Apologies for the long period of silence. My energies have been elsewhere; I have been distracted by one of the most ambitious programmes of retrenchment since the Second World War, a programme of austerity of far greater scope than anything attempted by the Coalition. I was been attempting to reduce the number of books I own. I’m afraid to say that I failed.
Austerity has both a structural and a moral imperative. Structurally, the Keynesian solution – get another bookshelf – cannot work within the current limits. There simply isn’t any space left. The proposed ‘westward expansion’ in my room would barely be enough to relieve the pressure on a variety of cardboard boxes and the floor. Added to that, there are additional demographic pressures – the ageing generation is making noises about its willingness, or lack thereof, to continue storing my surplus books, perhaps partly in order to avoid its own austerity drive – that will mean that the overspill problem will only get worse with time. Morally, too, I am troubled by the fact that I am my house’s 1%: my books occupy 99% of the shelves.
But while the policy case for cuts is unarguable, implementation proved significantly more difficult. The first round of politically easy cutbacks, passed in the warm afterglow of that happy day in the Rose Garden, went through without a hitch. Out went the duplicates, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lovely Bones, and the collected works of Niall Ferguson. The only problem was finding a secondhand bookshop that would take the Fergusons (eventually, I took them to a charity shop). But these, relatively painless, measures did nothing to ease the pressure on the shelves, not least because I continued to buy new books.
It was no longer a question of pruning the unloved and the unread. The hard choices had to be made. Quite literally. I began to get rid of my hardbacks. Out went the compendium edition of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, out went the first edition of Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party. Biographies and memoirs were ripped from the shelves, leaving only a few traumatised and shellshocked survivors. Replacing the Regeneration trilogy with its composite elements freed up a whole extra paperback’s worth of space. I felt so pleased with myself, I went and bought a lovely Everyman Library edition of The Cairo Trilogy from The Book Haus, one of London’s nicest bookshops.
But it still wasn’t enough. People – not all of whom were me – had bought me new books. The crisis was worse than ever. It was time for drastic action. It was time to start getting rid of books I liked, but did not love. The lesser and more misogynistic Flemings,all the Ann Tylers, everything Le Carré’s written since the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything Mark Haddon has written since The Curious Incident…these and more besides were scooped into canvas bags.
A spring in my step, I headed over to what I think might be my favourite place in London, the second hand bookshop Bookmongers, and plonked my books down on the counter. I had turned the corner. I had brought the book crisis to a close.
Then they asked if I wanted cash, or store credit.
I went for the store credit.
I think I have a problem.