I recently read a blog post by Luke McKernan, ‘Lost Books’, in which he discusses his attitude to the ownership of books. His key point is that the act of reading a book makes it part of the reader, and looking along a shelf of them is a reminder of the intellectual journey to which they have been the accompaniment. He tells the story of how, when moving house, he gave a quantity of his books, perhaps a couple of hundred, to a charity shop and has regretted it ever since because in a very real way he had disposed of a part of himself. He can recall where he bought all his books and where he read them, so at a meta level they contain a story over and above that found in the content, which in reading them became part of Luke’s own story. If they’ve gone, they’ve gone, and not even an identical replacement will carry that sense of having been absorbed; it would be merely a ringer, not the same. To reinstate the meaning that the original copy had would mean rereading it, and overlaying the first set of associations with a new one.
I can understand this view, but my engagement, while I hope as intense, is somewhat different. After a time I do not as a rule recall where I bought a book, nor often where in particular I read it, though I do often associate particular books with certain times, usually longer books read in summer holidays when young – War and Peace, Don Quixote and Ulysses spring to mind. As a rule it’s the words that count, not the book as an object, but it was not always so: at one time (my teens and 20s) I had the ambition of owning every book I read. This proved impractical but I still built up large sub-collections. Unfortunately space is the enemy, and I eventually decided I had to weed out some of the things I had read and would probably not need again (a dangerous assumption). Early victims of this culling process were the poetry pamphlets which I had accumulated during my regular trips to Compendium at Camden Town, and later, when married with a small child, many of my science fiction and crime novels. It hurt at first, but I found that I gradually became less sentimental, and didn’t consider that I was diminished by their absence. I certainly don’t feel, as Luke suggests, that their absence tells an incomplete story about me, and if it does, who cares?
In general I still find that I don’t miss the ones that are gone, with exceptions. Some books I do kick myself about, like the one I got a few pounds for on eBay which I later discovered was worth rather a lot, or the politics books from my student days I sold to a specialist dealer that I wish I had kept (but I really didn’t think at the time I would want to consult Lenin’s What is to Be Done? again, or what must have been everything Trotsky wrote that was in English translation at the time, let alone reread them, and perhaps I mourn the loss of the younger me they represent as much as the volumes themselves). Mostly I take a pragmatic view, keeping books I think will be useful, notably on cinema, psychical research and the nineteenth century. I don’t read ebooks for pleasure, but I do have a large collection of PDFs for reference or just-in-case, and some of those have replaced physical copies that I have read and am unlikely to want to reread in their entirety.
I am not a slave to the editions I have read either. If a more recent version comes out, I’m happy to replace my old one, invariably when I find a cheap second-hand copy. Thus recently the 2003 revised Penguin edition of Frankenstein, which I haven’t yet read, replaced the 1992 Penguin edition, which in turn replaced the still earlier one I had read, simply because it is more up to date. On the McKernan system I would either have to eschew the new one, or else read it in order to make it part of me, overlaying the trace of the old one I had read which had gone. The latter I may or may not do, but should I need to consult it – and who knows where research will take one – it’s good to know that I have the copy that has been revised and which can be considered more authoritative than its predecessors, including the one I read.
There are some books I won’t part with, such as the battered copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn my father bought me when I was a child and which evoke the original pleasure of reading them whenever I look at the covers. The Beatrix Potter books I received from relatives fall into the same category. For most of them though I do not feel that strength of attachment. I certainly do not regard them as part of me in the way that Luke does his. I’ve already mentioned, in reviewing Penguin’s compilation of covers, Seven Hundred Penguins, how I once thought nice hardbacks were preferable to Penguins and changed them over as a matter of course when I had the opportunity, only to change them back where appropriate when I came to appreciate that it was the content that mattered, not the format. These days I divide books into those which are keepers and those which are disposable. The latter, mostly modern fiction, go off the charity shop when read, yet they often achieve a kind of permanence in my memory through the act of writing about them. If space were limitless I would have a grand library in which to retain every book I acquire, with no disposal policy, and once something like that was an ambition. They are wonderful to have about the place, but one has to be practical, and moving thousands of books is a nightmare. Some balance is required.
One thing I disagree with Luke about is his definition of a bibliophile, which he characterises as someone who collects books or reveres them for their own sake. He sees the bibliophile fetishizing objects, and by that narrow definition neither am I one. It is too narrow, and I think we both are really, or else why would we be writing about our books with such affection? They are obviously important to us both. We may have different approaches to the books we own but I bet he loves them as much as I do. I love the texture, the weight, the design, above all the promise contained inside. Sometimes the promise is unfulfilled, at other times it exceeds expectations. Bibliophilia is about the attitude one takes to one’s books and what they contain, which is essentially a deep connection. I feel it, and the fact that Luke mourns those lost paperbacks puts him very firmly in that category as well.