Monday, March 06, 2006

The Fatal Books

I’m touring at the moment, so this post may be a little shorter than usual. It struck me, though, that for last week’s post I’d read only one book - Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men - while the week before I read six. Now admittedly four of those books were relatively short, and I did take two airline flights that week, but it was still quite an achievement. I’m not quite sure what happened last week. I mean, the McCarthy book wasn’t hard going by any means, but I made slow progress on it.

I suppose I’m conscious of the fact that more and more books keep appearing in my house, and my reading isn’t keeping pace with my purchases. In an ideal world, I’d be book-neutral, in much the same way that one can contribute to the damage done to the environment by one’s airline flights through contributing to forestry and climate friendly energy projects. (And FYI on this, one short haul flight contributes as much to global warming as driving a 1.4 litre car for three months, according to www.carbonneutral.com. Unless, of course, you’re a member of the US Department of Energy, in which case it’s all lies and you should just go ahead and upgrade to that SUV.)

Anyway, in the last two weeks I’ve bought ten books and read seven, so I’m still plus three on the book front. The problem is that the space I have for storing books is not getting any bigger. It’s not as if I own Doctor Who’s Tardis, which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, in which case I could accommodate potentially infinite numbers of books. Instead, it’s as if my books are breeding. Every time I read some, more appear. It distresses me mildly that the cover for one of my heaters in my dining room has become a bookshelf due to lack of space, and I can now no longer turn on the heat in that room for fear of damaging my books. Books are potentially contributing to my future ill health. Worse, they’re potentially damaging the health of my visitors, who are blameless and don’t deserve to suffer arthritis or flu simply because their host feels that the well-being of his books are more important.

There was a time when I wouldn’t get rid of the books that I’d bought, even after I’d read them, but that time is now gone. I’ve become quite ruthless, and my local Oxfam bookshop has been the main beneficiary, but I still haven’t quite managed to cull my shelves to the extent that I should. For example, I have two copies of a particularly well-loved collection of Donald Barthelme short stories. One is a paperback, the other a signed hardback bought more recently. In theory, I should be able to get rid of the paperback, but I can’t. I remember buying it. I remember being struck by some of the stories in it. I associate not just that book, but that particular copy of it, with a certain time in my life. I can’t get rid of it. In fact, I probably have less affection for the more expensive signed copy than I do for my mauled, broken spined paperback.

That’s the dilemma, in a nutshell. There are books that I have read, and that I will probably never read again, and yet I can’t part with them because those books mean something to me, not just as abstract ideas or memories but as physical entities. So I guess I will just have to resign myself to the fact that my shelves are destined to become more untidy, that increasingly unlikely corners of my house are going to be pressed into service for book storage and that, at some point in the future, I may well end up as one of those old people who are found dead after an unfortunate incident with a dodgy pile of books or an overburdened bookshelf, much like Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

And do you know what people will say about me if that happens?

“It’s how he would have wanted to go.”

Well, let me tell you now: no, it’s not. To quote that lovely joke, I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and crying like his passengers . . .

This week John read:

Fiddlers by Ed McBain
Will Storr Vs The Supernatural by Will Storr

and listened to:

That Striped Sunlight Sound by The Go Betweens

10 comments:

Tom Hyland said...

I am laughingly responding to all that you say concerning the collecting of new (and seriously dated books). It’s as though I have some weird creeping and crawling disease that is covered by ink and papyrus and chemically treated ‘preservationist’ paper. If they could preserve corpses as well as they do books then we might all have a shot at immortality of a sort.

My wife hates books. I mean… HATES. And the damned things are everywhere you look and everywhere you step and everywhere you turn and expect to find none (but there is always room for one more). I have been doing this since I turned twelve years of age. I can still remember my first hard cover purchase made (after turning over the bulk of my earnings to mom) by hard earned funds from my first job. I remember leaving for overseas, and a cruel war, with a paperbacked copy of the New Testament and with a hardcover auto-mechanics manual at the bottom of my sea bag (I intended on being an auto mechanic when, and if, I returned from that tour of duty). And then there were the paperbacks my sisters sent me while ‘over there’. And I still have a couple of those.

The vast bulk of ‘keeper’ reading material that has substantially grown through the years exist on the books shelves that cover one wall of my sitting room (and I will fight to the death to preserve those volumes). Lesser collections are upstairs and all over the place… in my office and in the bedrooms and in the attic (four large gut-busting cartons up there and… the thought of the poor things being alone… driving me crazy).

I also have donated books to charity and even hand delivered them. But only after a painstaking process of weeding out the ‘valuable keepers’ from the not-so-valuable ‘giveaways’ (and it’s not like I’m donating bodily fluid… but close to it and… I’d rather). But as for my favorite authors… in a word…fugetaboutit…. If my grandson some day requires the need to read he will have them… otherwise… do what you may because I’ll be long gone.

Anne said...

Don't berate yourself for not reading enough John!
Just let your fans berate you for not writing fast enough- deal? That way, you get berated, but without any time or effort on your part. And don't worry about thanking us, we're happy to help!

Noeni said...

John, if you ever want rid of books I'm your woman. I'll even collect them! Jayne has my email addie.

~great big hopeful grins~

Jeff said...

I know what you mean about it being difficult to part with your books. My shelves are overflowing and I constantly tell myself, "well, it's time to thin the herd." Then I say, "Naw, I'll do it later." :)

Jo said...

Though the Lord says not to envy, I can't help but envy you, your time (what a luxury) you have to read. If I have the time, I can read through a book fairly quickly and be able to tell you what it is about. Most of the time, however, I am reading at stop lights, soccer practices and have even taken a book into a resturant to read while waiting on the food. I do that if I'm alone of course. Keep on reading, it keeps you young and you can always build a room for your books.

Sarah said...

Haha, that sounds just like me! I'm sure my book collection isn't as large or cluttered but I have so many books that I'd love to read and nowhere to put them! I'm also worried I'll die before I complete half of them...:-S I'm sorry you can't use your heater! :-( Thank you so much for taking the time to create blogs for us...I really appreciate it! You're the best!

Man With Big Ideas said...

Perhaps we should have communities incorporating a library were book owners can group together and store all their books therefore reducing clutter and creating a useful resource. Obviously in this case the John Connolly section would be pretty well populated.

Having done a recent thinning out myself I'm going to be carbooting those books deemed to be available for rehousing and having read all of them I can imagine haggling on those really good items could become a little fraught.

Lia said...

I know how you feel. I can't get rid of anything. I have to get rid of some of my little kid's books. In this case the main beneficiarys will be my little cousin and the local library.

Cath said...

I'm apalling for hoarding books, go through them at a rate of knots thanks to a nearby library along with the ones I own.

Recently started clearing out before I run out of space for anything else but like you say it's a wrench letting go of those battered old books that remind you of places, people and good times - although it's a slightly theraputic at the same time as a sort of mental and physical clearout.

Banshee said...

I, too, am an inveterate hoarder of books. I will also accept books from pretty much anyone, much to the chagrin of my mother or anyone else who lives with me long. Currently, I am bringing home books that my crime fiction professor is clearing out. My excuse is that I may need these volumes when I'm finally teaching, but that's all a big fat lie! :) Your joke about death by books is pretty much how I always figured I'd end up as well.

Hope everything's going swimmingly with you.

Kelly