It took an earthquake for Orhan Pamuk to cull some of his 12,000 books. His creaking bookshelves, which he perceived as conspirators in the earthquake’s wrath, were deserving of punishment. So the Turkish author plucked 250 books from the shelves, summarily dismissing those that he was ashamed of ever having taken seriously: middling examples of village literature, vanity memoirs, bad poetry collections, and unillustrated works of ‘refined pornography’. The very thought of having grown fond of these books made him miserable. Fearing attachments, he welcomed any pretext – even an earthquake – to shed some of his books.
Not so the peripatetic Geoff Dyer, overjoyed when he finally settled in one place long enough to unpack his books: ‘Assembling my books in one room is the fulfillment of a life’s ambition. There’s nothing else I want.’ Even if he ended up decrepit, impoverished, lonely and celibate, his library would grant him a kind of immunity against life’s disappointments.
But our attitude to the books on our shelves is not only shaped by personal psychology; cultural pressures also play a part. ‘I’ve got too many books,’ is a common complaint – one that stems not from a fear of attachment but from a fear of clutter, the desire for the kind of perfectly curated home routinely found in the lifestyle pages. In this paradigm, books are either interior decoration – in the form of coffee-table books and colour-coded rows on bespoke bookshelves – or they are clutter, a burdensome psychological weight. As the reigning queen of decluttering, Marie Kondo, advocates in her best-selling books – if an object doesn’t give you joy when you take it in your hand and eyeball it for a few seconds, get rid of it. Fast-track your way to a better life by lightening your burden of abundance.
‘I’ve got too many books,’ is a common complaint – one that stems not from a fear of attachment but from a fear of clutter.
As Ruth Quibell discusses in her book The Promise of Things, Kondo’s magic life-changing formula ignores the roles that objects play in our lives. Our possessions serve more complex purposes than just giving us fleeting, decontextualised joy, particularly their role as repositories of memory. Books age along with us. They witness our daily lives, embody and reanimate our past. To open a dusty book on one’s shelf is to release a Proustian cloud of memories.
A friend recently said to me, ‘I want to cull my books so they fit into two bookcases.’ This comment – made by someone for whom space is not an issue, living as she does in a large house – triggered my thinking about my own overflowing bookcases. Scanning my shelves, I came across my dog-eared copy of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet bought for $12.55 at Readings Records & Books, its age showing in yellowing pages and collapsed spine. I remember reading Durrell on the pebbly beaches of the Greek islands, as I spent weeks recuperating from a dire gastro infection picked up in Burma, eating boiled rice until I was well enough to even contemplate moussaka and retsina.
Leafing through Durrell now, however, I see that my copy is a Faber & Faber edition from 1977, well after my time on the islands. But this evidence of memory’s unreliability doesn’t alter the fact that my copy of The Alexandria Quartet will always carry my memory of Greece, my fictional Greek narrative. Even if I never read The Alexandria Quartet again, it will stay on my shelves, never to be culled.
To cull: to ‘reduce the population by selective slaughter’. Culling my books does feel like slaughter, not only of the books, but also part of my history. It requires hard decisions. Easiest to abandon are the poorly chosen presents: the book from a boyfriend who didn’t know a Sussan from a Sontag; slim collections of mawkish versifying; anodyne Aga sagas. Other decisions are more difficult. Should Kate Llewellyn follow Lily Brett into the dispatch box? If Colette goes, then does Anais Nin? Both Roth and Updike? And so on. I haven’t opened these books for decades, and probably never will again. And yet. While we may only own ten or fifteen life-changing books − the ones that shape us and that we truly love − our libraries are part of a collective, of an intricate web of memories and associations. Culling more than a few from my overstuffed bookcases would feel like erasing a little bit of history, akin to photoshopping an ex out of the holiday snaps.
Culling more than a few from my overstuffed bookcases would feel like erasing a little bit of history.
If I hadn’t banished Jacqueline Sussan all those years ago, her neighbour on my bookshelf would be Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Set in malodorous 18th-century Paris, the murderer is a man with an ‘exquisite nose’ who kills beautiful girls for their scent. Opening the book at random, I breathe in a trace of vanilla.
When I was a child, my nose was always buried in a book. And it was not just for the pleasure of losing myself in an imaginary world far more exciting than my own. There was a scent given off by the glossy pages of some books that I found particularly pleasurable and evocative. I have been searching for it ever since.
I could short-circuit my search by buying a vial of Paper Passion Perfume, one of a number of fragrances on the market that hold out the promise of capturing ‘the unique olfactory pleasures of the freshly printed book’. The perfume’s creator spent days at the renowned publisher Steidl, sniffing books, paper samples, and inks to find inspiration for a bookish perfume that would age well – just like a good book. Paper Passion Perfume is a solution for Kondo fans: replace your books with a $600 simulacrum. Imbue yourself with a bookish aura without having to put up with the unsightly clutter of the material object. Joy all round.
But I prefer the real thing. As books age, their compounds break down, releasing that signature old-book scent. Second-hand bookshops (a threatened species in an era of cut-price, online behemoths) are ideal hunting grounds for seekers of olfactory pleasures. Browsing the shelves, I always take a furtive sniff when I come across a glossy-paged book – but all too often a nasty whiff of chemicals is released rather than a pleasant aroma.
The declutterer’s dumping ground is a book buyer’s treasure trove of serendipitous finds.
Of course second-hand bookshops offer pleasures besides the olfactory. The declutterer’s dumping ground is a book buyer’s treasure trove of serendipitous finds. Second-hand books are haunted by their spectral histories. My most recent second-hand purchase is an orphaned volume of the selected works of Thomas Mann. On the flyleaf is an Ex Libris bookplate with a Greek surname and a drawing of Pegasus, the winged horse, flying across a map of the world, from Europe to Australia – perhaps the very journey that this reader had taken.
The book sits unread on my shelves; small print and the heft of its 800-odd pages do not make for easy reading. But every now and then I take it down from the shelf, open it at random and take a sniff. Sandalwood with a trace of tobacco? I imagine the book’s former owner sitting in a wing chair in a bookshelf-lined study, reading Mann. From time to time, he puts down the book, takes off his gold-rimmed spectacles, and sits in the pool of lamplight, remembering.
It is past midnight. My bookcases sit beside me in companionable silence while I open my yellowing paperback edition of Mann’s Tonio Kröger. I have moved only a few times in my life, always within a small area – and while my geographical radius has been narrow, books have given me an entrée to a larger life, taking me to places that I never would have gone on my own.
Wherever I live, I find a home in my books, my museum of memories. They deserve a long shelf life.