REGRETS, I HAVE A FEW

A PHOTOGRAPH BRINGS BACK MEMORIES OF THE BOOKS I'VE LOVED AND BETRAYED OVER THE YEARS. 

I RECENTLY came across a photograph of myself (eyes right), artfully arranged in front of several bookshelves, in a former apartment. Look at all those books, came the wistful thought. In italics, no less.

 Thanks to some downsizing, and then the unexpected lockdown when I was just eight days away from leaving the country for a year, I’m currently living bookshelf free. I’ve managed to amass a smallish new collection since lockdown began but it’s not the same.

 Then, my partner innocently sent me a link to a book she’d come across: Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home with Books by interior designer Nina Freudenberger. Inside, Freudenberger, with help from writer Sadie Stein and photographer Shade Degges, “celebrate the beauty of books and the personal touch they bring to the homes they live in”.

 It is quite beautiful. The libraries, the shelves, the clever and witty uses to which books are put … it is, as the Amazon blurb says, “a visual feast and inspiration for every bibliophile”.

 And while this is true (please NB, Santa), it’s also brought on a touch of bibliophilic PTSD. Suddenly, I’m feeling unexpectedly emotional and a smidge bereft, like an old soldier who flashbacks to the comrades he left behind on the battlefield. Only in my case, I left them there deliberately. How do you live with that?

 As someone who grew up in a book-free home, my collection has perhaps conflated itself in my mind beyond all reasonable importance. They are, after all, just books and, thanks to the magic Interweb, can be easily replaced.

 “They are, after all, just books.” Six simple words, but words that I have come to regret.

 Back in those early days in East London, I exhausted the local library pretty early on and thereafter used much of the money from my weekend job buying paperbacks. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Vonnegut, Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Roger Zelazny paved the way for Tolkien and T. H. White and Mark Twain. At school I fell in love with Wilde but also had bookish crushes on the pulp of the Doc Savage novels.

 Then, in 1995, I came to Australia. And I thought “they are, after all, just books” and decided to sell a large part of them.

 The second-hand bookstore owners who swarmed around my car boot sale stall probably couldn’t believe their luck. It wasn’t until a few years later, snuffling around a bookshop in Auckland, that I came across a couple of Doc Savage books and, with a sinking feeling that I still get merely typing these words, realised what I’d done. My books. My history. Gone.

 One thing from that car boot sale, something I

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recall with sickening clarity, is my edition of Lord of the Rings – the classic one-volume paperback from 1968 - disappearing into a box. At the time it was “just a book”. Now, it feels like a betrayal.

 And so, I came to Australia (almost) unencumbered by those many hundreds of books. Obviously, the shelves didn’t stay empty for long. After all, my name is Keith and I’m an addict. The collection grew again. To the extent that a few years ago I had filled four traditional bookcases and many modular IKEA cases so big I was able to file my purchases two deep.

 But then came another move, and another cull. Would I never learn? This time I got rid of pretty much all the books in the second row – the ones that hadn’t seen the light of day for years and needed to be dusted off with an industrial vacuum cleaner before Vinnies would take them.

 Among them was a book about the history of opium which I thought might come in handy one day but had never been opened. Not quite up there with the LoTR debacle but I do find myself pining for it all the same.

 The remaining books – thanks to the abortive plan to travel for a year - are now all boxed up and in storage. Except for the ones I’ve acquired in lockdown and the 39 on my Kindle that I haven’t got round to reading (that’s another story altogether).

 I try not to think about the ones sleeping in the dark, alone. But then that photograph popped up and I realise that I miss them, all of them, those in storage, the ones stacked in Vinnies, and going all the way back to A Princess of Mars, Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and that Lord of the Rings 1968 edition with the pretty Pauline Baynes artwork on the cover.

 After all, a book isn’t just a book. I know that now.