By Kevin O’Sullivan
I’m in the midst of a move at the moment – to the University of Birmingham – which means that I’m going through that thing that we all dread: sorting out my books. The ‘what to bring’ pile must, of course, end up smaller than the ‘what to put in storage pile’, but never seems to get any lower than the ‘I’ll definitely need this at some point in the next two years’ pile. It’s a fascinating but painful process, trying to figure out what’s worth taking, what could be, and what should be boxed, quite possibly never to see the light of day again.
I’d barely begun yesterday afternoon when the questions came. (Well, actually, the match came first, but why let one fascinating story get in the way of another.) Why is there so little fiction? Should I give this back or are the seven years since I borrowed it enough for squatter’s rights? The questions were followed by fascination: where did this come from? Is this even mine? And then of course came the guilt: why did I buy this if I was never going to read it? And, indeed, should I put it into the to-read pile now?
In the last six months, we’ve all had our moments on Pue’s to extol the virtues of the printed word: a spring-clean, a penchant for second-hand books, and a re-discovery of those long forgotten. But trawling through my own rag-tag collection set me thinking about just what is it that creates the bond between us and our books. You know, the ones that through years of reading, research or teaching have become like an old dog-eared friend that you reach for when times get tough. The ones whose spines are not only broken but obliterated, to the extent that you can hardly read the title anymore. The ones that you open and read passages – even whole chapters – from, simply because they’re that good.
Maybe it’s for the colour – am I alone in finding joy in seeing my books stacked high in a rainbow of design, good and bad (see the photo above)? Maybe it’s for the status – I read too little fiction, but I still know what’s ‘hot’ and what’s not from looking around me on the train. (In vogue: One Day and Alone in Berlin. Move over: Stieg Larsson and We Need to Talk About Kevin.) Maybe it’s fear of the Kindle (other e-readers are available). Or maybe it’s simply the joy of collecting. Step forward this ‘review’ of Geert Mak In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century: ‘if I’d read [the book] entirely on the Kindle I would miss not being able to look at it. If you’ve invested this much time in something you like to be able to see it and touch it.’
As the never-ending (and often incredibly dull) debate about digital versus analogue and the future of the music industry is transferred to the publishing world, it strikes me that the books I love are very much like the records I love. For the mp3, read the library (or Kindle, if I had one) – the place to experience the text without ever really feeling like it’s yours. And for vinyl records, read those dog-eared, broken-spined tomes with turned-down corners and post-it notes nosing out the edges. The books I own are, quite simply, the ones that I couldn’t leave behind.