Shelf Life. Slightly Foxed magazine archives: Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Shelf Life

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Banishment, destruction, murder and deportation are, regrettably, an integral part of good housekeeping – especially if you live in a small house, as I do. Banishment is putting things up in the attic for a generation. Destruction is dismantling Lego creations which no one has played with for a month. Murder is throwing things away. Deportation is taking things to charity shops.

Yesterday I went on a culling spree in my own house, armed with two cardboard boxes for books. I was in a bloodthirsty mood. As I crept about, earmarking books for instant deportation, blowing the thick dust off them as a kindness before saying goodbye to them for ever, I wondered whether other book-lovers did as I did, and what it felt like, and how other people chose which books to get rid of. Do some people never cull their books? I wondered. Do they really keep every single one, treating all books as sacred, even the Dorling Kindersley Sew Step by Step? They must need to build a yard of new shelving every year.

‘You must be cruel to be kind,’ gardeners tell you, about pruning roses. ‘The more you cut them down, the more they love it.’ This might be true of roses but is it true of book collections? I should imagine they absolutely hate it. Or perhaps the ones that survive are so relieved that they turn a blind eye to the atrocities going on further down the shelf.

‘Cull’ has a different etymology from ‘kill’. I checked – online, not in the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, a worrying new habit. ‘Kill’ comes from the OE cwellen. ‘Cull’ comes from the gentler French word cueillir, which just means ‘pick’ or ‘select’, though both soon begin to sound like euphemisms used by Fascist dictators. The poor ‘selected’ items still end up wrenched out of their homes and carted off to Oxfam or Cancer Research, or whichever of the ten charity shops in your high street happens to be the most convenient for parking.

The skill is to get rid of books which you know for certain nobody will ever miss. (As an author, you must be prepared to face the fact that this very unmissability has been accorded to your own volumes, which you can see for sale on Abe Books, ‘used, in very good condition’, for £0.64.) First to go, yesterday, were the books called ‘Britain’s’ or ‘London’s’ or ‘England’s’ Lost Something – Britain’s Lost Railways, London’s Lost Heritage, England’s Lost Houses. The loss of these Losts will not be felt in this household, I’m pretty certain. They were lost already, as it were. Next to go were books called the Strangest Something. London’s Strangest Tales, Railway’s Strangest Journeys, The Law’s Strangest Cases. The strangeness they contained was diverting for a time, but the novelty soon wore off.

It’s shameful to admit it, but all those books were once presents – as so many of the books one selects for culling tend to have been. A kind and generous person once thought that we (or one of our more anoraky children) would enjoy each of those books. Which we did, for a while. Through my head, at the moment of throwing the book into the cardboard box, went the thought, ‘I didn’t spend my own money on that book, so it won’t hurt me to get rid of it.’ A horribly uncharitable thought, especially on a charity-shop day. I assuaged my guilt by deciding such presents were probably hurriedly bought. Waterstones, 21 December 1998, man with credit card who wanted to get it all done in one day. And at least I wasn’t going to sell the books on eBay and make money out of someone else’s present. But what if the book was inscribed to you, in large handwriting, with love and kisses from the named friend or relative? Much harder to get rid of, in that case. Word might get round.

There’s a certain kind of book that none of us buys for ourselves but we all give to everyone else. The book on the history of the Ordnance Survey, Map of a Nation, is one such. Brilliant idea, wish I’d written it myself, perfect for uncles, aunts, grannies and grandfathers, sons and daughters-in-law. I definitely gave it to people. Our copy is clinging on, taking up four inches of space, not yet read, supposed to be excellent, but so long; will its moment ever come? Will I actually ever say, ‘Today is the day when I get stuck into Map of a Nation’? Let alone ‘Can’t talk: just finishing Map of a Nation’? Its time might be running out. Cambridge: Treasure Island in the Fens is another such well-meant book; and The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends.

Then there are the Booker Prize winners from the 1980s. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was plucked yesterday. A big puff of dust came off that one, and into the box it went. Ugly white-spined paperback: good riddance. Next to it was East of Wimbledon by Nigel Williams, and that was sucked into the vortex, too. Death by association. They made room for more recent Booker and Costa Prize winners which can now have their turn, but for how long?

It’s more painful to get rid of books one has paid good money for – buying them in hardback when they first came out – but which have proved disappointing. Late Martin Amis novels (can’t make head or tail of them); The Finkler Question (bewilderingly unfunny; is it my problem or his?); White Teeth (starts well but goes on far too long). But surely there’s no point in having these books grinning down at you from the shelves, mocking your extravagance, when they could be adopted by another family who might give them the love they crave if not deserve.

People say that middle-aged women become ‘invisible’. We no longer get whistled at by builders, etc. Middle-aged books become ‘invisible’ too. So much so that you go for decades without realizing you have multiple copies of them. An English graduate married to another one, I found we had three dog-eared paperback copies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (‘NB assonance’ marked in the margins.) Plus two identical Penguin editions of The Mayor of Casterbridge. (‘NB Character is fate, cf Gk trag.’) No culling dilemma there – except whose to get rid of. Multiple copies of the Arden Hamlet, perhaps, have to be kept, in case you ever host a play-reading, which is unlikely but just possible.

What about the great show-off books which we all had to be seen to be reading when they were published? Citizens by Simon Schama; Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and her husband; Florence Nightingale by Mark Bostridge; Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens; Humphrey Carpenter’s Robert Runcie. Most of us have a shelf of trophy hardbacks like these; as you peruse them it’s like being on the ground floor of Hatchards a few years back. Culling these handsome trophies is not easy. They do furnish a room. But the small house demands it; and to be honest, that Mao book was a disappointment after Wild Swans, wasn’t it? Joint authors are never a good idea.

What about inherited books? My Hungarian grandfather left me his collection of books in French and German. So, taking up a great deal of prominent space, I have Heine’s Werke, Goethe’s Werke, Lessing’s Werke, Grillparzer’s Werke and Schiller’s Werke, as well as the complete Oeuvres of Molière, Corneille and Zola. What to do about these? It’s absurd that they should survive, decade in, decade out, when most of the German ones are in Gothic script, which I never learned to read and do not intend to. But the sentimental value is strong, and the books certainly look impressive. Tiny culls have taken place when no one was looking – for example, an uncut Zola paperback which even my grandfather can’t have read.

What about recipe books? You must take action if the recipe bookshelf gets so full that you can’t prise a book out with greasy fingers. Yesterday I took the step of divesting ourselves of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook. It had amused us for three years with its recipes for snail porridge and sardine-on-toast sorbet, but I decided enough was enough. We were never, ever going to cook from the thing. I also got rid of a 1990s book of pasta dishes which explained, rather blushingly and with lots of exclamation marks, that ‘spaghetti puttanesca’ literally meant whore’s spaghetti. Very old-hat. But Mary Berry’s eternally useful, margarine-based Ultimate Cake Book survived, complete with its recipe for ‘New Year Tipsy Cake’.

Culling children’s books is tricky, because children are upset if they discover that anything has gone, even if they didn’t love it much when it was there. But I’ve become an expert. Go up to their room when they’re out. Open the window. Sift through the books which are lying horizontally because they’re too tall to stand up in the shelf. They’re the annoying ones. You’ll be amazed how many of them are called The History of Britain or variations on that title. Then there are at least four books on kings and queens. You only need one of these. And if you’ve got Our Island Story plus 1066 and All That, you’ve really got all you need for a lifetime’s love of British history.

The keeping of the library of a small house, like the keeping of a small garden, is a matter of constant pruning, preening and thinning. You keep (at least I do) the complete Waugh, Wodehouse, Austen, George Eliot, Tolkien, Osbert Lancaster, Conan Doyle, Boswell and Thurber. You keep anything you ever won as a school prize (we have precisely three of those; one of them is Our World in Colour). You keep (we do, anyway) every miniature musical score you have ever bought, a burgeoning row of yellowness. The culling only makes things better. The good books stay; the less good ones go; and one day you will have the perfect small book collection, consisting only of books you really might want to read again.

© Ysenda Maxtone Graham 2012, Slightly Foxed Issue 36

Illustration © Anna Trench 2012


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  1. Debbie Ross says:

    So, spot on. As an Eng. Lit. grad and writer with a geeky husband we constantly trip over our books in our small 2 bed cottage.And there are more in the loft! I’m organising a book sale in aid of our village hall. I’m hoping it will make the culling easier.

    • Slightly Foxed says:

      We’re so pleased this article struck a chord with you, as we’re sure it does with most readers! Best of luck with your book cull – I hope it’ll make things a little easier to think of your old books filling gaps in other people’s shelves and being enjoyed once more. Best wishes, Olivia

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