Thursday, 15 October 2015
On Collecting Books
For a while now I have called myself a collector of books. Initially this was just so I felt I had an excuse to hoard books rather than reading them and passing them straight on to the charity shops like I used to. These days though, it has become a moniker I truly embrace (much to my bank's disappointment).
Part of the reason I don't often give my books to charity any more is my memory. I have a bad memory at the best of times and when it comes to remembering what I've read it's generally much worse. It's a touch embarrassing to admit that I've often bought new books only to realise a few pages in that I'd read them previously.
For that reason, despite the odd hint from my mum to sort through my shelves, I keep my books. All of them. And that makes me happy. Looking at my bookshelves and the piles of alphabetised books they hold, calms me. I feel better knowing how many stories are within those shelves, how much history, and how much of my life.
Occasionally when I stay with my parents in Somerset, which is where the majority of my books still reside, I spend a little time communing with my bookshelves. I'll look through to see if there is anything I want to read or that I think my sister may enjoy. Mostly I just flick through books, pull them off the shelves, try and read my tiny notes in margins, read sentences, paragraphs and pages. As I do this memories flood back of where I read it, what I thought of it, and those moments that made me laugh, smile or cry.
Communing with a bookshelf is perhaps an odd thing to do and I'll be the first to admit it, but there's something about it. Once a book becomes yours it transforms into a more than just an inanimate object. It holds your thoughts, memories and experiences, and then waits for you to tune back in.
I collect books in two ways. Firstly by never letting go of them, and secondly by finding editions that grab me. On the top of my bookshelf in London I have six books that are my 'collector's editions'. All are old, all are second hand, and all are special in one way or another. Two are from the internet, one is from a market in Amsterdam, one is from an Oxfam bookshop, one is from a bookshop long since closed down, and one is from a book fair. None cost more than a tenner, but their worth to me is priceless.
A few weeks ago at a book fair in York I added a new book to my 'collector's editions' shelf: a copy of Woolf's 'A Writer's Diary' with Vanessa Bell's cover artwork. It's beautiful, it's full of wisdom, and it has been well-loved (I assume this from the newspaper clippings referring to the book and the leaflet for Monk's House tucked in the front).
I actually already own this book, in a very small paperback edition I found in a secondhand bookshop. You'd think that having a copy would stop me from buying another, but there is something about certain editions of certain works that feel so special. If this copy didn't have the clippings and leaflets in the front I doubt I would have the same attachment to it. There's something about holding a book another person has loved that fills me with joy. It's like holding a piece of someones history and grasping their hand across the boundary of years knowing that, with that book at least, you're the same.
Walking around that book fair and seeing the prices some booksellers charged for old, beautiful, loved copies made me feel quite disenchanted with the book world. The magic of books is lost to those booksellers who sell a book for £800+. Don't get me wrong, I understand that everyone has to make a living. What saddened me was that the books became merely objects again, status symbols, and something to show off. Whether it's a first edition of a Christie mystery, a play by Tom Stoppard, or a copy of Woolf's 'A Writer's Diary' with newspaper clipping tucked in the front, these books are moments of history. It is that history we should be celebrating, not how much it's worth financially.
Being a collector of books is more than having infinite funds to buy and possess all the books you want. It is understanding the true power of a book and wanting to be a part of it. It is communing with bookshelves and seeing the whole life you've already lived laid out before you and knowing that there is still yet more to come. It is reading secondhand and feeling the glimmer of a connection with the previous reader. It is loving books for what they are: words, dreams, stories, histories.
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