This weekend, I threw out 184 books. Yes, I do know how brutal that is – I was there. My dining-room shelves were literally bowing and spilling with titles I had no intention of reading again, and everyone in my house was fed up with the disproportionate amount of space they occupied. When a recent birthday brought 23 new ones with absolutely nowhere to go but the floor, even I – a natural hoarder who is especially sentimental about books – knew we’d reached tipping point. Very sadly, I agreed to do what people in their thousands must be doing in the age of the eReader. I agreed to a stock clearance.
My local charity shops had notes taped to the door refusing any more book donations (a sad sign of the times); the doctor’s surgery couldn’t accept anything that hadn’t been sanitised; eBay seemed too much of a faff for little reward; burning an unthinkable offence. So I decided to set up a free bookstall outside my house, where passers-by could take anything they fancied reading. There was something comforting about the idea of my books not flying too far from the nest.
I made some strict rules on qualification. No out-of-print books could go, ditto anything signed by the author. Any book that had meant a lot to me at any time in my life (including all Enid Blyton, Judy Blume and the Cheerleader series of 80s trashy tween fiction) had to stay, too. Nothing received as a present from someone I love could go, nor anything with a memory attached, like the exposé on Freemasonry my father had rather inappropriately given me when I was 11 years old, and which a screaming man once tried to snatch from my hands and throw out of an InterCity train window.
I never did make my own face pack, take up meditation or even discover The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, much less adopt them
There was some low-hanging fruit. Chunky first-aid manuals long since replaced by a simple Google search, and duplicates – unfathomably, I had three copies of To Kill A Mockingbird – all painlessly purged to the pavement. Getting rid of wedding books and baby manuals, knowing I’ll never again need to tantrum-tame or potty-train, felt liberating bordering on euphoric. Likewise, novels so thick that replacing them on Kindle gave me back three inches of shelf space were easily ditched – bye bye, Jonathan Franzen. Works I’ve repeatedly tried to love as much as everyone else does, but failed enough times to finally throw in the towel – laters, Captain Corelli. Easiest of all were the comedy and novelty books where, quite simply, that joke isn’t funny anymore. Ricky Gervais’s Flanimals, anyone?
I quickly realised that discarding old books isn’t just about letting go of the past, but also of a future that will never materialise. When the penny drops, a sad process becomes strangely empowering. Paul McKenna can’t make me thin after all. Weirdly, I never did make my own face pack, take up meditation or even discover The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, much less adopt them. The juicing book has been used even less than the NutriBullet I got during the same guilt-ridden January. I’ll never get around to reading War And Peace, and it’s OK to evict it in favour of the film biographies I genuinely prefer. Age has allowed me to admit that books which promise to change my life rarely will, but occasionally those I least expect to, do.
Watching them all out there on the pavement, carefully arranged with their spines facing up, under my children’s homemade sale signage, was initially painful. I winced as someone tossed a mint hardback David Mitchell back into a plastic crate, and openly objected when another tried to split the Tales Of The City series in two (I’m afraid I went back and rescued them; I honestly don’t know what I was thinking). It seems that books are like your children – you can never truly let them go.
But, by lunchtime, I’d stopped bobbing behind the curtains, looking for excuses to go out. I’d become inured to the sight of my books leaving home, even joyful at the knowledge they’d found a new audience. And like a truly great book, the experience has altered my thinking a little. I’ve realised that the emotional pull I feel towards my collection really isn’t about paper, jackets and binding. It comes from content, not object. My bookshelves are now orderly enough for me to pull out the keepers and enjoy their contents again. And for the first time in decades, there’s some room for new memories.