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 Lo
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in