One thing about books…

A couple of weeks ago Deborah raised a question that I’ve been asking in various ways, most of my life, “how and why do we outgrow books?” More specifically for me, how do I decide when a book has been outgrown?

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In theory, the answer’s easy. Once I learned to read, surely there was no reason for keeping those early readers, the Jane and John stories, or my beginner Ladybird books. Certainly the ones with only a single word on the page were handed on, if they survived.

Books, for me, have always been valuable but portable entertainment. They’ve shared my adventures, and often returned home looking as untidy as I did.

It’s not that I’m generally a hard reader. I try not to break the spines, I’ve never folded corners and always use bookmarks. But still, it’s usually easy to see they’ve been in my possession.

From the beginning, this created a problem. Tattered volumes are not really suitable for offering to another reader, and I knew instinctively that destroying books was wrong. So, the titles I’ve kept finding space for have often been sorry specimens.

Perhaps I could do that still fashionable thing, and blame my parents. If only they’d been stricter, insisting on my discarding things, rather than allowing me to develop what may be (at base) a sentimental attachment to specific objects. It’s lovely being able to hand over responsibility in that way.

Except, there’s a little voice squeaking away with a bothersome question: ‘So, at what age did you become a grown-up, and take responsibility for your own actions?’

Ssh, you contrary other-self. Don’t open that can of worms, it’s far too complicated for a few hundred words on a weekly post.

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Instead, I’ll look for another beginning. Perhaps I’ve been driven by my desire to own a library. I think that came in early. Maybe I was born with it. I’m certain I never experienced a private library in the family, or amongst our friends, so where did that idea come from?

Later I read of them in historical novels, but my ambition had been fixed long before that. Was it those old films, repeated on Saturday afternoon tv throughout my childhood years, that seeded an image in my head? I frittered away many of my school age Saturdays watching the kind of period dramas that featured aristocrats and eccentrics drifting in and out of beautiful private libraries. I think Rex Harrison had one, in Dr Dolittle, and again in My Fair Lady.

Aspiration is a wonderful thing, and for a while I did base my collection around a matching set of religious books I’d been given by my grandfather. They looked so charming, and neat, with their black spines and gold lettering. Perhaps it was because they looked so perfect I didn’t open them.

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I owned them for years. Then, one day I had to move house and realised that they no longer belonged. I passed them on.

I’d outgrown an idea of symmetry. I no longer wanted to inhabit the kind of library seen in stately homes. I wanted my shelves to be eclectic, fluid spaces, where ideas could lie in ambush. Many of them would be old, perhaps dated, waiting for a moment when I might want to turn to them again.

Some I’d read once, and be sure I’d never want to do that again. But I’ve stopped being certain that I’ve outgrown anything. Life this year has demonstrated, for me, the error of that. In recent months I’ve returned, for comfort, to some of the light thrillers I thought I’d left behind.

I was lucky, having recently had a box full of them passed on to me by a friend. My own copies had been discarded. So, now I’ve developed a ‘holding’ space, a shelf where I stack books that might deserve a second chance.

I’m sorry, Deborah, it seems I’m unable to answer your question. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown any of my books. Even those matching religious volumes were never really given up, as I’ve got at least three bibles which contain the same stories in a much more economical form.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind, one of these days. But for now, I pass that question along: ‘How and why do we outgrow books?’

If you discover the answer, I hope you’ll share it with me.

45 thoughts on “One thing about books…

  1. Books as a comfort blanket, yes, the notion of a personal ‘library’ you mention, that too. And not just any books, specific books, books that reflect the ‘you’ that you are now, which also houses some of the ‘yous’ whom you used to be. But we change, don’t we, we all change, sloughing skins of obsessions and tastes and likes and hates, and personal libraries need to parallel that. A lovely response, thank, Cath.

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  2. What a wonderful surprise! Oh, how different our stories and relationships with books will be, or not! For your post presses itself deep into childhood days of taking shelter in my local library … where books from the very beginning, quickly became my friends and the wisest of counsel … offering me not only life but light beyond four dark walls.

    Hmm, I hadn’t thought about how I’d been unconsciously carrying the image of having my very own library before but somehow the stirring up of these memories this morning as I type ring true. Fascinating! So thank you so much Cath for helping me find an answer I wasn’t even looking for, well consciously at least!

    And what you write about when you say that you’ve replaced books with different ones yet they still carry the same story as the ones you let go also rings true … as I feel like I’ve been writing the same poem all my life … and on my shelves I can see now many a modern day myth, especially those Odyssean ones!

    I’ve probably let over a thousand books go to new homes, never the bin I hasten to add! Why? Usually because I sense that there’s nothing more for me to get out of them. Like friends, some stay only for a season, some, for a reason or others for life …

    And then there’s some that I have to buy again and again because I’m not quite done … or maybe the book’s not quite done with me. Brilliant topic! Rich autumnal blessings, Deborah.

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  3. I tend to choose books I know (or at least hope) I won’t outgrow. Even as a kid I held on to those books I knew I’d want my future kids to read one day 😂 But I do believe we outgrow many things in life, and some books among them, too.
    Lovely post, Cath!

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  4. Hi Cath, A quick note on personal book collections. I used to collect books, particularly old ones (I’d say antiquarian, though not necessarily so). However, something you said about the books of our childhood struck a chord with me. As I am now 64 years old I am perhaps more mindful of my reading material, and indeed the part it plays in my materialism. I can, far easier, relinquish possession of books than in my past. This is made easier as I am no longer collecting, as opposed to reading, so paperbacks play a bigger part in my life (as do charity shops). If I have a regret though, it is towards the reading matter of my young self. I would have relished still being in possession of my “Adventure” series of books by Enid Blyton. Another firm favourite was Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle series. My nostalgia can almost smell the books, but I would have loved to have had the foresight in order that they would have remained with me into adulthood.

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    • Oh yes, that’s a good way to put it, Graham, a shift from possession to collecting. Although, I still enjoy looking around antiquarian sections in the bookshops and absorbing the ambiance, so that love of the image must still exist, even if my shelves are also mostly made up of paperbacks.

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  5. This is such a beautiful post. I don’t think I ever outgrow books, maybe even if I did, I’d probably still enjoy rereading it because that’s like a thread to my past self. The book I read in my childhood would contain bits and pieces of me in between the pages, with the characters I related to or the dialogues I preferred. Rereading for me would be as much revisiting my childhood as much as the text itself. So I get possessive when it comes to passing books on to someone. Even if I don’t read it or touch it again, I wouldn’t want to give it away. 🖤

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  6. It’s so calming, being surrounded by books. The idea of owning one’s own library… or a bookstore, perhaps? But would ever be able to sell?

    As for the question, have I outgrown some of my books? I don’t know yet. Maybe, as I get older, I’ll regress. I know I miss some of those early Puffin books… like the Dr Doolittle books that Graham mentions. I only thought about those the other day. Or the Uncle books by J P Martin, and Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. And I wish I’d kept my Ladybird books of English Kings and Queens. So handy for quizzes!

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    • I share your thoughts, regarding bookshops, Chris. It’s often been one of my fantasies, but truth be told, I’d probably spend too much time reading instead of managing my stock. It would be a kind of massive TBR stockroom.

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  7. You know what? You are spot on. Obviously we grow up we progress to other titles but outgrow?? Never. I still have old ladybird books and all. School prizes from nineteen oatcake, and my copy of Hands Anderson. All very beat up. Alas… I confess devouring books means they are all beaten up. Mine are all instantly recognizable on our shelves… The Mr. thinks I descend from fish gutters.

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  8. I rarely reread books, Cath, but they’re still so hard to part with. I, too, wanted a library – one with a window seat, one that required a ladder to reach the top shelves. 😀 But moves over the years and lack of space required some hard decisions and little by little many of my books have passed into other hands. ❤ A sweet post that left me feeling a bit melancholy. 😀

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  9. I have always considered books my best friends. My parents thought it was funny when I mentioned as a child that if we ever had a fire in our house, I would throw all my books out the window of my bedroom and then jump out myself. I still have some very special books that I dragged along to Spain. Others I gave to my daughter and I can visit them from time to time.

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    • How nice that your daughter values them too, and what a nice image that alongside flesh and blood family is your literature family. Of course they would need saving from a fire. It’s a funny thing, but my parents didn’t quite understand that kind of a attitude either.

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  10. On a shelf I’ve got three Jilly Cooper’s, I’ll probably never read them again and they take up a lot of space and I’ve leant them to my daughters who have read them and given them back. I look at them all the time and think they should go, but they hold such dear memories. In my 20’s, on holiday or not, laughing and laughing, discussing with my friends . That’s the trouble with my books, it might just be nostalgia but they’re part of who I am and mark every stage, whether I was laughing with them or not!

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    • Yes, that’s it exactly, the memories. I have a set of Jeffery Farnol novels, gathered from second hand shops during my twenties, that I can’t imagine reading again, but oh how I loved them then.

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  11. Fascinating to read this, Cath, being a bit of a hoarder because – well, you never know when you’ll want to refer to them again, do you? My wife is more brutal, asking Will I honestly ever read this all again? She’s right, of course, *sigh* …

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  12. I think we do and do not out gorw books; if we do then we definitely go back to it, directly or indirectly, because it is a piece that makes our past… and if we do not out grow books then we simply learn to make more space on the shelf. 😀
    Cath I loved this post like I love all your other posts. It is crisp and detailed and witty and honest. Thank you so much!

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  13. “Ssh, you contrary other-self.” This made me laugh out loud. 🙂

    My first violin teacher would often ask parents of her students if they could host the seasonal recitals, as she herself held all lessons in her home. One particular Christmas brought us all to a very affluent neighborhood to play before a tree big enough for a cathedral and a fire place where a pig could be roasted. But that wasn’t the cool thing about this student’s house.

    It was the library.

    A stone, castle-like room in the midst of this modern house. Small fireplace, red velvet chairs. Bookshelves ten feet high. It wasn’t a huge space–I’d say the size of a child’s bedroom–but the *ambience* made it feel enormous. My father and I ooohed and aaaahed in there, and the patriarch of that family got to talking with my dad over their mutual love of mysteries. Turns out the shelves were filled with nothing but.

    When I dream of a library, that’s the kind of library I imagine. Not huge, like the animated Beauty and the Beast one, but still, a room of one’s own for one’s books, where time and modern-day troubles cannot intrude. Just perfect. xxxxxx

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