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  • James Ward

My sinister bookshelves

I bought my wife a year’s membership of the National Trust for Christmas. Of course, because I can’t expect her to go visiting old houses and looking round their grounds alone, I had to get joint membership. A present for myself too. So sometimes we go on excursions to stately manors: Bodiam Castle, Scotney, Knowle House, Bateman’s.

In each case, the inside is gloomy. It’s been kept just as it was when it was "entrusted to the nation", and since reduced light is supposed to help preserve fabrics etc., it generally feels a bit morbid. By contrast, the outside is always beautiful in the way only exceptionally good gardening can be. Knowing the right places to put trees and shrubs, which to plant, where to site a pond, raise a hedge, place a statue or a fountain – these are all ways people have improved on bare, already fabulous (in decent weather, anyway), English nature.

To begin with, though: the obligatory traipse round the interior. Old, old furnishings: fragile-looking chairs, half-drawn curtains, radios and gramophones that will never play again, sombre oil paintings, dark carpets, wainscoting with the merest suggestion of woodworm, shelves with books that look like they’d fall apart if you tried to read them; the sorts of volumes ‘tasteful’ home-furnishing businesses used to sell by the yard about fifteen years ago. Buy ten feet of this well-bound printed paper, sir/madam, and you’ll look like a true cultural connoisseur!

It’s the bookcases I’ve been increasingly interested in. And obviously, what's on them. A copy of Marcus Aurelius in Bateman’s (Rudyard Kipling’s old home), a few volumes of Macaulay, a Hume’s history of England. Many of the other titles were faded, so I don’t know what they are, or were. Arguably, they’re not anything now.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: what did they even mean to begin with? Their owners probably weren’t anything like me, books-wise. Because in one sense, my life’s been devoted to the stupidest of all pursuits: the quest for a perfect bookcase. As a result, I now have a house filled with books, all of which I bought thinking: one day, I will read that.

Will I? Really? As I sit here writing this, I’m faced by two looming bookcases, each with six shelves of approximately 20 books apiece. Most, I haven’t read. I’m fifty-seven. That means I’ve probably another twenty years left at most. Twenty years to read - what? - 150 books? Plus the ones under the bed. Plus those in the cupboard in my son's old room. Plus those in the shed. Plus -

Stop. Stop there.

Why don’t I get rid of them? A few, if I’m honest, I know for a fact I’ll never read. Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5? No thanks. It’s a hardback, probably weighs over a kilogram, and it’s impossible to hold upright in bed. Even if I change my mind, I’ve got the paperback version in the shed, easily 750g lighter. Anyway, in between e-readers and paperbacks, the entire phenomenon of the hardback has probably had its day. It has snob, showy bookshelf-value, that’s all. My kind of value, sadly. And there are lots of similar books on my shelves. Hegel by Charles Taylor. No Siree. Readings in Language and Mind. Nope. But if I got rid of them, I might not ever see another copy of the same book again! Not even on EBay! Scary!

And the thing is, I’d like to read them. I think. Ideally, I’d take both massive bookshelves on holiday with me somewhere Nietzschean; somewhere in the Alps say, and I’d be cut off from social media, and I’d spend all day reading, and in the evening talking and drinking beer with friends (of whom, I haven’t any) and my wife. In order to finish the project, I’d have to live till I was 130. Then I’d die, and on my gravestone, they’d write: he read every book on every shelf, bless his poor, deluded heart.

The last two books I bought were … well, it doesn't matter. The point is, I bought them on EBay. Bought them! When I've already got a thousand of the things in my house!

So my interests keep spreading in a pathological sense. Tragic, because other than the perfect bookcase, I don’t have a reading-plan for my life. Or any kind of plan. I’m like everyone else out there, making it up as I go along. The bookshelves don’t even provide a rudder.

Ideally, I should clear all the books out of my house (and all the DVD's, my other moronic obsession) and give them to charity. Dangle them in front of some other sucker, identical to myself, only younger and more gullible.

I started out on something like that the other week. I donated ten or so paperbacks to the local Hospice shop. Amongst them, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. A great feeling of liberation. Then I went back about a week later, and I immediately coveted them. I had to stop myself buying them back.

Buddhism says rebirth is caused by desire. If that’s true, the aspiration to read all this stuff – or at least the reluctance to bin it – will keep bringing me back to Earth long after I’ve died. In 2096, there’ll be a new version of me, trawling the second-hand bookshops (if they still exist), or EBay or Amazon, for a paperback copy of The Authorised History of MI5. But this reincarnated me (if he/ she is really ‘me’ in any way whatsoever) will have added new books to his or her to-read list. Reborn and reborn, chasing the same old pointless ghosts ad infinitum. Never remotely improving, a kind of low-budget Sisyphus.

My God. I've got to do something.

Still, maybe it’s not all bad. Imagine if, instead of books, it had been rocks, or stamps, or Beanie Babies.

Beanie Babies.

Now there’s something you never see in National Trust properties.

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