Before I go away, even for a weekend, I feel obliged to run round with hoover and duster… I like the thought of coming home to a tidy place. As I dust the bookshelves that take up more wallspace than anything else in the flat, I can’t help thinking that those shelves hold a lot of memories; the books on there are mainly old ones… a lot of fantasy and historical stuff as well as books from my own childhood and youth that I somehow seem to have retained.
If I go through the shelves I could, in theory, dispose of the vast majority of them really and only keep the reference books I still use. I don’t though, and I won’t unless I have to. Not because I can’t let go of them, but because they are old friends I like to revisit from time to time. Books are a doorway to other realms and ideas.
Me and the books have moved county and even country together and though, periodically, I have pared them down to minimum, it has never exactly been through choice, only necessity. They are a symbol of continuity and a link with other times, places and people. None have any monetary value, the few rare books went long ago, but all have value to me as the repository of knowledge, ideas and imagination.
It is said you can learn a lot about people from their bookshelves. I can trace the story of my life in the books I have stashed all over my home. There is the little illustrated Bible I was given by my paternal grandparents, which has probably seen more concerted use in the past few years with the writing than at any other time in the past half a century. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám passed down from my maternal grandfather’s days in Burma, and via my mother to me. Old books on Yorkshire that belonged to my great-grandfather. The Burns a friend gave me in Paris.
My Sunday School prize of Dr Seuss sits by the Asterix books I bought in France twenty years later and the books on aircraft my sons left behind. Later come the fantasies and several tattered copies of Tolkien that snuggle up with books on physics and psychology. Cookery books sit cheek by jowl with art and poetry. But from the earliest to the latest acquisitions runs a thread of myth, magic and comparative spirituality across the ages.
It was always understood that a treasured gift would have words printed in it, and from childhood the book token was the firm favourite. It is even better when friends know you well enough to give the perfect book and ‘H is for Hawk’ sits with ‘Manifesto for the Noosphere’ and ‘At the Gates of Dawn’.
Perhaps the most futile of the books of which I am custodian are the ones on dog behaviour. She doesn’t. Behave, I mean. I read them, I know the how and why… honestly I do… yet Ani seems to be the exception to any rule. But if I think of home and picture that feeling, the image that arises is always that of a warm dog and an old book.