“I cannot live without books”…. but I really wish I could !

One of the few souvenirs I brought back from the U.S.A. in February came from the home of one of the most famous Presidents.  Monticello was a highlight of my visit and the famous quote of the great man, about his books, adorns a ‘T’ shirt I bought there in the gift shop.  I too have a problem with resisting books.

Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello, VA. A beautiful understated mansion – by British aristocratic standards – and full of quirky architectural ideas and BOOKS !

Although I am reasonably ‘au fait’ with modern technology and the world of a wide web,  I still prefer to get my information from books.  There is something about a book, something about holding it, reading it again and again, just having it there on the bookshelf, picking it up for a short while or having it as the read of the week.  I’m not a great novel reader, although it was novels that started my collection.  I well remember the first book I was given, a present from my mother to ease a childhood illness – I think when I was about 9 or 10 years old.  The title was ‘Bows against the Barons’, an enthralling (for a boy brought up on Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and Robinson Crusoe) tale of a young lad forced to flee into the darkness of Sherwood Forest because he killed one of the King’s deer which had been eating his father’s crops.  It was a story which ran parallel with the great tale of Robin and Marion, of Little John and Friar Tuck,  the ogre that was the  Sheriff of Nottingham and that dreadful man King John.  I’m sure if I still had it I would find it as enjoyable today.  I have only recently re-read that greatest of all adventures, a study of individual discovery and self analysis, of man’s soul searching and loneliness when cast aside on a deserted island.  Defoe’s book about Mr Crusoe is fascinating to a child and an adult, if you haven’t read it for a while take it down or get it from the library.

Penguin version of Crusoe

This would definitely be my ‘Desert Island Book’ it is more than just an adventure novel. Read it !

The issue of books has come to the fore this past week due to having to move them.  On my return from that far distant land, having been away a month or so and having left the old home devoid of any heat during the month of January, a problem had occurred.  I had made the decision, correctly as it transpired, to drain all water from the archaic system I have – no central heating here you understand ! That meant that the little patch of dampness which persisted at the side of my hearth got to rage unabated and managed to cause a large part of the paintwork and plaster to detach.  Yes, I know what you are thinking, it’s August and that was February and I’m only now tackling it !  The reason for that is the book problem.

Either side of the hearth, in the recesses, are a series of bookshelves,  seven each side.  One is around 3 feet / 90cms wide whilst the other is slightly shorter, about 2ft 6″/80cms or so.  Each shelf holds an average of 35 books.  A simple mathematical deduction will give you the answer of around 500 books on those shelves alone.  A small glass fronted, four shelf case, stands under the back window of the lounge, it holds 200 smaller books such as Penguin classics, and another tall bookcase which only arrived last year, holds a further 250 – and has some room for future acquisitions.  Thus, in this small house, in a small room in fact, there dwells nigh on a thousand books.  (I am not yet mentioning the upstairs study nor the boxes in the loft…).  I knew there were a lot of books, but I have to admit even I have been somewhat shocked.  How glad am I that I sold over 400 Military History books, relating mainly to the 2nd World War,  prior to coming here 11 years ago !

The attack on the damp and the necessary subsequent re-decoration – even without the damp issue a new lick of paint was probably in order – required dealing with the matter of taking down all those books.  Partly I was worried that damp may be affecting those close to the problem area but also I just needed to clean them of dust and check them over.  The shelves, though in a kind of logical order, needed re-sorting into a more definitive classification.  I’m not talking Dewey-decimal here, no, just a rather simplistic categorisation into my areas of interest.

Once I started scraping the old painted paper lining which was well glued to the chimney breast my spirits rapidly dwindled.  The only success came if the old lime plaster, or polyfiller, or thistle plaster, came away from the wall too.  I borrowed a steamer from a friend which was a great help, except it caused everything to get wet, especially books !  When I at last got the wall cleaned off and removed the blown plaster work I sat and cried ! “Why did I start!?”

Taking down and rebuilding long stretches of dry stone wall is an excellent way to learn a patient approach to reaching a certain goal; target setting tends to be realistic.  I just let myself tackle the removal of the books an hour or so at a time, of an evening or wet afternoon when work held no attraction (wet afternoons and mornings have been plentiful just lately!).  A shelf at a time was emptied, the books brushed clean of accumulated dust, in most cases a decade old, and each book examined and flicked so as to remove the empty shells of dead critters…  Many of my books have little inserts, newspaper cuttings, cards or little notes which I placed in them many years ago for a reason which was perfectly clear at the time but which has since faded into confusion.  Some books have a little pocket attached to the inside of the front cover into which letters pertaining to the content have been placed.  Naturally a great deal of time was consumed reading all those hidden memories and making hard decisions as to whether they should now be discarded.  Most were not.

After five or so long sessions I had emptied the left hand series of shelves.  Whilst that was a small success of itself and something to be self-congratulatory over, it meant that the floor space in my room was too restricted to do anything else.  Thus I began to re-stack the shelves and in so doing introduced a new system, a new categorisation if you like.  The amazing thing about owning so many books is that I actually knew I had every one of them.  Never did I come across a book and think “Ah, I’d forgotten I had that”, or ” I don’t know where that came from”.  Each and every one was familiar, even to the point of knowing where, and mostly when, I had acquired it.  Fortunately in most cases I chose not to remember how much I had paid for it.  My ability at multiplication falters when confronted with a thousand books at a mean price of… lets just say ‘a lot of money ‘!

My memory and knowledge of my library meant I was able to think ahead and move books from other shelves onto the newly filling ones so that I began to have a more sensible array on each shelf.  I know what had happened, why my collection had become haphazardly dispersed.  As one or other of my interests waxes or wanes books get pushed into any gap; as a new book is acquired it often gets slipped onto the top of those already nicely stacked.  The arrival of a new bookcase means all newly arrived books get placed there instead of on to a more appropriate shelf with others relating to that topic.  Over the intervening years since first I emptied the dozens of boxes of books which came here with me, dozens of new books have muddied the clear waters of my system of shelf-sense.

Gradually I have become enthused, gradually I have become ruthless, gradually a dozen or so books have been placed in the ‘moving-on’ box, a car-boot sale beckons.  Therein lies another issue to ponder.  Who wants these books ?  I am enthusiastic about a number of areas, for example I guess that over two hundred of the books relate to history, mainly of landscape but also of political happenings, especially the history of Wales.  A further two hundred or more relate to the history of farming, both in an academic way and a technical way.  I have amassed a solid collection of autobiographical accounts of past-farming activities, the social history of the land if you like.  Large numbers relate to conservation and wildlife which is another passion of mine.  I want to be able to go to a shelf and get the answer to a question posed by some sighting or encounter I have with the natural world.  I have an increasing and much loved collection of books relating to the New World and treasure highly volumes given to me by my dear Carolinian friend especially the recently arrived ‘Art of the Commonplace’ by Wendell Berry and those from Prof. Bill Ferris on the Culture and Memories of the South.

Strangely I have one set of books, a three volume set, which relates to the development of British Agriculture at the start of the nineteenth century, the Book of the Farm by Henry Stephens (now made famous by the TV series ‘The Victorian Farm’, made at Acton Scott Victorian Farm in nearby Shropshire). Whilst doing research for a thesis I was writing on the history of dry stone walls and how they may be datable by the build method, I needed to get hold of these books as Stephens talks at great length about field boundaries and wall building, even to the point of costing it all out at 1830 prices – invaluable as you can imagine.  As a result of the TV series facsimile copies have now been produced but when I wanted to find a set there were none to be had.  My dear sister – an internet expert – found me a set in the U.S.A. and whilst not cheap, postage alone was over £30 ! I decided to purchase and was excited when they duly arrived.  Imagine my increased excitement when I discovered that the set had come from the personal library of Professor Ernest F. Fenollosa at his home in Southern Alabama.

Fellonossa name plate

Strange that these books go all the way to America and back again to be cherished in Wales, books written by a Scotsman in the 1830s !

Fenollosa, who actually died in London in 1908, was born in Massachusetts and is generally accepted as the founder of the Imperial Museum and Art collections in Tokyo and wrote extensively on the history of Japanese Art.  He accumulated a vast collection of early Japanese art which is housed in the Boston gallery of which he became curator and his translations of early Chinese philosophy and poetry was posthumously re-worked and published by Ezra Pound.  Look him up, he was quite a man, and I’ve got some of his books !  What on earth he was doing with the ‘Book of the Farm’ I have no idea, unless perhaps he had a small farm down in Alabama but I have found no record of that being the case.

One bookcase holds most of the major literary works which would adorn anyone’s bookshelf, the books of Thomas Hardy, of Dickens, of Huxley and Kingsley and Bach.  There are more volumes of poetry than I would care to confess to. Of course the collected works of Shakespeare, the collected works of Churchill, the many different Bible versions and some on other religions, all sit serenely awaiting the next reader. Who will read those books anymore I wonder?  Certainly none of my offspring has shown the slightest interest in books even though they are all well educated graduates and post-graduates.  So what becomes of books when no-one wants them ?  What becomes of society when no-one reads books, what becomes of bookcases when no-one keeps books ?

As I work my way through the hundreds of really fascinating books which I haven’t opened for a long while, my stack of must re-read, or must ‘finish’ reading grows ever tall.  Whilst I would not in truth be able to say I had read all of each book, I have certainly read a large percentage and have studied a large percentage of the content of the remainder.  True, sometimes I buy a book, or get given a book, which may turn out to be something I’m not particularly interested in at that moment but eventually it gets read or examined.  For the most part books that I buy today – generally on ebay or Amazon, though I do still get the occasional volume at one or other of the bookshops in Hay or a small favourite of mine in Brecon – I obtain for a specific reason. That is they contain some information I need or want to know right now !  Novels get passed to me by family or friends but it is seldom the case that they get read I’m afraid.

The exercise has been cathartic, has been enlightening, a journey of self discovery almost, “did I really at one time want to know how to survive a nuclear attack !?”.  It has also raised some serious questions in my mind.  I well remember my amazement, shock even, when I first began to use the University library whilst studying for my recent Master’s degree.  That shock came in the form of the date slip inside many of the books I was borrowing.  Is it fair to assume that a book on the shelf of a University Library, albeit in one of the more obscure subject areas (history !!) is deemed important ?  I think so, hence to borrow a book, a seriously important piece of work in most cases, that had not been taken out, in some cases for twenty years, in most cases for between five and ten years, was something of a surprise.  However, when I then saw the over-flowing I.T. suite, the ‘always occupied’ twenty or so library computers, the young people who never seemed to have a book in front of them whilst they wrote their essays nor were they encumbered by heavy shoulder bags full of the necessary titles for the current piece of work, when I saw that, it dawned on me that the day of the book is gone.

If that was a slightly extreme thought five years or so ago, how off-beat would it seem today I wonder ?  When did you last see a person reading a ‘book’?  When did you last see a person with a Kimble !?  I visited a friend a while back and her daughter was in a deep state of anxiety trying to get her final piece of University work completed, she was not to be disturbed !  She occupied the whole of the kitchen table but, in truth, there was plenty of room for us to sit and have a three course meal around her, for she had no books, no writing pads, no writing instruments even.  Instead she had her ‘notepad’ and her mother’s lap top (on which she had the relevant information for the fact in hand) and was diligently transposing information from the WWW to her small keypad.  I realised I was out of touch.  “Where do you print it off?”, I asked.  Idiotic question indeed, no paper, electronically sent forth to her tutor.

Ah, some good then.  Trees are safe at last !

So where does that leave me and Jefferson ?  If living without books is possible for the majority why not me ?  If I persist in the continual aquisition of  printed matter what legacy do I leave those that have to sort it all out ?  Does the fact that several of the books on my shelf are personal awards to me (in some cases to my father) or that I am mentioned in several of them (as is my father), mean anything to those coming behind?  What value will anyone place on Bill Ferris’ wonderful book ‘Give my Poor Heart Ease’, or Stephens’ ‘Book of the Farm’, who wants the huge and heavy family bible, the story of the archaeology of the Bible lands or the writings of Churchill?   Will Will even get a second glance !?  I think not.

However, for me, the thought of living without books, of sitting in my room without their company, of being devoid of literature covering all manner of subjects, is to contemplate at least an extra two litres of paint to cover the space they occupy.  For that price I could buy a very nice book about the Landscape Archaeology of the Black Mountain of Carmarthenshire and I’d get so much more enjoyment out of looking at that than a blank, albeit bright, wall !!

On the other hand, as the great man said, “Fewer will suffice if amusement and not use is the only future goal”.  Mmm, maybe.   Now then, about those books I was going to sell…..

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One Response to ““I cannot live without books”…. but I really wish I could !”

  1. cakenessmonster Says:

    Books are always the majority of my moving boxes, and it’s only too fresh in my memory with so many moves in the last eleven years and one more on the horizon soon. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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