Street banners calling for donations to the annual City Mission book sale had us each confidently scanning our shelves for give-aways, applying a literary version of that wardrobe rule – haven’t worn it for at least two seasons? Out it goes.
But, as usual, it wasn’t that simple. Because there aren’t just two categories of books on your shelf: those you want to keep and those you don’t.
What about this almost pristine paperback copy of Henry James’s The Ambassadors? You open it, repressing memories of those other occasions you set out so blithely. But you were younger, then, more impatient, and soon baulked at the labyrinthine periphrastics, not to mention the mind-jamming double negatives. Now, with a renewed vigour born of age and wisdom, you launch yourself at page one: “Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening, he was not wholly disconcerted.”
Strether might not be, but you are. Still. Not only has James not changed, neither, it seems, have you. Dismayed, you return The Ambassadors to its time-honoured spot. Couldn’t face it before, can’t face it now, but, surely, some enchanted evening ….
Here’s The Bone People. Ground-breaking, poetic, its Booker Prize win putting contemporary New Zealand fiction on the world literary map. And yet. Titles jump out accusingly: Gravity’s Rainbow, A Brief History of Time. And still more: The Glass Bead Game, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Information, Pilgrimage, How the Mind Works.
Constant reader, we heard you gasp. What! Gave up on Gabriel Garcia Marquez – one of last century’s greats. Call yourselves editors?
And that’s the essence of this troublesome third category – books one ought to have read, or, at the very least, ought to be intending to read. It is their very absence from your inner library that, you fear, makes you less than the well-rounded reader you’d like to be.
You don’t hesitate (do you?) when it comes to Fear of Flying or anything by Alan Watts. Into the Woolworths plastic bag they go, along with Doris Lessing’s science fiction, those half-dozen memoirs of dismal Irish childhoods, and that novel you were obliged to buy at the launch (personal dedication by the author? Just rip out the fly-leaf).
The guilt level here is low to zero. Something convinces you that if you don’t like or can’t read these books, it’s not your fault. You’re confident in your disdain. The others, though, the category threes, are the undead. They will haunt you, they will move with you in boxes from one home to the next. Sometimes in the night they will creep through the house, seeking out your bedside table where they will take up resentful possession.
Until next year’s book fair, when they will compel you to pick them up, and the whole dispiriting ritual will start again.
Harry Ricketts and Jane Westaway