All around my house – in the bedroom, the spare room, the sitting room – there are interesting geological features. This is nothing to do with the fact that I live in a Victorian townhouse in North London, nor to do with the clay soil on which it is built. It’s because I don’t have enough shelves.
These interesting features consist of stalagmites of books – great wobbly pillars of varying heights constantly threatening to come crashing down, which they sometimes do at night, frightening the life out of our two understandably nervous cats. They seem to grow on their own, these columns, much in the way that wire coathangers will multiply if you leave them alone in an empty wardrobe (have you ever noticed that?). Recently, I removed a couple of stalagmites from the stairs because guests were coming. I was imagining the lawsuit when one of them tripped halfway down and somersaulted into the hallway while being showered by contemporary fiction – a bit like the demise of the unfortunate Leonard Bast in EM Forster’s Howard’s End, felled by a bookcase. The stalagmites haven’t made it to the bathroom yet but it’s only a matter of time.
Both my partner and I work in the book business and we have two school-age children, so I suppose it’s inevitable, but every now and then, we look at each other and sigh and say, we really have to get rid of some of these books. So I am making a very important New Year’s Reading Resolution for 2014: read more books and own fewer of them.
It goes like this:
- Only buy a hard copy of a book I already own on my e-reader if I really really need to, rather than because, I just, you know, like to have it.
- Take the proofs of new novels I get sent by publishers down to the local charity store even when the publicist has sent me a personal letter saying that this is the most stunning debut since William Shakespeare wrote his first dramatic sketch for Queen Elizabeth I.
- Convince myself that no household needs more than one copy of Madame Bovary. My partner still has the copy he read at university three decades ago and so do I. There’s a strong chance neither of us will ever read Madame Bovary again and a dead certainty that we will never want to do so at the same time. One of them has to go.
- Disable one-click before consuming alcohol. You know what I mean. Oh, yes, you do.
- Read more of the books that I actually own already, rather than craving books I have neither read nor own.
- Understand that although books are still ludicrously cheap – in comparison with going to the cinema or going out for dinner, say – if you buy twenty of them for five quid each, you have still spent a hundred quid. It’s called math.
- Consider that if I stop buying books, I might be able to afford more shelves.
- Stop thinking that if only I buy a book and keep it next to my bedside, then its contents will magically sink into my brain while I sleep. Literature is not absorbed by osmosis.
- Understand that while I might think it is fascinating and amusing to have the Icelandic edition of Apple Tree Yard next to the bread bin where I can happen upon it by accident on a daily basis, nobody else does.
- Read more. And when I have read, lovingly close the book and place it in a safe place, out of harm’s way, on a shelf or in a box rather than lying horizontally on top of another book in a location that will be surprising to visitors, cats, or indeed myself when I have forgotten where I left it. My brain is full of books and I’m very happy that it is – so is my computer and my e-reader and my phone – but they really don’t need to form a risk to physical safety or a fire hazard in my home. I have two children for that.
LOUISE DOUGHTY is the author of Apple Tree Yard. Her previous novel, Whatever You Love, was short-listed for the Costa Book Award and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is the author of several other novels and a book of nonfiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her hugely popular newspaper column. She also writes plays and journalism and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio 4. Doughty lives in London.