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The clearing of my parents’ home has made me think about the importance, even centrality of books to the house’s life and soul. It may sound trite, but the house, and our lives in it, would not have been the same without books. The force of the statement comes home to me (in a rather unhomely way) as I see what happens when shelves are emptied. The rooms suddenly look diminished, denuded, uncomfortably bare.
Books Do Furnish a Room is the oddly memorable title of one of the volumes in Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a sequence of novels about the goings-on among a group of toffs, literati and others before and after the second world war. The statement (made in the novel by a character called Bagshaw, the editor of a post-war literary journal) has an undertone of surprise: how can books furnish a room, when they have no obviously practical value, in the way that chairs and tables and sofas and curtains do?
I always rather took it for granted that books furnished a room. The only rooms in our house without books were the dining-room and the bathrooms. Otherwise there were books everywhere: in all the bedrooms (and one of the pleasures of sleeping in different bedrooms was finding books I hadn’t seen for decades, like old friends), in the drawing-room – where the books seemed more formal and unapproachable – and in the piano room-cum-office which became my parents’ comfortable winter snuggery.
There were the hardback collections of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and the slightly less daunting ones of Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, John Buchan and Dornford Yates, those thriller writers who combined menace with a touch of debonair class. There were black leather editions of the complete poems of William Wordsworth and Alfred Lord Tennyson, with gilded leaves, which looked as if they had been awarded as school prizes or given as improving Christmas presents by elderly grandparents (and had).
More popular paperbacks lurked in the upstairs bedrooms, out of view I suppose of guests, whom one wanted to impress with high culture; Raymond Chandler (whose west-coast private investigator novels, the essence of hard-boiled poetry, I devoured one long summer holiday), Agatha Christie, and even a collection of novels featuring dashing Regency bucks by Georgette Heyer which my father deplored.
Back downstairs, hefty hardback collections of diaries and letters, by Harold Nicolson, Virginia Woolf, and more recently Alan Clark, rubbed shoulders with political biographies and tracts on the condition of Britain by Anthony Sampson. Then there were art books, city guides, and the full collection of Pevsner’s Buildings of England in their black covers: squat, full to the brim with information, not a word wasted.
I couldn’t help feeling that books were rather like people: some more formal and off-putting, others more racy; some simply for show, others with unpromising outsides but rich interiors. They did more, in fact, than furnish a room; they were companions who could offer insights, good advice, or just reliable escapism, as one went through the stages of life.
Now the books are being dispersed (not all, to be sure, but very many), and I fear for their future, almost as if they were refugees. “Habent sua fata libelli” (“books have their destinies”) goes the old Latin saying: as originally written by Terentianus, it meant that the fate and future of books were determined by the capability of the reader. But the meaning of the phrase has been distorted by time and is now associated with the physical fate of particular books, how they have passed from owner to owner. This is how Walter Benjamin read the saying when he wrote his essay “Unpacking My Library”, which analyses the extraordinarily intimate relationship between a collector and his or her books.
As I dispose of the books – many are going to charity shops and I hope they will find good homes – I can’t help wondering if my generation is the last that will oversee such a process. Books are dematerialising, as more and more are bought in electronic form and exist only as bytes of information on Kindles or other devices. Does this matter? Could books become more spiritual, as they lose their physicality?
Certainly it is more difficult to maintain class distinctions, or even the more arbitrary distinction between hardback and paperback, in the weightless world of the Kindle. But I can’t imagine anyone in this new world feeling about their books in quite the same way that I have felt over the years about the books at Coleshill, or in the way Walter Benjamin did when he looked at the original label in a book first bought in Paris in the 1830s and reflected on the “fine age in which it was still possible to buy such a de luxe edition at a stationery dealer’s”.
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