What should I do with my books?
By Steph Wescott
When I moved out of home as a university student my collection of books was insignificant in scope. I was inhibited both spatially and economically and my repertoire consisted mostly of things I had to buy and read for university and books I’d read throughout high school and kept. Some preserved out of adoration (like ‘To kill a mockingbird’, the same copy I used to teach to my own students, guided by my own year 11 English teacher’s insights dutifully copied onto its pages), others out of confusion and apathy, like Maureen McCarthy’s ‘When you wake and find me gone’, the cover of which propels me straight back into my year 10 English classroom watching my teacher splutter and panic through each chapter, the pressures of its heftiness and the impending term’s end presenting in the capillaries on his cheeks.
My first out-of-home home was a warehouse conversion on the corner of Chapel Street and Union Road in Windsor. Wholly impractical, with a small door cut out of a roller door as an entry from a dirty, dingy alleyway, we had a vast living, dining and kitchen space that we kept sparse to enhance its space, and my small collection was relegated to a sunroom upstairs. It was quaint and hot up there. Stifling, actually. Several covers faded and wilted in the unbearable heat. Once orange Penguin Classics yellowed and Gemmell’s classic ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ paled from its impassioned red to an ambiguous version of pink.
There, nestled within a steel A-frame I bought off Ebay, my collection grew. I continued my English major and took subjects that would lead me to discover my favourite writers. My collection swelled under the weight of Everything I Had to Read. I bought bits and pieces from ‘The Canon’, made lists from ‘Arbitrary number of books every woman has to read’ articles, and discovered the immense perks of the Book Depository and the second-hand bookstore beside Canterbury station. My collection became a source of pride. It served as a symbol of my growing sense of my intellectual identity. I fell for the artifice of desiring a book collection that housed recognisable measures of academic status; books I would neither enjoy nor actually attempt, most of the time.
Eighteen months later, we graduated to a solid, 1950s brick home in Melbourne’s green inner east. There, in the second of two bedrooms, my partner bought and assembled a big, white IKEA Billy for my twenty-fifth birthday. A rite of passage, no less. It wasn’t entirely full, but I vowed it soon would be. I landed my first teaching job at that stage too, and spent a lot of time in that room, my pine trestle desk facing a large window with a view of a decades-old vine that had entirely covered the fence. Behind me stood my Billy. Proudly, I amassed new editions, but in my first year of teaching found only scarce snippets of time in which to read. Mostly, I was too exhausted from the insurmountable learning trajectory I was on and the emotional and cognitive demands of the work. Visitors would admire my little study, its pleasant, unchanging view, the Billy, quickly filling, serving as an affirmation of my legitimacy as an English teacher, an accomplished reader, an intellectual.
A few weeks ago my partner colour-blocked my bookshelf. Devastating. Strange. A symbol of our clash of personality and preference. At first its orderliness was confronting. My books were not only arranged by colour but also by size, an affront to my preference for a relaxed kind of a chaos; a chaos that nonetheless ensures any desired book is locatable. I’ve sabotaged since. New acquisitions have been placed atop formerly orderly rows. I refuse the binds of this refined organisation, crave rebellion against it. But, amongst all this, I have begun to consider the place of my sizeable collection in my home. At this moment, we are renovating a place by the beach in bayside Melbourne, converting it from a confused amalgam of late 1990s bland décor tastes and its original 1970s form to a contemporary space. Its completed fragments are sparse and modern. All neutrals–whites, timber, grey. In a style obedient to contemporary minimalist trends, you’d be forgiven for thinking nobody actually lives here.
My books sit on their colour-blocked, mildly sabotaged shelves in a room not yet completed. The Billy endures, stoic and loyal. The room’s floors are paint-stained and damp in places, patiently waiting to be carpeted. The space will eventually become a bedroom prepped and primed for sale in which my books will have no place. Which has made me think, what is their purpose once they have been read and enjoyed?
Recently, in an attempt to declutter and simplify our lives, we have donated much of what we no longer need to charity. Our pledge to own and consume nothing more than what is absolutely necessary is both altruistic and practical. It is better for our planet to live simply and it is better for my wellbeing if my home is simple and uncluttered. Additionally, it is easier to pack and move home if you can do so lightly. Hence, we can become more transient and less bunkered down by stuff. And yet, in staunch opposition to this philosophy sit my books on their colour-blocked shelves.
They are, in a way, a map of my intellectual journey. Ideas that bloomed in one text and led me to another, favourite authors of my own favourite authors, books that served as remedies I needed at particular stages in my life. They are not just a collection of conquered texts, but a story of where my mind has been; what is has needed. And, one of the greatest pleasures of a vast collection of books is recommending and lending to others. Their purpose becomes not just my own fulfilment, but that of another’s. I love prescribing the precise thing that someone might need to read at that time, like a practitioner dealing only in text.
I question my motives for holding onto my collection so tightly. Am I under the impression that it gives me intellectual gravitas? Is it a net of safety–proof that I have earned my place in the world, like the letters after my name? I consider my life without them, and feel immediately lighter, but also sadder, and frightened by the potential that one day, I might want to read one, or lend it to someone, and it will no longer be mine to reach for. My collection is simultaneously my proudest possession, but also a great weight. A burden, almost.
I resolve not to make any immediate decisions. Suggestions from friends include culling only those I will never read, or keeping a small, curated collection. For now, my eclectic, sentimental assemblage will remain safely nestled (colour-blocked, mildly sabotaged) in the Billy, in the ambiguously purposed room with paint-splattered floors.