Last week I helped an elderly friend to clear off some of her bookshelves. There were old library catalogues, and photocopies from way back which she used when she was writing her thesis; pamphlets, booklets, transcripts of lectures, undergraduate essays…
As I watched her tackle the piles of papers, condemning at least 80% of it to the recycling bag, I thought about how bad I am at throwing out words, and decided it’s because words bind in a number of different ways.
Of course there are books I keep because of what they say: it’s the actual content of the pages that is of interest. They may be novels I’ve enjoyed and hope to find time to re-read, illustrated books I want to look at again, or reference books I think I may want to consult in the future.
Other books I never expect to read are kept because of who they were written by. I have a lot of John Le Carré novels on the shelf, and although I suspect I’ll never actually get beyond the first few pages of The Tailor of Panama, I am reluctant to throw it out as it belongs with the others which I have read and re-read. Similarly, I’d never part with Emma or Northanger Abbey, though I dislike the former and have been quite incapable of facing the latter since I read it for ‘O’ level in the early 70’s. (The copy I have is still covered in my adolescent scrawl.) Jane Austen only wrote six novels, how could I get rid of two of them?
There’s a book of statistical tables from university when the professor insisted we all used the book he had helped compile. And a fair few slim volumes that I would never have paid good money for but which I can’t bring myself to get rid of as they were given me by the writers themselves; I’m not attached to either the poems or the poets, but putting them – the books! – in the charity bag would seem disrepectful.
I have an autographed set of Tony Benn’s Diaries which I haven’t yet read, but which were given me by a good friend. Here I hold both the writer and the giver in affection, though the text itself has little to inspire me to spend weeks of my life on it.
Finally there are books that are attractive both for their content and their associations: my grandfather’s complete set of Dickens; a silver covered prayer-book that belonged to my grandmother; the Odyssey and the Illiad my mother received as school prizes; an autographed copy of the HitchHiker’s Trilogy I drove half the length of Orange County to buy.
I’ve been travelling in the UK for the last couple of weeks and am desperately trying not to acquire too many heavy additions to my luggage. So, as I watched the recycling bag fill and the charity pile grow, I was pleased at my self control: I only accepted one of my friend’s cast offs: a pamphlet edition of The Three Voices of Poetry by Eliot.
The text is fascinating – both the lecture itself and the wry humour it contains – “the testimony of poets as to what they thought they were doing when they wrote a poem cannot be taken altogether at its face value”; the pamphlet may even have a slight intrinsic value as it is one of only 7000 copies printed in 1953; and, finally, my friend’s signature appears inside the front cover.
Clearly this pamphlet has joined the final category of words that bind.