Perhaps it is the darker months, the long night time hours in which there is little better to do than sit and think and read, but I have been thinking a lot about my library. I wrote earlier this year about converting my dining room into a library, and we did this and it’s been an enormous success. It is a wonderful room. A room for sitting and reading and writing in. A room for discussions or calm contemplation. It is one of the best things we ever did, and it’s made our house a complete home for me.
There is, of course, still a limitation on space and though I have a library the library has only so many shelves and those shelves are pretty full. Early on I set myself a 1 book in 1 book out rule, though I haven’t stuck to it. An unexpected bonus (I think) of creating the library has been that my husband has started to read more, and we now have a stack of sci-fi books messing up my shelves which really ought to be integrated. I am not always the most giving of people, but affording my husband some shelf space in the library is a small sacrifice I find myself willing to make if it means that we can spend the cold winter evenings snuggled in the warmth of the library reading together.
This means that I need to free up some space. Despite having a whole shelf of space available when we created the library over summer, this has been swallowed up with new books. And there are more to come. I have been borrowing Virginia Woolf books from the library, but find myself wanting to complete a collection. There are the inevitable new books I can’t resist buying and though I use the lending library more the idea that there aren’t future classics out there that I will want to own is a silly one. I know I have a growing collection of non-fiction to accommodate. All this, and still a limited amount of space.
Perhaps it is the long winter months, or perhaps it is a side-effect of my advancing age. I’m not sure. But I have been thinking a lot recently about distilling my library into those books I want to keep for all time. This is a bit of a shift for me. I have been, for as long as I can remember, a seasoned consumer of books. I have read often, widely, I have been a follower of contemporary fiction and I have always been prepared to try something new (though I draw the line at 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, Lee Child and Scandinavian crime novels. Everyone has limits). What I’m starting to realise is that I can try but not buy. There are these amazing innovations called libraries, they are wonderful places. If I’ve not read a book, I will not buy it. I will try it first. If I love it, if I will read it again, then it can secure a future place in my library. This strikes me as quite a groundbreaking idea.
I look at my shelves full of books and I think I have been brutal about strimming them down but I haven’t. I haven’t been truly honest about the relationship with all those books on my shelves. For a start, there are many books on my shelves I haven’t read. Perhaps some of them I’ll never read (I’m looking at you, Gravity’s Rainbow). Some of them I’ve hung onto because I have a full set even though I didn’t really like them. That accounts for Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time which I know I’m never going to get past the first book of (I tried, I became extremely bored). I have a full set of Murakami novels including 1Q84 which I hated, amongst others. Will I read them again? It’s unlikely. Why, then, am I holding onto them?
I realise, now, that I want my library to be full of books that are treasured to me. I want every book by Tove Jansson, including the full set of Moomins, because I have loved every pixel on every page of them. I want space to place the nice editions of George Eliot’s books that I’ll eventually acquire. There needs to be space for my Virginia Woolfs, for my Muriel Sparks for my Evie Wylds. There needs to be space for H is for Hawk (I have hinted heavily), Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series, everything by Yoko Ogawa. I can only create the space by being brutal.
There have been a lot of people recently talking about reading less, about re-reading more. Perhaps it is the influence of winter, of darkness, that pushes us back to the familiar, the friendly novel that you know will make you feel cosy and comforted. I know I feel like that. I’ve enjoyed reading Woolf immensely, but it is also nice to turn back to a familiar friend, to lose myself again amongst its pages. Fortunately Woolf is starting to feel like a familiar friend. At this time of year, I often re-read The Dark is Rising sequence, a series I have loved since I was a girl. There are few things that have been with me so long. Yet it isn’t in my library. How weird. It should be.
I can list the books that I own that I want to re-read again. The list wouldn’t be hugely long. It would include Woolf, Eliot, Bronte. It would include Kawabata, Laxness, Coetzee. There are more of course, but not a huge number. Perhaps it will be possible to free up that space after all.