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.