Ian McMillan: Why is it so difficult to get rid of old books?

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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So now, book lovers of Yorkshire and beyond, we come to the perennial problem that has dogged the buyer of literature since time immemorial, or since you last went into a bookshop and came out with a bundle; where on earth do we/you keep them all?

The non-bookbound (as the technical term is) amongst my readers would say that this is such an easy problem to solve that it really isn’t a problem. You just put them on a bookshelf. When that bookshelf is full you put them on another bookshelf and when that bookshelf is full you just take the ones you’ve read, or the ones you’ll never read, to a charity shop for other people to enjoy.

I will get round to reading this book and, if I’ve read it, one day I will get round to reading this book again so there’s no point in getting rid of it because one day, one day…

Ah. Let me stop you right there. I’m talking about houses so full of books that they appear, like houses in some odd folktale, to be entirely made out of books. There are books two deep on the bookshelves that fill each room; there are books on the stairs; there are bookhenges of books at selected sites round the house. Sometimes these flimsy constructions totter and fall, but they are always built again, often a little higher, just to accommodate the millions of words and the thousands of pages.

And what’s that about taking books to the charity shop? Let me stop you again. I’ve been there; I’ve tried that. I’ve gone through the shelves and pulled out a couple of tomes that I last read in the late 1980s and one or two slim volumes that I fear I may never open. I’ve looked at them with wistful longing and put them in a carrier bag and taken them to the charity shop, leaving them and using the dust-jacket of a hardbacked book to staunch my tears. “Farewell, friends,” I whisper, “we may never meet again” and I rush from the charity shop as though I am being pulled from it on a bungee rope. I have then sat at home forlornly for a couple of hours and then I have gone back to the charity shop (sometimes in disguise so as not to cause a stir) and bought the books back and then, and this is a very strange thing, I have put them back on the shelf and I haven’t read them, although one day I will get round to it.

And there lies the truth of the booklovers dilemma: one day I will get round to reading this book and, if I’ve read it, one day I will get round to reading this book again so there’s no point in getting rid of it because one day, one day…

Realists (and which bibliophile is a realist?) will tell you that you will never read them, that if you read two books a week you will read just over 100 books in a year and there are 600 unread books on your shelves.

I know, I know. Just one more book, though. Just one more book that I might read and reread and which might be the best one I’ll ever read. I’ll go to the shelf now and choose one to read? But which one? I may be some time…