A couple of months ago, and again today, I did what many book lovers may consider a crime. I took dozens of books off my shelves, put them into bags and gave them to my husband with the instructions of getting them out of the house. He ended up donating them to a book charity, but that’s not the point. The point is, I am getting rid of many books that have been crowding my bookshelves for years. I am almost done – there is probably a sixth left from what I once had. And there will, most likely, be another cull, the last one, which will distill all my books to the few that, as Marie Kondo puts it, bring me deep joy.
I grew up in a family of book lovers. Our bookshelves reached the ceiling and books stood in double lines, so that behind every one of them hid another layer. On the bottom shelves, my parents kept literary magazines to which they had subscribed for years. They had cost them a fortune, and god knows how they had managed to arrange for some of the subscriptions in the first place. Once I read all the books, even the ones my parents deemed inappropriate for my age (and which I found in the second layers, hastily hidden by my mother), and exhausted the school library, I focused on the magazines, especially one called Foreign Literature (Inostrannaya Literatura). My mother once told me that it was in one of those magazines, years earlier, that she had first read Salinger.
I remember myself sitting on the floor, on a summer day, covered in dust and surrounded by piles of those old magazines, reading as if nothing else existed. Those are some of my happiest memories. My parents had every Russian classic, in those uniform complete collections of eight, ten, twenty tomes. Many foreign classics too. When I close my eyes, I see those beautiful books lining the shelves like wallpaper. I played with them as if they were toys. Every few months, I re-organised them in alphabetical order, or by genre, by country or even, once, by colour.
So why, in that case, get rid of my own collection? Random paperbacks I picked up on street corners when I first moved to England. Novels I read when I studied for an MA. Books I have reviewed, little pocket detective stories I ordered from Russia to entertain my mother while she was visiting one year. Recipe books, books on fitness, martial arts, writing, art, child rearing… I have clung on to them, until now, maybe in an attempt to recreate my childhood home, or maybe with the idea that my own children would read them, and play the way I used to.
But that’s exactly the point. My random collection was just that – random. Apart from the few books that are now gazing back at me, lovingly, from the half-empty shelves, I was holding on to a pile of paper. When I first got a Kindle, or, to be more precise, borrowed one from my son, I was convinced that I would never become a fan. To read on a screen seemed half an experience. Now it is still that, of course. With one exception. The books that get to participate in the full experience – their pages rustling, loudly or quietly depending on where I am and whether my toddler is asleep next to me; the smell of paper; the heaviness in my hand; the little marks, stains, scratches on the pages that remind me of every single time before – those books bring me more than a story, a narrative, a memorable character. More than their physical presence on my shelves. What they bring me is a feeling of such excitement at holding them in my hands, maybe because of the memories they carry within themselves, or because of the emotions they evoke in me, that they are the ones that I want to keep, just for that reason.
My children will read the books I talk to them about. Or maybe they won’t. It’s their experience of literature, and I don’t want to intrude. They will hold on to their own true favourites, not mine. To pass on a legacy of loving literature is not the same as passing on a giant pile of books. In fact, literature is not the same as books. Do you remember the debates we had, a few years ago, about the future of literature? Would it survive in the age of technology? It looks like it’s doing more than surviving. It is riding technology, making it its own, and I’ve got to ride it too.