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 Lo

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Comments & Reviews

  1. Ellie Weld says:

    I loved this! I have several hundred books and am determined to cull my library so no books have to lie on top of any others. The question is what should stay rather than what should go: an edition of Thomas Hardy which was a birthday present from my father; anything about or by Bloomsbury because I find them so fascinating; biographies of my favourite writers; all my favourite children’s books, etc. This is going to be fun!

  2. Trevor Hoyland says:

    Much depends on the mood at culling time, I find that after an enthusiastic hard cull I return to the pile just before its trip to the Oxfam shop and revisit my choices. By then I am perhaps in a more sentimental mood and find books I can’t imagine being without and guiltily replace them on the shelves with a relieved sigh. The worse scenario is the shedding of a book one has had for years, perhaps even not got round to reading and then discovering an intriguing link to it which makes it sound just like your very thing. A literary version of the carpenter’s maxim – measure twice, cut once!

  3. David Pilgrim says:

    There are now books piled up on the floor – everywhere. Our house now reminds me of my favourite book shop ! Such is the disapproval of these activities by the distaff side that I’m now driven to smuggling books in, just nonchalantly pruning the roses by the front door in order to intercept the postman. I’ve discovered a bookshop on Vancouver Island – ah, another parcel from Canada – quick, hide it. Well, one day I shall be culling – making lists of carefully described tomes and e mailing them to the bookshops from which they originated – they’ll buy them back, they are lovely books, the are mine, of course !

  4. 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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