A witty, thoughtful exploration into books, Kindles and downsizing a collection
This essay by Linda Grant is unfortunately ONLY available to those with ereaders, meaning the blissfully Kindle resistant will be deprived of its wisdom, pathos and humour.
Perhaps it is Grant’s vicious little revenge on those who have not moved home into a smaller place, and thus been forced, as she has, to perform an act of cruel culling on her lifetime collection of books.
I found MUCH to nod sagely at, and much to underline, on my KINDLE. However, nothing beats the pleasure of annotating and underlining on a REAL book, as Grant herself alludes. Yes, I know, some readers faint in horror at the idea of marking books in this way, but I have always regarded reading as a dialogue between writer and reader, a relationship between reader and what they read. Hence, riffling through my ancient, dusty, texts, some, like Grant’s dating back to childhood, it is the imprint of my physical presence at the time(s) I engaged with the tomes, that matters. Not just the writer’s words, which are the same, Kindle or book, and I may indeed have underlined and crossly or ecstatically commented on, in that furiously annoying neutrality of peck peck typing in the e reader format – but, the colour of the pen or pencil hastily picked up, the particular energy of my underlining or commenting, the handwriting itself – which has changed, and continues to change, over time, the smears of what was clearly a chocolate, or some tomato coloured sauce, across a page, the curious bus ticket hastily used as book mark – but to a place I swear I have never, ever been to – all this sings of relationship
To those who are muttering ‘vandal, brute’ at evidence of such cavalier ill-treatment of my own books, I would riposte and say that such greedy, energetic handling shows evidence of extreme love. I CHEERED at Grant’s assertion about her library of books, inhabiting and overflowing in the house she is downsizing from
The glory of the library for me is how many of the books are in poor physical condition. They are books that have been read and read intensely. They are knocked about and shopworn.I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken
Grant details the agony of parting with her history – sure, SOME but not all of the older books will be available on Kindle, for re-read, and she will buy these when re-reads call, but, as she says, the physical books mark the passage of her years, a history of who she was, and hold intense memory in a way that does not happen with ereaders. To stand in front of one’s own bookshelves, if you are a life-long and voracious reader, is to see, as Grant confesses :
What I saw, swelling with self-important pride, was evidence of how I had constructed my own intellectual history through reading
Grant contrasts the swings between the airy freedom produced by the library held on a Kindle, with the feelings of devastation caused by the casting aside of some dusty tomes, and the keeping of others, in order that she will be able to fit into and live inside, her new, much smaller space
Now at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done.
The Kindle though, offers a freedom to enlarge the fonts of books which she can no longer read with tiny text – books that therefore remind the reader of ageing, of death, of loss. What once could be read, now can only be perused with magnifying glasses
But she also talks, with some spite and acerbic observation of the great tendency of style and design over substance – selling her house, the estate agent winces at the overflowing bookshelves, which are evidence of mess, and clutter.
Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room – books make rooms look messy….They completely destroy the impact of the accent wall. Books are too personal as objects to be displayed
I too, cannot help it, but to visit a book free home makes me uneasy. It is the very messiness of books, like the messiness of real, physical life, unsanitised, which books represent, which lures me. A bookshelf offers an intimacy into who someone is, and out on display, this is an intimacy a visitor is allowed to look at
For Grant, her real, physical library gives access to something deep:
I return in memory and imagination, but I return by taking a book down from the shelf, and reading a few pages. That is a library. A full larder for the soul.
I’m astonished, and not a little embarrassed that what Grant produced in a mere 28 pages in this essay should have led to me writing so many words (believe me, I could have written many more!)
In defence – I will say that this little essay of hers packs a world and a time into those 28 pages. Not surprising really, as readers of Grant’s novels know, she is a writer who chooses her words well, and writes ‘about stuff’ even when she is being ‘entertaining’. She uncovered more in her 28 pages than many denser tomes about books, reading, writing and the history of all this might have done.