With a visit from my parents fast approaching, I spent much of this weekend engaged in that age-old activity prompted by the thought of mum coming to town: cleaning. In fact, I spring-cleaned the house, deciding that this visit of my super-clean, totally uncluttered mom was the perfect time to scrub the floorboards, tidy the under stairs cupboard, and generally de-clutter the place from a year’s worth of accumulated stuff. As I hoovered, dusted, and scrubbed, I thought about the extreme act of de-cluttering performed by Stuart Walton, who, in a piece for The Guardian on 9 April, spoke of ‘laborious[ly] disburdening’ himself of the vast majority of his considerable collection of books. While moving house, Walton was inspired to donate most of his 2,000 odd books to charity shops, in what was obviously a painful but, it seems, ultimately liberating experience for him. As Walton correctly observes, ‘we develop bonds of intellectual and emotional affection to books, which makes the act of disposing of them seem like wanton ingratitude’; yet, he doesn’t record any regrets about his decision to offload his library. Rather the opposite, in fact, Walton questions the need and desire to keep books in the first place now that we have firmly entered the digital age: ‘space is at a premium and limitless quantities of literature, music and film can be stored digitally [… so] [w]hy keep a hard copy?’. Now in his new, almost book-free house, Walton follows a strict policy of ‘buy, read, flog on Amazon Marketplace’.
A friend on Facebook alerted me to Walton’s article, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. Although my bout of spring cleaning had got me thinking about the ways in which I could de-clutter my life, not just my house, following Thoreau’s motto of ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify’, the thought of giving away my books was just too much. I do regularly cull my bookshelves for those books to which I don’t have a particular attachment. You know the ones…. The autobiographies bought at a discount store because they might prove interesting, salacious, or both; the intellectual tomes ordered because one really should read them; the beach reading picked up in the airport on the way to somewhere sunny last summer, etc. These are decidedly not the kind of books I want cluttering up my limited and therefore all the more precious shelf space. As a result, I don’t feel any particular regret parting with them. Other books, however, I would protect with a surprising ferocity…. The Anne of Green Gables series my grandmother brought me from Prince Edward Island, for instance, or the early edition of Gone with the Wind I found at a vintage book sale, and my copy of Rachel Allen’s Bake. These are books to which I am incredibly attached, for the memories they represent, for the possibility of future enjoyment (I regularly reread Anne, for instance), and for their sheer utility, as is the case with Bake.
My affection for my academic books is somewhat different, insofar as such books are primarily related to work, not leisure, but I delight in old bookstores where I might find a copy of an out-of-print monograph. I order more studies from Amazon than is good for my bank account, and I feel a secret pleasure when the book I really need isn’t available from the library and therefore needs to be purchased. I’m not sure I can put into words the thrill I associate with a new (or, at least, new-to-me book); there’s something so exciting and satisfying about flicking through the crisp pages of a new book, about conning an earlier reader’s notes in the rare old novel picked up in the used book store, even about the basic sensory experience of a book – its feel and its smell. I’m not suggesting that digital archives, Kindles, and other such resources don’t hold an important place in both academic and leisure reading. In fact, I rely heavily on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) for the reading for my current project, and my Kindle always sits on my bedside table for a spot of bedtime reading. Nevertheless, I don’t think these resources and the new relationship to reading they encourage – a virtual one devoid of the materiality hitherto associated with reading – can or should ever replace the physical object. So, for now, I’m embracing my cluttered bookshelves, parental visits notwithstanding!