On finding my own books

It is early here.  The sky is the deep overcast shade of an English winter’s morning in November.  But it is warm, too warm to stay in bed, so I have risen to begin the day.  As I did so, I noted that I needed a new bedside book, and the whim struck me to read again a volume of the adventures of Fu Manchu.

The first three volumes in this series – The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, The Devil Doctor, and The Si-Fan Mysteries, were all published in the days when Sherlock Holmes was still living in 221B Baker Street.  They form a kind of trilogy, and belong firmly to the gas-light era.  They should appeal to every Holmes enthusiast.

Vaguely remembering the opening lines of The Devil Doctor, I went to look for my copy.  I know what it looks like – a sun-faded brownish cloth-covered hardback of the kind that litters bookdealers’ shelves.  But … I could not find it.

I have a shelf-full of the later Fu Manchu novels, and I knew where they were.  After browsing a bit, I found The Si-Fan Mysteries.  But where were the other two?

My eyes are not what they were, so I put on my reading glasses and looked along the shelves.  And … I still couldn’t find them.

Partly this is understandable.  I removed most of my books from my study last year, after that room began to take on a definite aroma of a second-hand bookshop.  In the process I discovered that my then cleaning lady had neglected to dust them – the cause of the smell – and a good cleaning dealt with the problem.  But when I put them back, being pressed for space, I double-banked some of the shelves with less-used volumes.

So I looked at the second row.  And I still couldn’t see The Devil Doctor.

Eventually I found The Mysteries of Dr Fu Manchu, a tall paperback reissue of the 1980’s standing in a seldom-used low bookcase where it has stood for 20 years.  That case was never reorganised, so I can only blame myself.  Once I knew the location of every book.  Now it seems that I don’t even remember where books are, that have stood where they are for decades.  It is not merely my eyesight that is fading.

Now this is a trivial problem, and probably caused by the sheer burden of daily life and the amount of things that I am legally obliged to remember to do, or be fined heavily.  I am not growing old yet!  But the problem is only because I once could rely on my memory for the location of my books, and I no longer can.

What to do?

One thing that I can do is to gather together the volumes of series.  When there is a shelf-full of one series, any volume in it can be located more easily.  But that still leaves a vast number of volumes.

Often the place where a book stands is determined by the size of the book and where it will fit on my shelves.  They are not interchangeable in physical form.  Otherwise the answer would be to start some classification system.

I don’t know what the answer is.  I wonder how people manage, once they have above 2,000 books, as most of us must?

(I never found The Devil Doctor.  But fortunately my memory had failed me: the book I wanted was actually The Si-Fan Mysteries!)

Books lost, books retained

This evening I was chagrined to discover that I cannot find anywhere my copy of Blanchard’s translation of Eznik of Kolb, On God.  I have relatively few translations in paper form, but I certainly had that.  I remember a small green hardback.  It was quite useless to me, frankly, although finely made, and it just occupied space, and I never thought that I would need it again.  But I have a faint memory of taking it to Oxfam, or somewhere like that.  Now I could use it; and it is not here.

Perhaps tomorrow I shall go to the shop where I might – must – have donated it, and see if I can buy it back!!  It cannot have found many customers.

I am a fortunate man, tho.  This is only the third book that I have disposed of, and regretted later.

One of the others was the copy of The Four Loves by C.S.Lewis that I had at college.  I got rid of it, in favour of a newer copy, because it was not uniform with my other Lewisiana.  But memory is a funny thing, and I can still see the cover of the original in my mind.

The other book that I lost was a first edition of G.K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, in the green cloth with gilt inlay.  It was probably a first impression, as I once saw a similar edition, but rather thinner.  I still have a smaller, later reprint; but I first read the work in the first edition and again, I miss the physical pages.  Why I got rid of it I do not know.

I have got rid of many books in my time, and we must all do this.  If you do not have a process to get rid of books, then you will find yourself living in a book warehouse, surrounded by books which you have no intention of ever reading again.  Meanwhile your few favourites are hard to find, lost somewhere amidst all the dreck.

Books can be disposed of for many reasons.  I get rid of books that I know that I will never read or use again.  Why store them?  These form the overwhelming majority, mostly novels.  I also get rid of books that I buy and then find that I dislike – more of a peril in these days of Amazon than it once was.  Finally I get rid of books that seem to me unwholesome, obscene, or otherwise liable to influence my mind in ways that are not positive, pure, or likely to make me happy.  It’s easy enough to get muck in your head; the difficulty is to get it out again.

Even with all this, I have more books than my bookshelves will comfortably hold.

And what do we do with “dead books”; books that once were the light of our lives, and which we read and reread?  Books that helped make us who were are; but which we have read too many times, and are now “dead” to us.  I’m thinking of overfamiliar works, perhaps childhood favourites, or books that we are attached to for what they once meant.  They all take up space, and only a fool would cut them off.  To lose them is to lose part of who you are and have been.  I have quite a number of these, and no answer.

Books … a blessed company and a curse when they become too numerous!