Friday, December 3, 2010


Here is a subversive, disloyal and provocative question that is likely to bring me a heap of trouble: Why buy books – specially novels – that you are going to read only once?

For obvious reasons, the idea of not buying books is anathema to bookish people, including writers, of which I am one (although I am not a writer of books). If people didn’t buy books, the trade would collapse, writers would starve and we would have nothing new to read. But (I’m already hunting for a flak-jacket and taking cover) the fact is that many books are read only once, unless they contain material that can be studied, consulted or otherwise needed for on-going use. This usually, although not always, means non-fiction. Novels, unless they seem destined for classic status, are once-onlies.

In our house there were always too many books and not enough shelf space, so once in a while we had a clear-out. The books that ended up in the discard pile were those we had read and were never going to read again. These were usually novels of the ephemeral kind (do I hear the whine of bullets coming my way?) and other books which didn’t measure up for any reason. Sometimes we made more weighty, fraught decisions that were like sawing off a limb: did we really want to keep that old set of Dickens, and the Foresters? What about the Trollopes and Hardys? The sorting process was painful and conducted in loud voices, with much squabbling and snatching backwards and forwards.

If possible we passed the books on, free to a good home. We tried giving boxes of the better sort of books to schools, but they only wanted ones with bright covers. (What was that about judging a book by its cover?) We thought of stealing around in the night and leaving boxes outside libraries but that seemed as wicked as abandoning babies. The second-hand shops, once the source of pocket money, became unaccountably empty of staff when we appeared with bulging boxes.

I look at the shelves now and see too many books. They have stretched and multiplied again. There is a shelf over there with other people’s books – they must be returned. There are another two shelves, where the books I don’t want are jammed in tight, and something will have to be done. Perhaps a trip to the tip? Apart from these, there are no books in the house that I can do without. Not without angst anyway.

But if I, and people like me, don’t buy books that we won’t want to keep, if we only buy novels as presents for other people to read once and pass on, if we depend on public libraries, the libraries of friends, and the second-hand markets, for our more ephemeral reading matter, who will write them, and who will publish them?

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