Carla has been having a bit of a New Year clear-out — albeit one which started last August, and which is NOT going particularly well...
Although I am a member of the New Year: Stay Home tribe, I enter a new year with respect. I choose a rare and irreplaceable bottle of wine, I prepare a perfect fillet of venison and celeriac gratin and lay a table for two in front of the fire. This year — no trains, no nurses, no post, no ambulances and a bad war — I think, but don’t say, that a general anaesthetic might have been a better choice than Paulliac.
And so the year begins. The sheep welcome me as their Angel of the Bales (hay) and Buckets (ewe nuts). The chickens and turkeys no longer try to escape their wired world when I arrive with their oats and corn. Once a Palais des Poulets, their prison is now called ‘Love in the Ruins’. In Walker Percy’s book of that title, a doctor creates a miraculous instrument, an ‘ontological lapsometer’, a kind of stethoscope of the human spirit. The doctor plans to use it to cure mankind’s spiritual flu and save the world from destruction. A cure for bird flu, a cure for spiritual flu — how do we get there?
Accepting the uncontrollable vagaries of time and change enabled me to stop making New Year resolutions a few decades ago. Instead, I undertake what I call ‘The Clearances’. Some years, it’s simply taking the bottles to the glass recycling next to the grain store. I stack newspapers filled with articles on how to achieve balance, strength and weight loss in the paper skip. I don’t believe these little acts will save the planet, but they treat the symptoms of spiritual flu when no cure is in sight.
This year, the new-year mission began back in August, when we read Giles Coren’s column ‘Bin those books, your children will thank you’. It was like an O. Henry short story: I read it online and printed it out for my husband. He read the print edition and tore it out for his wife (me). Although the books on our shelves have never intermarried (‘That’s mine!’), we share nuggets of truth. Mr Coren’s bibliocide message inspired rare complicity. We agreed to bin our books, which really means: ‘Edit your one and precious life. Prepare for Judgement Day. Do it Now.’ And, five months later, as 2023 crept in, we began.
“The words ‘book grief’ struck at my heart”
Recommended videos for you
In fact, we aren’t motivated by the afterlife gratitude of our son and daughter-in-law. We are more troubled by the idea that they will simply load the thousands of books into the John Deere tractor and trailer and dump the load at an Oxfam warehouse. Or, if there is a red-diesel shortage, dump the books into the pit on a field, together with rotten bales and centuries of agricultural debris.
Our fears have roots. We inherited an ancestral library of hefty volumes on field sports, cricket, farming in Argentina, flower arranging, lives of Field Marshal Haig. With no tender regret, we sold the lot to a specialist bookseller from Aldeburgh (they still existed back then). We cleared the attic, but, alas, we did not clear the shelves in the rooms where our own books live.
Now, almost all the second-hand bookshops have closed (except for Oxfam). There is still a wonderful book stall in the market square in Cambridge, but they don’t want paperbacks, modern fiction, crime or Habitat coffee-table books. They prefer cookbooks published in 1895 to ones published in 1995 and encyclopaedias, text books and Bibles have no future.
The ‘P’ word is often heard. One of the large second-hand booksellers in America, Wonder Books, pulps ‘damaged’ books, producing 100,000lb a month of recycled paper. I don’t dare ask what Oxfam does with its unsellable books. Are the unwanted tomes sent to Rwanda? Are volumes of The Da Vinci Code sent to countries ravaged by climate change? Do the starving and homeless read old Lonely Planet guides by candlelight, using Gone With the Wind for firewood? And here’s a spoiler alert: hardback books can’t be recycled — glued bindings contaminate rivers. It seems that books aren’t good for the earth.
Do we blame Amazon, which made it easier to acquire books than to go to the local library? Or (mea culpa), blame IKEA and the Billy bookshelves? Or do we just accept the security and comfort in the volumes, read and unread, that furnish our lives?
So it was that Epiphany began at Wyken Hall with a stack of black boxes from Anglia Produce. Strong enough to transport swedes, turnips and beetroots, they are now filled with His and Her books. Despite a long and happy marriage, our library is ‘Separate but Equal’ and we conduct our bound farewells accordingly. We plan for the boxes to reside in the old farm workshop and emerge on sunny days at the farmers’ market to be sold. Proceeds may be meagre, but they will go to the Ixworth Library in the neighbouring village.
When I had filled five boxes (goodbye John Updike, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Robert Lowell), I made myself a mug of coffee and retrieved the FT Weekend from the recycling pile. I began to read an interview with Annie Proulx (rhymes with ‘new’). She described her recent move from the Pacific Northwest, where she’d developed an allergy to western red cedar, to New Hampshire in New England. She says that the hardest part of her move was ‘winnowing down’ her beloved library because she could not afford the third moving truck taking the books would have required. ‘I thought I could do without them’, but when she got to her new home and unpacked, she realised ‘the enormity of what I had done. I was filled with book grief’.
The words ‘book grief’ struck at my heart. Without a lapsometer to cure my ‘spiritual flu’, the thought of adding ‘book grief’ to my list of sorrows makes me feel crazy. I’ve just spent a desolate hour looking for my old copy of Love in the Ruins. I fear the new year is passing me by.