Our lives are marked out by milestones: birthdays and graduations, anniversaries and seasons. Chapter markers on the journey.
I find myself at one of these milestones: not a birth or death, not an age related or educational one. But a milestone of books. I’m building a library.
The time has been upon me for some time to admit defeat: books in every room, boxed in the attic, and even piled on the floor. Lockdown only exacerbated the problem as a lack fo travel unleashed the curiosity to travel through books.
So: with some extensive building works to the house, i’ve liberated a room for books. A library. Which feels like a homecoming in itself.
I’ve always had a love of books, and my first work was in a research library. To read, to write, or of course to enjoy conversations with friends, all are best done within the comforting shadow of books.
But the space itself, whilst solving one problem, presents me with another: how to organise a library.
There are naturally any number of thoughts on this: i have a friend with the most amazing collection of books arranged by colour, circling her living room. More classically trained friends insist on alphabetical, or at the very least, by subject. I hear rumours of arrangement by size, by age, or by sheer favouritism.
I favour the eclectic, but with certain rules in place.
Some collections are intact: two full shelves of Terry Pratchett, one for Ursula Le Guin.
There is a shelf of books on the moon, in which i proudly include my own book on the Apollo story: it feels like a child sitting amongst it’s wiser uncles and aunts.
There is a tension as to whether to cluster the books that i have not read, but also a fear that to aggregate them in one place would be overwhelming. Perhaps better to hide my limitations in plain sight by spreading them far and wide.
Some books i adore: my first copy of The Hobbit, won as a school art prize, or Waterlog, by Roger Deakin.
There must be a small section for books that make me cry: Just Kids, by Patti Smith, and Insomniac City, by Bill Hayes, both of which are the most beautiful tributes to love and loss.
People who have influenced my own thinking significantly can claim a shelf too: the full works of Oliver Sacks, including one of the few books i cannot bring myself to read. He wrote Gratitude at the end of his life, and somehow i cannot bear to think that i will have read everything. Instead i am comforted by it’s presence.
Some books i detest, but still own: these feel like a medicine that i need to take, but want to hide away. Perhaps they will end up by the door, in the area of deepest shade. Other books are just beautiful as artefacts in their own right, deserving to be displayed face on, rather than tucked away.
Some books are old and tattered, much read as i am a reader who can return time and again to a favourite volume (i am currently reading Swallows and Amazons to my sone, as my father read it to me).
I suspect the act of organising a library is a never ending one: books come in and out of favour, ideas cause temporary collections to form, and then disperse (a stack of books on music theory and cultural significance the remnants of research for a book that is still stuck at manuscript stage).
The final consideration is height: at two years old, my son is now a factor in the lower shelves. So do i hide those valued books away, out of sight, or do i treat his desire to touch, to feel, to play and sometimes to damage, those books as a part of their journey?
One part of owning books is to recognise transience: my first edition of The Colour Of Magic, a tatty paperback that now sheds leaves every time it’s opened, is in such a state because it’s been read ten times over three decades. Perhaps the accidental creases and tears that my son adds to the collection are the foundations of his own relationship with books. And perhaps it’s better to sacrifice a few, because the real beauty of books is not in the pages and perfection, but rather in the stories that they carry into our lives.