Wednesday, 12 June 2024

Deciding Which Books to Keep: Navigating the Maze of My Overwhelming Collection

Deciding Which Books to Keep: Navigating the Maze of My Overwhelming Collection
Thursday, 06 June 2024 13:14

In Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Lindsay Bagshaw famously remarked, 'Books do furnish a room.' This sentiment, echoing Powell's own fascination with the role of books in society, once resonated deeply with me. Yet now, it feels like a haunting echo of a past passion. My home, once adorned with the treasures of literature, has become overrun by them. They proliferate like weeds in a neglected garden, crowding every available space, their presence suffocating.

I find myself trapped in a surreal landscape reminiscent of an early David Lynch film, where the boundary between the living and the inanimate blurs into obscurity. What was once a cherished love affair has soured into a burden. While I would never presume to label myself a 'collector,' over the years, I've accumulated a staggering multitude of books.

There are the beloved classics of my childhood, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Phoenix and the Carpet, alongside the sprawling fantasy realms of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there are the tomes I devoured as a susceptible teenager, from Jack Kerouac's On the Road to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, still haunting my thoughts today.

In my Francophile phase, I amassed volumes that seemed to validate my infatuation with all things French, and during my cash-rich twenties, I indulged in Waterstones' three-for-two offers with abandon. Later, convinced of the novel's demise, I delved into weighty biographies of John Aubrey, TS Eliot, and Augustus John.

My book collection stands as a testament to the journey of a lifetime, each volume a chapter in the story of my evolving tastes and passions.

As the walls of my flat seem to inch closer with each passing day, I find myself confronted with the daunting task of making decisions that strike at the heart of my literary soul. Some books, it seems, are easier to bid farewell to than others. There are those volumes I've encountered in my sporadic role as a critic – uncorrected proofs adorned with the lingering scent of PR hype – now feeling distinctly disposable.

Then there are the well-meaning gifts from friends, their intentions earnest but their understanding of my tastes somewhat wide of the mark (case in point: How to be Chap; Cocktails: A Global History). These pose a dilemma, potential offense lurking in the shadows of my crowded bookshelves. Yet, I can't help but draw a line between the hastily purchased panic present and the thoughtfully chosen tome bearing a personal inscription. (Let's face it, half of those panic-presenters probably can't even recall what they bestowed upon me.)

Next comes the precarious territory. Should the aesthetics of my collection dictate what stays and what goes? Is there a danger in reducing books to mere decorative objects, as if Powell's assertion about furnishing a room was meant to be taken quite so literally?

Then, the real conundrum surfaces. Should I adopt the role of a literary snob, casting aside works based solely on perceived merit? The pulpy adult novels devoured in my formative years – the Stephen Kings, James Herberts, and Agatha Christies – have long since vanished from my shelves. Yet, certain authors hold a special place in my heart, from the crime thrills of Ian Rankin to the soul-soothing pages of my favorite comfort reads.

Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole diaries, for instance, are non-negotiable. Her wit and humor have been steadfast companions through the years, promising endless laughter even in the twilight of my days. But what of PG Wodehouse? Douglas Adams? Dare I admit that perhaps they were merely passing fancies?

And then, there are the literary behemoths. Am I doomed to revisit the labyrinthine prose of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a novel I scarcely enjoyed the first time around? And what of my compulsion to collect? Do I truly need the complete works of Dickens, Austen, or CP Snow's exhaustive Strangers and Brothers sequence? I barely made it through the first half of Snow's saga before losing interest in the academic machinations of Cambridge's scientific elite. But could I bear to part with only select volumes, relegating Martin Chuzzlewit or Northanger Abbey to the dustbin of literary history? The agony of choice weighs heavy on my book-burdened soul.

The prospect of banishing classic authors from my shelves is nothing short of a literary sacrilege. Yet, confronted with the reality of my overflowing collection, such unthinkable questions begin to surface. Should I, for the sake of practicality, bid adieu to Balzac's sprawling La Comédie humaine, knowing full well I'll never conquer its labyrinthine depths, nor revisit the ten novels from the series currently gathering dust?

And then, there's Henry James, a literary figure with whom I share a complex and often tumultuous relationship. While certain works like The Wings of the Dove and What Maisie Knew hold me spellbound, others, like The Golden Bowl, have left me stranded in a sea of confusion, abandoned mid-sentence as I struggle to recall the beginning of the narrative thread. It's an emotional journey, one that's led me to develop peculiar psychological habits, concocting elaborate justifications to justify the retention of volumes I scarcely realized held any significance.

You see, it's become evident that books are not just mere furnishings for a room; they're reflections of who I am, repositories of my thoughts, opinions, and experiences. Each volume represents a mini-chapter in the story of my own personal evolution. My library is a testament to my identity, a curated collection that speaks volumes about my tastes and interests. To part with any of them feels akin to losing a piece of myself.

So, the dilemma looms large: do I bid farewell to Balzac or CP Snow? The answer eludes me, clouded by sentiment and attachment. Any and all suggestions are welcome in this tumultuous journey of literary self-discovery.

As I stand amidst the towering shelves of my cherished collection, grappling with the weighty decision before me, one truth becomes abundantly clear: the process of culling my books is not merely an exercise in decluttering, but a profound act of self-reflection. Each title, each author, holds within its pages a piece of my own narrative, a fragment of my identity woven into the fabric of my literary journey.

In this labyrinth of emotions, where sentiment clashes with practicality, I find solace in the knowledge that every volume I choose to retain is a testament to the person I've become, a tribute to the myriad influences that have shaped my worldview. While the thought of parting with beloved classics or abandoning incomplete series may provoke a pang of regret, it also presents an opportunity for growth, a chance to redefine my relationship with literature and reclaim space for new discoveries.

So, as I weigh the merits of Balzac against CP Snow, I do so with a sense of gratitude for the profound impact each has had on my life. In the end, perhaps the true measure of a book's worth lies not in its physical presence on my shelves, but in the indelible mark it leaves upon my soul. And with that realization, I take a deep breath, steel myself for the task ahead, and embark on the next chapter of my literary odyssey with renewed clarity and purpose.

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