I’m not a man who has collected classic cars or football trophies. I have not gone in for china or coins or designer clothes. Instead, I have collected books. Hundreds and hundreds of them. From the first few pious titles arranged neatly on the shelves of my bedroom in my early teens (lots of CS Lewis, Peter Hebblethwaite, Naught for your Comfort), books have been my chosen symbol of who I think I am and who I have wanted to become. They have been way-markers on the road to any wisdom I have accrued, and antidotes to that gargantuan ignorance whose recognition is the first step towards knowledge. But now, with a move imminent from a large Edwardian vicarage, where shelves of books have the added function of providing extra insulation, I must cull about half of these intellectual and psychological building blocks that are much more than possessions, and get to grips with what this enforced jettisoning will do to me. It would be a ridiculous overstatement to say that it’s like having half of myself surgically removed. But it’s like having half of myself surgically removed.
To sell or give away books is to abandon old friends and the memories they conjure. A dear friend who died abysmally young marked our friendship with the gift of several books. To lose these would be to mourn his loss again. More trivially, there are the addresses written in the back of my very battered copy of John Mortimer’s Voyage, the only remaining link to a group of us gathered one drunken night at university, possessed by the conviction that keeping in touch for ever was critically important. Or there’s my coffee-sodden Times and Seasons, now crinkly-brown like a history project, that takes with it to its recycling skip the memory of that horrific moment when a liturgy-planning session was prematurely ended when a cafetière tripped and tipped on the undulations of my preternaturally untidy desk, leaving me with a warm and soggy set of notes that were dried in front of a roaring fire.
More painfully, perhaps, books and their loss can spur us on to future achievements by reminding us of past failures. I will give away my seven volumes of von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord, which I set myself the task of reading during the three years of my curacy, two decades ago. It’s too late now, of course. I have neither the shelf space nor the shelf life to commit to these and so I sorrowfully let them go. One day I’ll find someone to tell me what happens in the end.
I have at least managed to keep some fairly hopeless cases, like my grubby Ulysses, slowly preserved in sun-tan lotion as I baked one summer on a beach in Andros or Santorini (Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo was cracked beyond repair on the same holiday and binned some years ago). But out, alas, have gone endless volumes of dusty, inexpensive theology — my name written on the flyleaf, joining the names of other owners, retired or dead clergymen, proudly and pointlessly inscribed. These books, with their labels saying 50p or £1, have reminded me of the kind, gentle and cat-obsessed staff of Lichfield Cathedral bookshop, where I spent such happy times combining pastoral visiting with browsing for bargains.
It will be argued by some that, with the infinite resources of the web we no longer need books made of card and paper. But do we really want to become a people parroting the unconfirmed assertions of Wikipedia? Is there to be no more to our knowledge than half a dozen bullet points ? And although there is Kindle, must we lose the particular madeleine qualities of a book’s weight and colour and smell? Do we want to live without the loving inscriptions or outraged marginalia which give a book its individuality? Wouldn’t we miss the Olympic rings of clumsy coffee cups on the backs of books pressed into service as emergency coasters?
Not all memories are happy, of course; neither do all books shine a light on the most glorious chapters of one’s life. I think of a number of highly expensive texts on Eastern Europe and the Balkans I once bought in a fit of deep insecurity, just to impress colleagues who had a genuine and competitive interest in those countries. I so wanted their approval, to be part of their gang, and I saw this as the admission charge. There is mighty relief in ditching these works, in knowing that I no longer need to complete Misha Glenny’s The Balkans, or The Romanians by Vlad Georgescu. I may consequently go to my grave with an imperfect understanding of Gheorghe Mironescu’s leadership, but I know I no longer need to impress anyone, and will not even begin Wilfred Mellers’ Bach and the Dance of God, a purchase made in the ambitious days of my choral youth, significantly beyond my pocket even with the unimaginably generous provision of the student grant cheque.
It must be acknowledged, then, that the shedding of books brings as much liberation as regret. I’m glad of the chance finally to admit that some books are simply too hard for me: they are written in a language and register requiring a certain academic formation, an acquired familiarity with a landscape that my life’s circumstance and choices have simply never yielded. So onto the discard pile goes Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, pretty much untouched since the day I bought it in Durham in the excited weeks before I went off to York to read English. Next to him there’s a John Milbank trio (a man finally punished for his impenetrability) and Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. As Bertie Wooster would say, “I mean, what?”
The removal of books also changes life at a basic visual level. I have watched these books standing topically and alphabetically to attention, their spines paling and bleaching in the light of two thousand summer suns. The books that remain constitute a new order. My eyes will no longer fall on the dijon mustard of the SCM Old Testament commentaries, or the verdant green of the New. The black bricks of Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II will no longer stand in the top right corner of that shelf there. All that’s left is regrouped and reordered. Richard of York is unseated and the rainbow is reassembled. Even my late father’s cheap edition of Dickens which had pride of place on the sideboard when I was a little boy will no doubt soon be mouldering in piles of unsellable charity books, or disintegrating in a landfill chasm, no longer read, perhaps, but at least providing a home for the worms that will one day consume us all.
And that, perhaps, is the ultimate blessing of sloughing off so many books. Like Aquinas, who abandoned his studies when he saw that they were ‘so much straw’, a radically-reduced verbiage may lead us into the deeper and wiser stillness of silence, all the better to prepare us for that day when we downsize for the final time, entering the confines of our last wooden home, with room only for ourselves, and one bright penny to pay the ferryman.