Sunday, 24 May 2015

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

I have this recurring nightmare where I am moving from one student house to another. There have been many different versions of this dream, but these three components that are more or less fixed

  1. The people who are moving in arrive and I haven’t packed a thing. 
  2. I am in my pyjamas. 
  3. In the ensuing chaos, I am forced to leave behind all of my belongings including, devastatingly, my books.
A person who has also had this nightmare is Linda Grant only for her it was real life. Okay, so the part about the pyjamas probably didn’t happen to her, and she didn’t have to abandon all  her belongings. She did have to get rid of loads of her books though and losing the books is basically the worst bit of the dream.

It's gotten to the point that I can't sit about in my pj's
without expecting removal men to turn up.   

Linda Grant lived my nightmare when she moved from a massive flat with plenty of space for books to a much smaller one with hardly any space for the library she’d spent her entire life building up. The move forced her to cull her collection and she found the experience so traumatic that she wrote an essay about it. I Murdered My Library is available as a kindle single, which I read the other week in a cold sweat.
Grant tells us how her Library began, as a few books between plastic bookends in her bedroom. As her collection grows she associates key moments of her life with books, as if the pages could tell us the story of her life as easily as the story originally written on them. This is something anyone who has lived their life with books will relate to. If I wanted to tell you what my world was like as a child I’d do it with books, I’d tell you about the copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase I found in my school library. The pages were falling out and I had to crawl under the shelves to find the ones that were missing, when I stole the copy after I stuck the pages back in I saw it more as a liberation than a crime.

These aren't my books or Linda Grant's, but this is probably what it looks
like when books go unchecked so take it as a cautionary tale anyway. 
At some point after the books have followed Grant from her childhood bedroom to her grotty student digs and eventually nice London flat, they begin to take over. Books fill the shelves and spill out into the flat, squeezing themselves into every available space until there is no room for anything else. I can relate to that feeling of drowning in books as well, when I was moving from house to house as a student I once had to put my things in storage, I had six boxes of belongings and three suitcases full of clothes, four of the boxes were full of books. Those boxes were bloody heavy. When I got the books into my new house I threatened a cull of my own, putting all the unread textbooks from my first year onto a ‘review’ self while I decided if I still needed them. Three moves on, I still have everyone.
This is what Linda Grant thinks
young people's bookcases look like.

In the later part of the essay, Grant relates the fate of her library with the fate of books in general. She mulls over her relationship to her kindle, mourns the death of her local bookshop and decides that younger generation have no interest in books. After the cull is over she says, “It is death that we’re talking about. Death is the subject. The death of the book.” And it’s here that I start to disagree with Linda Grant. The death of the book is this thing that I keep hearing about but don’t believe is happening. I think the book is changing, what we are seeing is the separation of the book as object and book as a tool for mass communication. E-books are better at spreading stories instantly and affordably, which is sort of the most important thing. As Grant says “What matters most is not the paper or the cover or the binding or the smell of the ink but the words.”. That doesn’t mean the book will die though, I think this separation will liberate the book as an object, allowing it to become a beautiful and valuable artefact. When the book is an artefact we can fill our shelves with limited edition hardbacks of the books we love the best and relegate 50 Shades of Grey to our e-readers where it belongs.

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