Literally Literature

I have a lot of books. I have just got to the point of my decluttering marathon where the books have to be addressed. I’ve had a very constructive afternoon and evening, but I’ve barely started with the difficult decisions that are ahead.

Buying books used to be my pick-me-up. I developed a slight compulsion with buying new books if I found them at all interesting, for fear that they might disappear and I would never be able to find them again. That this would result in a nagging feeling of loss (however slight) for the rest of my life. Rare was the occasion I stepped into a bookshop and failed to buy fewer than five books. I blame it on my library-going habits as a teenager; the maximum number of books was six, and I often ended up with more than one trip a week, because I had already read the allotted six.

Then the Amazon Kindle came out. I was an “early adopter”, buying one the same week it was available in the UK (when the books were still charged in dollars). There were a lot of things about it I fell in love with straight away; like reading from a screen that didn’t feel floodlit, and being able to go on holiday without a back-breaking suitcase (because books are heavy…). But the one feature which separated the Kindle from all other e-readers and revolutionised my spending habits was the introduction to Samples.

You can download the first few pages in any Kindle book for free (Amazon persists in describing it as a chapter, but it is rarely as narratively helpful as that). Overnight, my compulsion to buy books evaporated. Well, not immediately, because it took a while for UK publishers to embrace Kindle. But very quickly, my modus operandi became noting books’ details to check if they were available on Kindle, and only buying them if I couldn’t download a sample.

All that happened in 2009, and – with the exception of cookery, yoga and graphic books – I have bought very few actual books since. In actual fact, with a cruel sense of irony, the Kindle does not keep a record of the samples downloaded and, therefore, since I’ve upgraded versions, I have now lost the samples I was originally so concerned about. The Kindle, because of the sample option, completely changed my buying habits; I buy far fewer books (even digital versions) than I previously did. When I see something new, I download a sample, but tend to wait to purchase the full version until I am ready to start reading it. And, noting the exceptions listed above, I rarely read paper books any more. The last time I did, a few months back, it seemed awfully heavy and cumbersome, particularly turning pages in bed.

So in my declutter marathon, books represent a particular problem. Ownership of books, and display of them on my shelves, is tied tightly into my sense of self and how I express my identity to others. However I do need to reduce the numbers taking over the flat, and that means that any kept and displayed take on a far greater relevance; being part of a small tribe, rather than one of a teeming horde, as they had been before.

I have started work on the fiction/non-fiction (i.e. the type of books I ceased to buy in 2009) I bought since moving into the flat in 2005. I put shelves up in the hall when I moved in, but the books I owned at that point already filled that space to capacity. So post-2005 books are readily identifiable by their presence in the overflow shelving which was beginning to threaten a sideways crab-style walk down the hall. The ones I have read have so far been quite easy to cull, and I need to spend some of tomorrow filling boxes with books destined for charity emporia. I know the books that moved house with me will be harder to say goodbye to, so I suspect space is going to be the taskmaster.

But I have another category of books I am really struggling with; those bought but not yet read. My conscience rebels (I know, silly, right?) at the idea of giving up on a book I have not read, even though there are loads of them, I’m unlikely to choose to read a paper copy over digital now, and getting rid of the paperback hardly prevents me from putting it on my Kindle in future. I’m toying with the idea of boxing them all up and enforcing a tombola approach (e.g. I have to read something from the stash once a month). But I’m concerned that approach would just be storing up future clutter issues, rather than resolving them once and for all.

I expect you think I’m exaggerating; people often do, regarding my book collection. Please survey the state of my living room floor.


This was the situation earlier this evening. The three rows of books in the foreground are cookery books, the overflow of yoga books (most of which live on bedroom shelves), graphic novels and some reference books. Most of these will be staying.

The four rows in the background are most of the unread books, lying there awaiting their fate. There are some more in the bedroom that I need to add to this stash to get a true understanding of the scale of the problem. That can wait until tomorrow. However I am not exaggerating when I say that the books in the photo are less than a quarter of the books I currently own.

For tomorrow, I have to get these books into some sort of order, even if it is only a holding pattern until the May bank holidays provide a little more time.


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