“Do we need to keep all those editions of every book you’ve ever written?” my wife enquired as we stood together in the cellar staring at the pile of satisfyingly tightly sealed plastic crates that she had packed the books in some years before to protect them from possible damp-attack – and to clear a few shelves upstairs. “I could really use those boxes.”
“Chuck out books?” I asked, horrified. I mean, that’s my life’s work sealed away in there.
“Think you could sell them?” she asked. “Or give them away?”
A bit rude, I thought.
“I mean,” she snapped open a lid and passed me a book, “do you even know what language that is?”
I opened the book in the hope that I would spot the name of a city or something that would give me a clue. It all looked a bit Eastern European, but I couldn’t be sure which bit.
“Could be Romanian,” I ventured.
“Do we know any Romanians who could confirm that? There’s the Hungarian au pair next door, or the Polish family down at the farm. Do you want to offer them a chance at identifying their own languages?”
I was getting the point. Over the last thirty or so years publishers from all over the world have been generously sending me parcels of books as they came off the presses. Thirty years ago I wanted to hang onto every one because in those days you never knew when they might go out of print – “Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley” and all that. But now, with print-on-demand and Kindle and all the rest the same hardly applies.
So what were the options? The local charity shop? I doubted if they wanted to be cluttered up with yet more old books, particularly in foreign languages. Down to the tip? Possibly. But what about making use of them? What about burning them?
“Book burning” sounds so emotive, conjuring up images of Nazi and Isis thugs attempting to wipe whole cultures off the face of the Earth. It made it seem like a bit of a guilty pleasure. A well established guilty pleasure for me is the bonfire at the bottom of the garden, which had reached quite precarious heights and would benefit from a little paper stimulation. Or should I use them more productively indoors to eke out the log supply in the open fireplaces? Maybe a bit of both.
So there I stood, beside my flaming mountain of garden detritus, watching book covers – some even bearing portraits of my much younger self, blackening, curling, smoking and finally bursting into flame. A true "bonfire of the vanities" It felt eerily cleansing, plus the added benefit that my wife now had a great many plastic crates to fill with other things that we would be storing for a few years before having a similar conversation all over again.