Lovely, neat bookshelves of quality volumes give a room depth and beauty. But, as all book lovers know, they tend to have a habit of taking over the house. Here’s writer and bibliophile Henry Jeffrey’s survival guide for those who just can’t seem to stop buying books…
‘Books do furnish a room’, as author Antony Powell put it. And GK Chesterton noted that: ‘A room without books is like a body without a soul.’ I couldn’t agree more. To me a room without books is a sad room. It seems unwelcoming and cold. A huge wall of DVDs and CDs just doesn’t cut it. I suppose there is probably an element of snobbery here. Books do make one look erudite. (Not all books of course. Having the complete EL James doesn’t create quite the same impression as Henry James.)
Bookshelf ambitions. Image credit
When I was single I would rearrange the books in my room to make me look interesting, all the better for seduction. To the front would go the Greek classics and poetry collections, whilst I’d stash the Desmond Bagleys and Jack Higginses under the bed. I don’t think it ever worked. The books that make the best impression are Penguins. All those oranges or pale greens or blacks for classics not only look beautiful when crammed in together but they also give off the impression of unpretentious erudition. Paperbacks also suggest that they’re actually read rather than for show, but it’s also good to have some satisfyingly bulky hardbacks to make one feel scholarly.
Battered Penguins - always classy. Image credit.
Too many books
However, it turns out that it is actually possible to have too many books. I know, I know, heresy for a book lover to admit as much but, yes, books can be a nuisance. I remember having drinks with an old buffer in a chateau in France and his table was piled so high with books that I couldn’t see him or his wife. It was like conducting a seance – especially as both were a bit frail and deaf. Then there are the houses where books are crammed in every cranny, gathering dust. One false move and you feel that a stack might come falling down on top of you. You could be trapped for days and later discovered by the ambulance crew trapped under a load of Fanny Craddock cookbooks. Finally, there’s the question of moving house. I’ll never forget the look of utter hatred on the removal men's faces as they carried yet another box of books up four flights of stairs to our new flat (the American humourist David Sedaris once wrote a very funny essay about how he was completely cured of his bibliophilia by a stint working as a removal man.)
The Great Book Cull
Yes, the reality is that unless you have plenty of room and proper shelves, a surfeit of books is an eyesore, and possibly even dangerous. So, every so often, I ask myself: why do I have all these books anyway? It’s pure vanity. I'm never going to read them all. And thus begins the Great Book Cull. This is the method I use:
Step 1: Be ruthless.
This is very important. That highly-praised novel from ten years ago? If you haven’t read it by now, out it goes! Are you likely to cook from that Mongolian cookbook?
Step 2: Sell the sellable ones
So what to do with the unwanted books? Thanks to the miracle of the internet, there are now various companies who will pay you for books and even collect them from your house. They offer particularly good prices for newish cookbooks, lifestyle titles, hardbacks etc. Ideal for getting rid of unwanted Christmas presents.
Step 3: Give away the unsellable ones
The remainder can go to charity shops or in the summer we leave them on the wall outside our flat. It’s actually very interesting watching which books go quickly and which don’t. Publishers should do it as a market research exercise. The first to go are always the cookbooks and children’s books, then history, and then classic novels. The ones that linger later into the day are usually highly-lauded fiction by authors who sank without a trace, or yesterday’s cult books. A copy of The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll sat on our wall for a week this year before it eventually found a home (or, more likely, was eaten by a fox).
The Great Book Cull. Be ruthless
Now, all of the above is good in theory, of course. And for a while your sensibly-sized, neatly-arranged book collection will be a beautiful adornment to your room once again. But the reality is that being ruthless about books isn’t all that easy. I’ve kept most of the Penguins, the interesting paperbacks, and old spy thrillers. The sort of thing I expect I’ll read again. But also most of the history and reference is staying too, as well as the Greek classics, so that people will think I’m clever. And then of course, you can’t help stopping by the bookshop, or the charity shop, and then there’s Christmas and birthdays, and before you know it, you’re back to this…
Henry Jeffreys writes about drink, books and popular culture in The Guardian, The Oldie, The Lady and many other publications. In 2014 he was shortlisted for Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year for his work in The Spectator. He is currently writing a history of Britain told through alcoholic drinks called Empire of Booze, due to be published in November 2016.