the downtown Birmingham library and toting them back and forth on the bus (amazing), but not fiction at all.

      Here's hoping that you will continue to decrease the TBR pile.

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  2. How heartbreaking it is when you cannot hang on to your books any longer. Due to overflowing shelves in my home (so much so that the clothes were outside the cupboards as the books were stacked inside) I have had to part with a few. These were however books I didn't enjoy at all. I cannot imagine a scenario where one has to part with books one loves.

    I really enjoyed your post Tracy and hats off to you for making your home a virtual library.

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    1. It is hard, Neer. When I was writing this I thought of my mother having to move out of her home and leave most of her possessions. A different situation because her mental health had declined, but leaving familiar possessions behind increased her confusion.

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  3. Tracy - great post and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Its interesting to compare notes and get a glimpse of other book lover's psyche. I think I became quite insular when I hit puberty and whilst I was never a loner, books were a great source of company.

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    1. Col, you and Moira were my inspiration to think about my book stash, my habits, and what I keep and what I let go of. A few months ago I began trying to get a count of my TBR books, and as I checked each area I found a few books to pass along to others. Stalled on that project for now, though.

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  4. Tracy - Thanks for your thoughts on this. I think all book lovers have to face this challenge of what to do about acquiring and keeping books. The Kindle, the Nook and other e-readers have been helpful, but they don't solve everything. There's a lot to think about when it comes to how to manage bibliophilia. Thanks for making me think about it again.

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    1. Margot, as I go through my books now and then I try to be realistic about whether I will actually read a book from the TBR piles, or need to keep one that I already read. But it is hard to let go, sometimes.

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  5. I have no trouble throwing out books that just sit there on the shelf. I have read them, they were not memorable reads and they must go. Yet classics NEVER end their lives in my garbage bin. The retain their place on the shelf, they are family. Kindle books feel like exactly what they float in 'clouds' . I have NO emotional connection with them....they are just handy to have when I have too many cats on my lap to hold a book or am travelling on a train. I need bookcases desperately and have put in on my Christmas list for Santa!

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    1. If I ever get control of my huge TBR piles, I will have a more manageable amount of books but will always keep the ones I love. I agree, the Kindle is nice for books I cannot get otherwise and to have for traveling... and it is easy to read in bad light situations, but it is always my choice of format only if I cannot get or afford the paper copy.

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  6. I've only read the Linda Grant Guardian article which was published last month and have my blogpost on it half done, I'll finish it sometime. I managed to get rid of a few books to charity shops before our house move, but only ones which I hadn't enjoyed much. Like Nancy (above) I'm desperate for bookcases, every nice one which I've seen in shops has a big SOLD sticker on it. I've resorted to IKEA for the moment.

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    1. Katrina, the Kindle Single doesn't have much more than the Guardian article. I look forward to your post on the subject. We don't have any more room for bookcases, but when we were looking for some, it was hard to find the right size for the right place.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Tracy. Terrific post. I agree with a lot of what you say about culling books as I've given away lots of books (mostly romance) like 7 or 8 trash bag full of books. I couldn't even begin to imagine how heartbreaking it must be to let go of books you love and treasure. I still collect a lot of hardbacks of my favorites and I am starting to go back to reading paperbacks (saying so publicly after being such a die hard ebook reader) and I say that only because a lot of the books I enjoy are older classics.

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    1. Thanks, Keishon. Linda Grant talked a lot about having to dump books but we have book sales and thrift stores to donate too. Even we decide to pass on a nice copy of a book, we feel it is going to a good place and will benefit someone. I have read some old paperbacks lately and the only problem with them is tiny print on yellowed paper, hard for my old eyes to read. But often have lovely covers.

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  8. Tracy, I hope to read this book, especially since reading Moira's and Col's reviews and now, of course, your own excellent take on it. I like the title which should make any occasional or compulsive reader sit up and read the book. Someday my bookshelf will look like the one on the cover but that day is still long away. Fortunately, I don't have to cull my physical books because I don't have that many, far less than two hundred, and I have no problems giving away the ones I have read.

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    1. Prashant, I love that bookcase on the cover. I want that bookcase on the cover. I envy your discipline with owning books. I am a pack rat in all areas, but books are a very big weakness of mine. You will enjoy this piece when you read it, I am sure.

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  9. I sympathize with anyone who has to get rid of books. I grew up with books in my parent's house and they read them. My room had a bookshelf with boys on it. We didn't buy a lot of books, but were taken to the library starting at a young age. I was 3 when I got my library card.

    And I was often in my room reading on a weekend afternoon, instead of going outside; and also I was late to high school because I couldn't close books at a reasonable hour. Every book was unputdownable in those days and I read good books.

    I also have books in every room in my apartment, but I don't have any in the bathroom. There are actually 5 or 6 in the kitchen. They are mostly on bookshelves with pottery intersperse, except for the foyer/dining area which has stacks of books on it. It is my goal to cut down on those stacks.

    About 5 years ago, I culled books and took many to the library and donated them. They were books I could part with. But what I have remaining are books I liked, books that belonged to my parents,or others close to me, books that have been given to me. Or books I feel attached to from having read years ago, fiction and non-fiction.

    So, what I have now may stay, although I gladly loan out crime fiction and other novels.



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    1. Kathy, We also went to the library a lot when I was young, and as soon as I could walked there alone, I made many trips there too. In my childhood and teen years I remember reading a lot instead of going outside. But I was unique in my family. I was supported in my reading and my grandmother read a lot (and passed on some books to me). I like hearing about your apartment filled with books that you care about.

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  10. I was supported in my reading, too. My father took me to the library weekly when I was in high school. Only problem: I'd stay up too late reading -- could never put a good book down. Then I couldn't get up in the morning, would be late, etc.
    But sometimes on a nice weekend day, my father would try to convince me to go outside. He was a big reader, usually had five books going at once, fiction, science, sports, math, humor, but he was also a sportsperson and tried to encourage us to go outside and do things.
    He got me into reading Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason and he also liked all of the lawyer TV dramas,which we watched. He probably influenced me on Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, as I didn't know many mystery authors then.
    I have some of his books and my mother's too -- although I had to cull through hundreds of books in her apartment and gave them to a good charity that helps house people with HIV and AIDS. But the ones I wanted, I kept.

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    1. Kathy, I envy you for that introduction to mystery fiction from your father. The only mysteries that I know I read in my teens are the Perry Mason books, because a friend of my mother's (from church) suggested that they might be too risqué for me. My grandmother read Rex Stout. Other than that, I don't know how I ended up reading a lot of mysteries. Maybe that was what was available in libraries I frequented. In late teens, early twenties, I also read some science fiction and fantasy.

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  11. Interesting what your choices were. I never liked science fiction or fantasy, and now I don't like apocalyptic books either nor vampires or zombies. The one exception is one book by Fred Vargas whose investigation is planted firmly on the ground.

    My sibling doesn't read those genres either. I think our father set us up to read reality-based fiction. He didn't read fantasy or science fiction, but as a math brain, he was very fact-based. I think that's why he steered me to Sherlock Holmes, a real scientific detective.

    Interestingly, my nephew reads everything, including fantasy and science fiction. He broke the mold here. I think younger people do that and since books have branched out into so many spheres, I'm glad he is able to go with the flow of modern writers.

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    1. Kathy, just based on my personal experience, my son is the one in my family who reads more fantasy and some science fiction, and he also reads mysteries from time to time. So I agree about younger people reading in more areas. My husband does read some horror, fantasy or science fiction if a particular book appeals, but mostly reads non-fiction or mysteries.

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