Books and bookshelves have been in the news a lot recently, whether it be reports that we are reading more during lockdown, recommendations for which books to tackle during lockdown, or even whether we will ultimately fail to finish those books we finally attempt during lockdown. As we peer into people’s homes on Zoom etc, the bookshelves frequently in the backgound have been coming under scrutiny, leading to the inevitable advice as to how to arrange your shelves to impress.
I am a reader. I am as fascinated by other people’s bookshelves as it is possible to be. I look at the rows and stacks in envy. I would love a wall filled with shelves groaning with books from floor to ceiling. I don’t have that. I have a couple of smallish bookcases, the biggest one shared half with my kids, the others spread where I can squeeze them into my small house. The majority of books I have read in my life, I don’t own. As a child and teenager I made frequent use of our local library, then once I had read through that I graduated to the central library in town. Some (I hope) are still at my parents’ house. Many other books have been borrowed from friends and handed back. Some belonged to my ex and remain with him. In the past 5 years or so I have read on a mixture of physical books and kindle. I don’t mind either. I’m not a purist, a book is a book. The kindle has several advantages over physical books, especially with the aforementioned small house and lack of shelf space. Recently, though, a few things have happened that have made me think about the books I do and don’t own.
One day, my youngest daughter (6) picked up my kindle and asked what it was for. I realised she never saw me read. I only do it after she’s in bed or when she’s away at her dad’s house. Then my older daughter was bored one day. She devours books the same way I did at her age, but she had read through all hers. I told her to have a look at my shelves. She was at once astonished and confused. She had never thought she could touch my books, never mind actually read them. We talked about which ones might be suitable for her now, and which might be more appropriate in a couple of years. It then struck me that many of the books I would naturally introduce her to, I don’t have in my possession to give her.
Maybe because there weren’t shelves to peruse or maybe because we don’t share similar tastes, but I didn’t read any of my parent’s books either. Despite my parents also being avid readers, we didn’t have shelves full of books around our house. My dad is also a frequent library user, and my mum has always had a complex system of rotating books around various friend circles. I have no idea how she keeps track, but when a friend comes for coffee, a carrier bag full of books will be produced from somewhere and exchanged for another bag. So books were around, but not available to me, or shared or discussed.
I have also, in recent years, been making efforts to fill the gaps in my literary knowledge. I decided I couldn’t call myself a reader if I wasn’t familiar with some of the classics. That’s probably not true, but I have a perverse working-class guilt thing that I’m not well read enough to call myself educated and I feel embarrassed when I don’t get a reference or recognise a quote. Although I have always read, I avoided some of the more literary writing because I feared that it would be boring, like the books we had to read at school, or above me and I wouldn’t “get it”. However, I can’t keep blaming my school or my parent’s lack of bookshelves forever, so it was time to take matters into my own hands.
I’m sort of focusing on modern classics first, because the reasons given above still niggle at the back of my mind and classic classic still seems more like homework. I started with Kerouac, meandered through a few other Beats, went on to David Foster Wallace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Joseph Heller and have just finished The Catcher in the Rye. I think I’ll linger with Salinger for a while. It’s comfortably Beat-like and have found that, like music, although I will always support women creatives when I can, in my vastly female-dominated home and work environment, I crave the masculine voice and perspective, the male presence, so will escape away with my male writer friends for now until I can see the real ones again.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all high-brow stuff. I’ve also read a fair few lighter books, some non-fiction and even some books written by celebrities who have something interesting to say. Oh and a few textbooks too…
I want my daughters to grow up surrounded by books, theirs and mine, and not get shelf envy when they go and visit friends and family. This is hard to do with electronic books, so I’ve been trawling 2nd hand bookshops to buy some of the volumes that I’ve read on kindle in order to have a physical copy and to look out for classics that I’ve not read yet. It’ll take me a while and I may have to evict some other possessions in order to fit them, in, but slowly and surely, one day I will have my own wall of groaning bookshelves. Let’s hope we’re not still in lockdown Zoom land by then…
In the interests of transparency and because you may be as nosy as me, here are my current bookshelves. I do have an order in with a 2nd hand bookshop online but couldn’t wait until that delivery to post this.