Cohabiting libraries, Jane Westaway

Wellington writer Jane Westaway on sharing the shelves

After a gap of 10 years, I am again living in sin, and the biggest, most dismaying aspect of this sin has been disposing of at least two-thirds of my life-time book collection. It feels just plain wrong. Like hacking your own arm off. And someone else’s.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. His profile advised that, while he wasn’t much bothered about walks on the beach at sunset, he was an avid reader whose ambition was to finish all the books he owned before he died. The Writer had long gone, taking his disorderly shelves with him; I was ready for the Reader.

It took us six years to get around to sharing an address, and in that time neither of us halted our rate of acquisition. He scoured Book Depository for hours at a time, browsed Unity Books, and wrote lists. I read overseas reviews, picked up recommendations from friends, and reviewed (you get to keep the book). By the time we made the move, we owned around 2000 volumes between us. 

Before this, we’d each lived in a three-bedroom house with plenty of room for shelves and their contents. Now, we were faced with compressing ourselves and our possessions into a 70-square-metre, two-bedroom apartment. (Oh, and did I mention that the Reader is also a pianist and that we also had to find room for his Bechstein?)  

Phase One began for me a couple of weeks before my first open home. It was challenging, running my eye along the shelves and pulling out odd volumes, stowing them in cartons for the Hospice Shop. In retrospect, it was like the earliest stage of labour – a mere twinge, eventually eclipsed by the agony and panic that was to follow. But, boy, did I feel virtuous, knowing that de-cluttering is right up there with brewing coffee and baking bread when showing off a house. 

Three weeks later, Phase Two. The house was sold, and I must get out within a fortnight. Another painful bleed, another few dozen books gone. Most, up to now, were review fiction whose authors and what they had to say now meant nothing to me. I blushed at the effusive gratitude of the local Hospice Shop volunteers – I was using them as a convenient dumping ground. 

Second to the unmemorable fiction was a carton of art books. Most were lovely, but they were also over-sized and hard to store, and I had no idea when I or anyone else had last opened them. A proper second-hand shop paid me for these. Not much, but it was real money. My sense of virtue was, however, somewhat tainted by the transaction. It was like selling your blood.

The balance – 21 almost immoveable cartons – went into storage, and I rested easy. I had done my bit. 

I saw the new place first, and took the Reader back the second time. He liked it. And almost immediately we began discussing where – indeed, how – we would accommodate the books. The agent – young, in pointy shoes – listened until he could no longer contain his bewilderment. 

“What are all the books for?” he asked. “Are they text books?”

“Oh no,” one or other of us assured him. “They’re just … you know, books.”

“You mean, for reading?”

Now we were all baffled. The Reader and I moved on to discuss the shortcomings of the kitchen. 

Months later, the stacked cartons from both houses formed a literary Berlin Wall between the new hall and sitting-room. The Reader had suffered his own whittling process and added 18 cartons to my 21. We moved around the Wall, and used its flat surfaces as a tool bench, an ironing board, a coat rack and much more. I began to think we couldn’t live without it. Only occasionally, coming in from the kitchen with a reviving gin and tonic, would one or other of us see anew through the Wall’s banal exterior to the predicament that lay within.  

The nadir of the book-shedding experience arrived with the new shelves which two beefy blokes manoeuvred into our confined space. The Reader spent considerable time, thought and energy (and several trips to Bunnings) fixing them to the wall so they wouldn’t kill us in a quake, and then the full horror dawned on us. We had to get rid of least 50 per cent of the Wall’s boxes. 

Thus, the rules of engagement changed. Before, it had been “books I don’t much value can go.” Phase Three had to be “books I can’t bear to live without and the rest must go.” It’s painful to write about. 

I can’t speak for the Reader’s decision-making process, but this was mine. Out went anything – fictional or otherwise – that I could get from the library or Kindle, or whose information I could find online. That included – brace yourself: 

  • New Zealand fiction (apart from a few firm favourites); 
  • classics old and less old; 
  • books I should read but still hadn’t and probably never would; 
  • general history (“just one fucking thing after another”, to quote an Alan Bennett character); 
  • how-to-write books that made any mention whatsoever of the right brain; 
  • obscure non-fiction I once thought might amount to research for a novel but turned out to be too boring to read; 
  • anything “spiritual” except Richard Holloway; and 
  • many more whose departure hurt to the extent that I’ve now obliterated their memory. 

The smart reader will already have intuited the nature of Phase Four – the blending (or otherwise) of the two collections, and the inevitable paranoia as we filled the shelves: “Why’s he keeping that! If he chucked it, I could keep this.”

The upshot of several tense days punctuated by robust (largely forgiven) exchanges was that I snared the long low shelves for memoir and biography. The smaller floor-to-ceiling shelves were for combined fiction (alleluia for double-ups, although it meant a late night for the Reader when he insisted on immediate alphabetisation); the larger bookcase for odds and sods of mine (essays, literary criticism, the Pike River Mine tragedy, Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore), but mainly for sections previously foreign to me – music, religion and war history. 

I wouldn’t say we’re happy with what’s left and how we arranged it, but we are resigned. The last loads were driven off to another charity shop (we were too embarrassed to return to the same Hospice Shop), and the friendly second-hand dealer shelled out another few hundred dollars for the good ones. The profit paid for a new linen bedspread with matching pillowcases. They’re very nice and I sleep more or less soundly. Just don’t ask if I’d rather have the books. 

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