Besides being exhausting and stressful, moving house is strangely introspective. It’s one of those times when you take an inventory of your life. Every object you own must be picked up, packed into a box, transported and placed in a new context. Maybe this is why at least three people said to me during my recent move that the process is the third most traumatic life event, after the death of a spouse and divorce, respectively.
I don’t buy that it’s as harrowing as all that, but it is strangely Freudian. Questions abound, such as ‘Why is this cupboard full of empty jars?’ or ‘Why do we own seventeen chairs?’ (But mostly, ‘Why did we forget to get rich so we could buy a house and never move again?’) Above all, I have been cursing that we own so many books.
As the removalists toiled with what one described as ‘the heaviest boxes known to mankind’, their foreman looked my son in the eye and asked, ‘Hasn’t your mum ever heard of a Kindle?’ We all laughed darkly. By far the biggest part of the hard labour of moving was dealing with the books that two writers have collected over our lifetimes.
In many ways life would be much easier without books. It’s perilous, learning to read: nobody warns that it’s a gateway drug. Before you know it you have a habit, and if you’re particularly susceptible you might become a writer. As an audit of my assets quickly reveals, I own nothing in the world except furniture, a computer and books. No house. No car. No stock portfolio. Just shelves and shelves of books.
They sit there, these books, collecting dust and providing excellent insulation. Sometimes well-intentioned souls suggest we sell them. Back in the day, when you could make a few dollars that way, we did have regular clear-outs of books we were certain we would never read again.
The problem with that is that you never know when a book might suddenly become relevant to your needs. More than once it happened that a fortnight after selling a book, I found myself wanting to read it again. And very often, buying it back.
I am not especially materialistic, but I do have a possessive attitude towards books. I could never join a library as a child because as soon as I read a book I regarded it as mine. The fines were horrendous. Perhaps it was a perception that when I read a book, it became part of me. Books enter your mind and change it. They have formed and informed me, they have horrified and delighted and excited me, they have made me smarter and helped me to understand my limitations. Most of all, reading has expanded and shaped and coloured my mind.
Except when you have to move, it’s great having a decent library readily available. It’s much more than a useful reference: a library is also a personal history, a physical extension of memory. There are all the books, worn and tattered with love, that I read as a child, and newer, equally battered ones that I read to my children. I pick up books like these and I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
Of course, there are bricks I heft from house to house, ambitious purchases, like Heidegger’s two-volume tome on Nietzsche, that I haven’t read. I bought those in my twenties, and I still haven’t made it past the opening pages of Volume 1. But I firmly believe that every book has its time, that one day I’ll idly pluck it off the shelf and that it will be exactly the thing I need to read. It’s happened often enough. Books are about futures as well as pasts.
Like most twenty-first-century readers, I use ebooks, and I am perfectly aware that our entire library could fit in my pocket. (Assuming, that is, if you can find the works in electronic format: many are simply not available.) Some writing works perfectly well on a screen, but you still can’t beat a book for others. Poetry, for example, gets slowed down to its proper pace, the meditative beat of the heart. Reading isn’t homogenous consumption, but rather a sensual pleasure. Book design reflects this: there are reasons for particular typefaces, particular leading, particular page sizes.
And books, as Susan Sontag once said, are friends. As I was re-shelving my poetry books – alphabetically, not because I am anal but because slim volumes ordered with creative disregard become totally un-findable – I realised this is even truer than it sounds. Many of these books are also by friends. Many are signed, and are mementoes of meetings, conversations, relationships. Some of the poets – too many – are now dead, and yet their voices still live in those pages.
So, despite the bruises, despite the book-dust hay fever, despite the endlessness of packing and unpacking, I’ll keep my books. It’s not just sentiment, although sentiment is part of it. I simply can’t imagine who I’d be without them.