by Ruth Austin
“And I too have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.”
“I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.”
— Linda Grant
It was with interest, and empathy, that I read Linda Grant’s essay I Murdered My Library. She uses her move to a smaller apartment, and the traumatic experience of culling her books, to discuss the various roles books fulfill in our lives and the way that’s changing. It’s published as a Kindle Single but you can also read a condensed version on the Guardian website. It’s funny and thought-provoking and I can’t recommend it enough.
The essay struck a chord with me for several reasons, the primary one being that I recently undertook a grand move of my own: I have moved countries. We were lucky enough to have the logistics for shipping our belongings arranged and paid for with very little bother. But even so there was a tension between how much we could take. And how much we should take.
Our books have always felt like an embarrassment of riches. P and I have been living together for more than nine years now. Our collection has sprouted, and into something unrecognizable from those early days. Sure, we’ve pruned it back with every flat move; hulking boxes around in a hired car in London isn’t much fun, after all . . . but then temptation . . . Fresh shoots would pop up and we’d end up back where we started: with an overgrown paper jungle.
We bought bookcases to try and solve the problem and, somehow, the books seldom seemed to fit into any of them. We purchased Billys from Ikea and, triple-stacked, they bowed outwards from the weight, the back panels splitting and falling off. Even the floor-to-ceiling shelves we built into fireplace alcoves of the London flat were double-stacked by the time we left.
We told ourselves: be ruthless this time. We hard-pruned, we took to our collection with a metaphorical hacksaw. And then we pruned some more. The local charity shop received over 10 boxes
. . . And then my parents asked if I wouldn’t mind coming home and sorting out my old collection before I moved. Their loft, you see, is full and I think they were afraid of being stuck with a load of my moldy old paperbacks, displaying teenage tastes to the world. Not that they're ones to talk. My parents’ books overspill any and all attempts to contain, order and shelve them, just as mine do. Library growing must be hereditary.
Anticipating that I wouldn’t be able to transport everything to London by train and tube, I hired a car and drove back to my childhood home.
Oh, it was painful. Here was a physical catalogue of my personal history, all my previous interests. Do I get rid of the anthropology books from my degree, the plays I collected when I was a teenager and dreamed of working in the theater, or the feminist literature? Does Anaïs Nin stay, or does she go to Oxfam with the already-secondhand biographies of Gandhi and Martin Luther?
I was over-invested. The books were not simply books: they had become me. I was setting off for a new life and I had to pick and choose which of myself to take and what must stay behind, in the old world. It felt as though I were cutting branches of myself, of my personality, off. Hacking myself away to nothing, one little pinkie at a time. I couldn’t bear it.
I took three boxes and a trash bag home.
We ended up bringing 12 boxes with us, 5,000 miles, to the USA.
Nine years of moving between rented flats in London had given me and Patrick a bonsai library, with the unexpected transplant from my home now rooting at its feet and it was hard enough to prune that. Linda Grant had almost 70 years to sort through; she had been growing an oak.