I spent the last forty years of my life believing in the idea that Nicholas Taleb put forward in the Black Swan: owning a library makes you smarter. The content of the books you have not read is the inspiration for the work you will do next. Emberto Eco sits in his library of 30,000 books writing his novels. Case closed. I changed my mind and two years ago I sold or give away virtually all of my books, around 3,000 volumes in all.
Italo Calvino, in that famous passage from if on a winters night a travel, categorises all the books by type:
– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”
― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
When I was 12 we went on holiday. I had just began to read properly. I was born dyslex and was held back at primary school in what were then called remedial English lessons. We had a lovely teacher called Mrs Perry. I slowly developed an ability to memorise the shape of words and to remember what they meant. Step by step I learned to read. There was one book that I now had to have, the Dungeon Masters Guide.
I scrimped and saved. Worked in my Dad’s bakery. All the time we had been on holiday I pleaded poverty. Though I had changed money at the airport. I hoped to make a little on the transactions. When we arrived back at Heathrow I told my parents I had to change my money back. My father exploded: But you were broke. My mother explained, he wants to buy a book. A book. There was no more discussion. From then on I began, slowly at first and then more systematically, to acquire books. They came with me from Bournemouth to University in London, to halls in South woodford, then digs in Stratford, Putney, Bowes Park, then into family life in Bloomsbury, Stoke Newington, Muswell Hill, Teddington. Then into divorced life in East Finchley and so to a second marriage, home in Fritrovia and shortly Pimlico. Each move dominated by dozens and dozens of boxes of books, each house determined by the space needed for the books. And half them remained in my office as I became an academic and a professor with an office that was, of course, lined with books.
Even when I left full time academia in 2008 to work in human rights, the books kept pilling up. When we moved to Fitzrovia we put the books in storage in the garage. Perhaps it was then that the umbilical cord was cut. This was the first house that had not been chosen in part because of its ability to accommodate the books.
After 8 happy years in Fitzrovia we were ready for a change. As we began to look at places I realised that I was basing my choice of home on its ability to house the books. My initial feeling was relief that they would be brought out of their boxes. Brought home. I could realise my vision of living in Michael Foot’s tradition. I abridged and edited for Michal in the last ten years of his life and loved that every surface of his home was covered in books. It seemed to sum up the life of the mind that I had wanted to live since I had learned to read.
The personal and financial reasons for shedding my library were compelling.
Deeper than this was a sense of finally growing up and not feeling like a thief in the night, not fearing discovery. The books were a shield, someone with so many books must be a real intellectual.
I remember Running into the historian Kathy Burk once. She asked me what I had written lately. Historians are a deeply competitive bunch. I said a couple of edited things. Edited things – so nothing really then.
The philosophers argument is a good one but it is bogus. It is like the researcher who photocopies articles all morning or downloads pdfs onto their laptop in the library. They work hard and have a real sense of having accomplished something. But they haven’t done a thing, they have collected, they have not read. They have mistaken activity for achievement.
The bulk of my unread books will remain unfinished but while my library has stayed still, I have not. The volume upon volume of memoirs, biographies, diaries, autobiographies, collections of profiles would have sat in boxes or moved from shelf to shelf until I died. They would never have been opened again. My son Max has had the run of them and found some useful but I will never go back to them. The books I have kept reflect the concerns that either inform my current work (genocide, human rights) or are connected with members of my family. I do not look back. While not often. Occasionally I am walking past a second had bookshop and there is a copy an edition of something that I once owned and I wonder is that my copy?
But the overwhelming feeling is liberation.