Culling the Library, Part I

What stays? What goes? How do you decide?

Do you go with sentimental value, or the ones you are most likely to open again?

The first day of what might well have been the last major move of my entire life began with my book collection. My second-floor large office, which had three sides of floor to ceiling bookshelves, in addition to two attic storage rooms, six bookcases apiece, plus three bookcases downstairs, was daunting. So many pages, some going back to the first days I could read, some I had bought days previous: emotional bookends of a life nearing the end of its sixth decade.

And, in the filing cabinet, my diaries: the rather disturbing evidence of 40 years plus, showing that despite all these words, all the pages I had consumed, I had still learned next to nothing. I still choose the wrong men and cried over the ones I couldn’t have. I continued to worry unnecessarily about the small stuff and the potentially big stuff – my health. I had the same anxiety over money and was far too trusting of too many people.

As I stood before these towers of life experience and advice, what, I wondered, was the point of it all, if I was still essentially the same creature I was the moment the first hard covers were placed between my tiny hands? Blimey – and I hadn’t even started on the ‘A’ section yet.

The cull foreplay was anxiety inducing. I knew there was no point in keeping my ‘A’ Level and university textbooks, but as I looked along the shelves they still had meaning, if no longer any value in terms of passing exams. Blake – gosh, I hated Blake, but Gwyn Ingli James, who lectured on the poet at Cardiff University, was an inspired and inspiring teacher. I could have married Blake when I left Professor James’s lectures, but then I had to read the stuff. Instant divorce.

Would it be sacrilege to dispense with the Shakespeare textbooks? Terry Hawkes, another inspiring lecturer at university, was apparently brilliant, but someone who was to be feared because he was a ‘Structuralist’  (Yegods! A word uttered in hushed, sinister tones, to newcomers in 1977 – a bit like people declaring themselves members of Antifa today).

Norman Schwenk, John Peck, Martin Coyle, Peter Garside, John Freeman – all of these lecturers were linked to the books and, over 40 years after I went to university, they were still so strong in my memory. To throw away the books would be like throwing away that part of my life – and their contribution – wouldn’t it?

But I had to make a start somewhere and so, I began to work through the cull alphabetically beginning, obviously, with ‘A’ which, on my top shelf, had Welsh writer Dannie Abse in pride of place.

Oh, God. Well, obviously I couldn’t throw away all my Dannie Abse because he was a countryman. Not only was he one of the greatest Welsh writers of all time, he was a lovely man. I once had dinner with him in the Groucho Club in London, and the hot soup caused a blister at the back of my throat. I went into panic mode, convinced I was going to choke to death, but Dannie, being a doctor as well as a writer, calmly told me to breathe and not panic. When my blister subsided, I remember flirting with him outrageously. I think that was the moment he went into panic mode.

I recalled another moment when, at the 2008 Welsh Book of the Year awards, Dannie was shortlisted for his memoir, The Presence, about his wife of 54 years, Joan, who died in a crash in the car in which Dannie was driving (Dannie told a friend he wished he had died). At the awards ceremony, Heritage Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas misread the card and announced runner-up Tom Bullough as the winner.

It was a dreadfully embarrassing moment, and Bullough, on his way to the stage when the mistake was rectified over the microphone, left. I always thought it a credit to Dannie that he said he wished they had just left it as it was.

So no: all the Abse had to stay.

Next on the shelf was Kathy Acker (whatever happened to her, I wondered – then remembered that she died). Dave Allen (easy cull: never found him funny); Woody Allen (we know what happened to him); and a whole pile of Amises, senior and junior, all of whom I was happy to leave where they were. Not because I didn’t enjoy them at the time, but because I knew I’d never touch them again. I did, however, keep Erix Lax’s biography of Woody Allen, which I have never read, 25 years after buying it. Still, there was a bookmark at page 60, so I know I made the effort. What distracted me, I wonder?

You see, that’s another thing I discovered: so many bookmarks in tomes I began and then left. Why? What story took me away from the printed one? Real life? Page 60, by the way, bangs on about Woody’s clarinet playing and when he went to New Orleanszzzzzzzzzzz. Yep. I get it now.

After dispensing with the Amises, I discovered that I had wrongly catalogued Al Alvarez’s Night, placing it after Martin Amis’s Money. I first came across Al (who died in 2019) after reading The Savage God, his book about suicide, which I enjoyed (I use the word loosely) when I was going through my Sylvia Plath phase at university.

Now, here’s a weird thing: The Savage God had totally disappeared from my collection. It should have been in the section that also housed (among others) Suicides (Jean Baechler) and Depression (Dorothy Rowe). That was not a cheerful shelf, and I threw away the lot, like a pile of once potentially harmful razor blades, now rusty and serving no purpose. A.J. Ayer had mysteriously disappeared, too, though I remember he was once married to Nigella Lawson’s mother.

It took me hours to reach the B section – Julian Barnes, Saul Bellow, Alan Bennett and William Boyd. So many decisions, but they all survived the cull.

They were on a shelf competing with Samuel Beckett.

And Blake.