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Sunday, 20 April 2014

A Farewell To Books

So after the longest continuous period of my life spent living in the same house, we are moving into York in a few weeks time (subject to contract, etc., etc.). We’re not particularly hoarders, but after nearly 18 years, stuff has accumulated. In previous moves the question has been: what can’t we be bothered paying someone to move from one loft or garage into another? The question is even more relevant this time round, as we won’t have a garage anymore, nor much of a loft either. The cull begins.

Mostly I find getting rid of belongings quite therapeutic, with one large exception: my beloved books. I've been collecting since I was a child. I don’t know how many I’ve got, but the number will be well into four figures. There are shelves and shelves of books, with more books stacked up behind them if the shelf is deep enough. Other books sit in boxes in the loft, some unopened since they were put there in 1996.

It’s time for me to face some facts. I probably have enough unread books to keep me going till I die, and that’s assuming I don’t want to re-read any. In practice, nearly all the books I read from one month to the next are brand new ones, so what are the odds of me re-reading any or getting round to reading books which I bought in a book sale thirty years ago and have never opened since?

But it’s still going to be hard to reverse the habits of over four decades.

I begin to go through my collection. For some books it’s easy: they've fallen apart or the paper’s gone all orange, so they can go. Other’s are out of copyright, and it turns out I can get them for free off the internet. Bye, bye that copy of Little Dorrit, and the James Joyce book I was sure I’d read one day.

Dozens of others I haven’t looked at in 30 or 40 years. Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but in truth I will never find time to read them again. All these can go too.

As the piles of culled books mount up I start to have doubts. Here I am going through hundreds of books that I know I read, even remember enjoying, but now can recall next to nothing of their contents. Reading is something that has taken up a substantial chunk of my free time, but if I can remember so little of it, what exactly was the point?

For the fiction it’s arguably not so bad: the enjoyment is largely in the reading itself. But I read a lot of non-fiction too; was it really a waste of time? Perhaps not—maybe I take in more than I realise. As a teenager I read Arnold Toynbee’s “Mankind & Mother Earth”, but never quite finished it. When I sat down a decade later to do the job properly, I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the author’s arguments I had taken on board, without realising their source. Osmosis might be my ally sometimes, though nowadays I make notes as I go through a book, and review them later to try to lock more of the book’s content into that space between my ears.

More doubts now: how can I be really sure I won’t want to revisit these books one day? Would it cost much if I did? A small and doubtless unrepresentative sample on the web provides some hope. Many of the titles are available on the Kindle for just two or three pounds. And wait, there’s more: there are now online subscription services for books. Like with Spotify for music, you can pay a monthly subscription to an online library and read as many of their titles as you want. Scribd charge $9 a month, and I see seven of the books I'm chucking out straightaway on their front page. Oyster Books is another one. There’s even a Mills & Boon subscription service (which I mention purely for the sake of illustration).

In fact, it dawns on me that I’m already using two limited book subscription services. For a decade or so I've been a subscriber to the O’Reilly Safari technical library (which has saved me a small fortune on books about programming), while my Amazon Prime subscription lets me “borrow” one book a month on my Kindle. Their choice of books is fairly limited (I've only used it once), but I'm happy to see that it does include several I'm chucking out. I suspect time is on my side here, and the availability of books by subscription will continue to expand. Not brand new ones perhaps, but that doesn't matter as it's the older books I'm interested in, like the books I bought as a teenager for 30 or 40 pence.

So it looks like technology is going to let me get rid of my books after all without too many sad goodbyes—more like "Au Revoir".