I have a problem and I just can’t make up my mind what I should do about it. It is all about books. They are wonderful things and I have always surrounded myself with them but, as time goes on, the numbers just keep growing so that now, I feel like Goethe’s Faust, at the begining of the play, when he looks at his library and realizes that even in a long life there just isn’t time to read everything, let alone re-read anything. There was a psychological crisis amongst would-be intellectuals in the 18th Century when they realized that, for the first time, there were more books being written and printed than there was time to read them. Goethe caught that mood powerfully in his play about an old philosopher who signs a pact with the devil for a bit more fun.
In the play, Mephistopheles, a rather elegant Satan, offers Faust anything he wants in the World in exchange for his soul. Fortunately I have had no such visitation yet, as far as I know, but I am sorely tempted to do something drastic to stop myself from being overwhelmed by books.
I am lucky enough to live in a small, I repeat, small, perfectly proportioned Georgian house in the small and equally perfectly proportioned town of Lewes in Southern England. It is the most intellectual and middle-class town I have ever lived in but I am not alone in struggling with the conflict between intellectual life and small Georgian town houses. you only have to visit anyone round here and you are walking into a book emporium where the books have taken over the asylum and where every available space is groaning under much loved but not always well-read volumes on many subjects.
When I moved here, from a much larger house, I began what I thought would be my final big clear-out of the books that I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading or had meant to read. This was a painful experience but it did not cure a problem that has carried on growing.
I have decided that the house is too pretty to be stacked high in dusty paperbacks so a new cull is about to begin.
The trouble is, just as our present government is thinking, it is difficult to decide where to cut. I thought I would ask some of my intellectual friends but this was a grave mistake – they were worse than me and they weren’t even apologetic about their sins. I really need that Mephistopheles guy to come along with a tempting offer but, if any of you out there have an opinion, I would welcome your advice.
I will keep all those reference books which cannot be duplicated on-line and I will never part with my complete set of the Arden editions of Shakespeare or my poetry collection and I will continue to pour over art books which are, after all, the thinking man’s pornography. I will also probably hang onto old recorded music catalogues and my bound editions of Opera Magazine which go back to my days as a schoolboy opera freak but the cuts have to fall somewhere. But where?
My plan, so far, is to ditch paperback fiction. I should dispose of novels as I read them as I am very unlikely to read them again. I won’t be able to give away, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley or Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havanna because they are three of the books that most inspired me to become a writer and I need to thumb through them occasionally for re-inspiration. Otherwise, if I need to re-read, say, Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations, then I should go and buy a cheap paperback or, most radical of radical thoughts, borrow one from the library. I could even, one day, invest in an iPad and read electronically and save the space just as most of my favourite non-classical CDs have now gone into the loft because they are all efficiently downloaded onto my ipod.