The Drowned and the Saved

Last weekend was pretty intense, in some ways enriching and in other ways diminishing. Let me explain.

I grew up in a family where books were considered almost sacred objects, their acquisition a source of delight, their loss a bereavement. Both my parents came from what would then have been called working class families. Books were a luxury, with maximum value obtained by passing the books around the family. No sooner had one finished a book than it was passed on to the next child. Books were important. By sharing, everyone formed an opinion that they could then discuss. Books encouraged critical debate by the same means.

My father was probably the least broadly read, focusing his reading matter on the mainly factual, perhaps a hangover from his days at Cambridge as an undergraduate medical student where the fixation on fact over fiction remained the principal legacy of his alma mater. He was after all a medical student not a classicist. If you had to remember the cranial nerves via colourful mnemonics, it’s easy to imagine that there was no time or space left to fill with Aristotle, Socrates or Plato. I remember he once read Richard Gordon’s entire output in an afternoon. Having thus slaked his thirst for materia medica, he swiftly moved on to James Herriot, perhaps reasoning that veterinary medicine was at least still medicine, if he reasoned it out at all. Being a GP in Doncaster amounted to many largely thankless hours and my enduring memory, while I was of school age, was of a man, dog tired, asleep on the sofa. Not really of a reading man.

My mother on the other hand devoured books like a paperback piranha. Her tastes leaned towards the more romantic end of literature albeit with a fondness for books involving naval officers (my father was in the Navy when she had met him). She loved the Master and Commander series. Otherwise it was Maeve Binchy and suchlike.

Why is any of this relevant? Well, last weekend my three children were here. The plan was simple – to boldly go into those reaches of the attic where unwanted items lived, where aged footballs lay among the dust of decades. Many boxes were unopened having been transferred from our previous house to the present, around 30 years ago. The children’s battlecry, “If you haven’t opened the box in 30 years, it can go!”, although entirely understandable, needed a degree of tempering by myself. Mostly the contents of the boxes were uninteresting – odd bits of electronics, long dysfunctional hi-fi, and computers using operating systems no longer used. And of course the inevitable mixture of ‘artworks’ by the children. On the whole these works of art tended to be abstract rather than strictly representational. Impressionist so to speak.

We also discovered a great many books of every conceivable genre and detail. Pulp paperbacks sat cheek by jowl with the great works of English literature. Shakespeare? Obviously. But also others less obvious. “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee, Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Hemingway’s “a Farewell to Arms”. Great books by great authors, each in its own way a pinnacle of teenage angst, a battle of art and acne.

My eldest, taking me quietly aside, explained what was to happen. “Dad” she said “we have to get rid of these books”. While she sat me down to explain, my younger daughter was tiptoeing out of the building on armfuls of my prized books.

Suddenly, a delightful revisiting of our respective childhoods, uncovering buried treasure, had taken on the air of a Nazi book burning. I called a halt once I realised the indiscriminate nature of their process. Some supervision was absolutely essential once I realised the kids made no distinction between cheap insulation paperbacks and Hemingway first editions.

Books, even under the present Tory administration, a particularly Luddite regime, are not yet to be used as fuel. But gradually I began to realise that, if we were to fulfil our mission of clearing space in the attic, a great many books had to go. Like Oscar Schindler I could only save just so many. And for every one that was drowned, I tried to save one.

There is no foolproof way of applying any selection criteria. The human decision has to take priority. So with that in mind I pronounced yea or nay, like some Roman emperor, on the fates of several hundred books. My criteria were to the outside observer, capricious. I tried to retain walks that I thought I would possibly read (Brick Lane, Rites of Passage, The Bonfire of the Vanities) whilst being unable to throw away some tomes with, how shall I put it, sentimental associations. Retained under those criteria were the entire works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, aforementioned Hemingway and a first edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I would like to say it was a job well done. But, in all honesty, I don’t know whether it was or not. A number of books made it out of the house without my explicit say-so. But I don’t really think of the books being lost. More a case of being adopted by new readers. My loss is Oxfam’s gain.