Today I had a day off work, and was possessed of a mad cleaning frenzy (they don’t come around very often, so I like to take advantage), focused almost entirely on books. Our house is small, and so the bulk of our books are kept in the shed, in the hope that one day we’ll have space to accommodate them.
I am not sentimental about many things. I don’t hoarde clothes, shoes, programs, magazines, manuscripts or ornaments. The physical contents of my life are minimal, and I like it that way. But I struggle with getting rid of my old books. I loathe the second-hand book industry for reasons I won’t go into here, so if I get rid of any books, they generally go to either the local library or the Salvos. Old books are like particular pieces of music, or scents: the sight and smell of a book can transport me into my past lives, and I have to be hard-hearted indeed to part with them.
So today, I started going through a myriad of plastic tubs with the intention of reducing the shed-load, and was quickly lost in a haze of nostalgia. I found a trilogy of Han Suyin books my uncle lent me in 1987 (sorry, Uncle Fred – I will get them back to you, after I’ve read them!) and Distance Education Centre novels with ‘Please Return After Use’ in red stickers on the front (Harold and Maude, I loved you). And I found The Female Eunuch, with my name and ‘7 January 1988’ written inside the front cover. Go Germers!
But after that, I got brutal. Copies of Penguin classics, dog-eared Hamlets and moth-eaten Richard the Thirds that I know I can get from any bookshop in the English-speaking world were culled. YA books that I love and think others will love too are in the Salvos pile. And, most satisfying of all, hundreds (probably thousands) of dollars of post-structuralist and French critical theory, from Deleuze and Guattari to Foucault and Teresa de Lauretis to Donna Haraway (sorry, Donna), went in the recycling bin. They were all creased, and had my undergraduate notes scribbled in the margins (which is why there was no way they were going to a second-hand shop). I remembered the amount of time I spent labouring through them, enjoying the sprays of insight I’d occasionally get, but more often feeling as if I was learning another language, one that promised to deliver me intellectual enlightenment, a cool critical stance from which I could comfortably view the world.
I was reminded, as I gleefully piled them one on top of the other, of how I feel coming across my old underlined (sometimes with exclamations!) Bible: a bemused, tolerant kind of embarrassment at how guileless I used to be, how willing to try on theories and modes of thought, in case there was something I’d missed that would take the labour out of being alive and awake. People get obsessed with being famous and/or rich for exactly the same reason.
Shedding books is like shedding irrelevant or ill-fitting ideas. What remains is fiction and poetry: companionship for the journey. There is no need for a guide.